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Biden to revive presidential portrait tradition Trump skipped

The president plans to host a White House ceremony later this year for the unveiling of former President Barack Obama’s official portrait, say sources familiar with discussions.
National Portrait Gallery
People stood in line to see the commissioned portrait of former President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery three years ago in Washington.Carolyn Van Houten / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A modern presidential tradition is poised to return to the White House — at least in part.

President Joe Biden plans to host a White House ceremony this year for the unveiling of former President Barack Obama’s official portrait, according to people familiar with the discussions. And former President Donald Trump has already begun participating in the customary process so his official portrait can eventually hang alongside his predecessors, according to an aide and others familiar with the discussions.

It’s unlikely Trump would follow the tradition of having his portrait unveiled at an East Room event hosted by his successor, given his false claims that Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election, people familiar with the matter said. But a formal event with Obama and his wife, Michelle, is expected to take place at the White House — likely this fall — after coronavirus restrictions have been lifted to allow for such a large gathering, these people said.

“They’re virtually done,” a person familiar with the process said of the Obamas’ portraits.

The unveiling of presidential portraits in the East Room typically include a couple hundred guests. Currently the White House is not holding events of that size, and the person familiar with the process said that, at this point, it’s better to wait because “it would be a shame to do it and have only six or seven people there.”

A White House official said, “As Covid restrictions continue to be lifted and we slowly reopen the White House for social activities, we will continue to work through these types of issues.”

A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment.

A portrait unveiling event for the Obamas is not on their or Biden’s schedule, people familiar with the process said. And while the White House could begin holding larger events this summer, a date would need to already be on the calendar if Biden and Obama, as well as their wives and close aides, were to gather for the unveiling before the fall.

The moment would come after Obama and Trump broke the decadeslong, bipartisan tradition of a first-term president hosting an East Room ceremony for the unveiling of his immediate predecessor’s official portrait.

Given the bitter tensions between Obama and Trump, neither had any interest in appearing together at a usually harmonious event.

Trump also broke longstanding tradition in January by declining to attend Biden’s inauguration, instead flying to Florida before his successor was sworn in.

So while Trump is going through the customary process of having his portrait painted, he’s not necessarily expected to embrace all aspects of the ritual.

Trump and his wife, Melania, recently began discussions with the White House Historical Association, which commissions the presidential portraits, about their pictures. That process can take up to four years. The Trumps also have been in discussions with the National Portrait Gallery since the November election to sit for portraits that will become part of the museum’s “America’s Presidents” exhibit.

“We are working with both the National Portrait Gallery and the White House Historical Association, and our progress is consistent with historical precedent,” an adviser to the former president said.

The next step in the process for both sets of portraits is for the Trumps to choose the artists who will paint them.

The White House Historical Association secures a contract with the artist, who remains anonymous until the unveiling, and pays the artist a fee.

Presidential portraits for the National Portrait Gallery are similarly funded by the museum. They’re typically unveiled in an event at the museum less than two years after a president and first lady leave the White House. President George W. Bush was out of office for less than a year when he and his wife, Laura, participated in theirs, while the Obamas attended a ceremony at the museum for their portraits 13 months after leaving the White House.

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In the meantime, a newly acquired portrait of Trump went on display at the Portrait Gallery last month when the museum reopened after closing last year because of the pandemic.

At the White House, the portraits of the two most recent former presidents are usually hung on the state floor, near the Grand Foyer, where they’re most visible to visitors. The Trump White House moved portraits of Bush and Bill Clinton to a less-visible location. The Biden White House recently moved them back to their traditional spot.

Once Obama’s portrait is unveiled, it’s expected to be hung in that prime spot alongside the one of Bush, while Clinton’s would be moved elsewhere.

Last year, after NBC News reported that portraits of the Obamas wouldn’t be unveiled while Trump was in office, Biden joked that having Obama at the White House for such an event was another reason to elect him. And shortly after Biden took office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that Biden may extend the customary invitation not just to Obama but also to Trump.

“I have not been given any indication that we would break with tradition in that regard,” Psaki said.