Among United States President Donald Trump’s many controversies in his first few days in office four years ago was a self-inflicted one about how many people attended his inauguration on January 20, 2017.
“[W]e had a massive field of people. You saw them. Packed,” Trump said the day after he was sworn in. “I looked out, the field was – it looked like a million, million and a half people.”
Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer went even further, telling reporters the crowd in Washington, DC, that day “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”.
Neither was telling the truth.
If President-elect Joe Biden has anything to say about the crowd sizes at his inauguration on January 20, it will be to make sure as few people show up as possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think you’re going to see something that’s closer to what the convention was like than a typical inauguration,” Biden said earlier this month, suggesting the festivities will be mostly virtual, as was the case for the Democratic National Convention in August.
“First and foremost, in my objective, is to keep America safe but still allow people to celebrate – to celebrate and see one another celebrate,” Biden added.
This week, workers dismantled the reviewing stand – the location in front of the White House where the newly sworn-in US president and vice president and their families take in the inauguration parade.
Biden had already hinted that a “gigantic inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue” would not be in the cards and the US president-elect’s inaugural committee said the parade will “be reimagined”.
Two weeks ago, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC), the congressional committee responsible for facilitating presidential inaugural events at the US Capitol, announced they were severely curtailing attendance at the swearing-in ceremony on the West Front of the Capitol.
The committee’s chairman, Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt, said the JCCIC had consulted public health experts and decided “that this global pandemic and the rise in COVID-19 cases warranted a difficult decision to limit attendance” at the inaugural ceremonies.
Traditionally, the committee distributes 200,000 tickets, including bundles that members of Congress give out to constituents. This year, the JCCIC said invitations to members of Congress will be limited to themselves and one guest, with total attendance expected to be approximately 1,000.
On Tuesday, the JCCIC announced that the traditional Inaugural Luncheon, which dates back to the late 1800s, has been cancelled, citing the ongoing pandemic.
“The health and safety of all guests attending the ceremonies has remained a top priority throughout the planning process,” Paige Waltz, the JCCIC communications director, said in a statement.
With only 1,000 expected to attend Biden’s swearing-in ceremony in person, the quadrennial parlour game of debating inaugural crowd sizes will not be part of the discussion this time around.
Trump took that game to a new level in 2017, falsely insisting he had the largest turnout ever for an inauguration when, in reality, estimates suggested there were about 500,000 attendees, far from the largest turnout ever.
Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 had an unofficial turnout of 1.8 million, which is considered the largest in history, while his second four years later drew one million attendees.
The federal government stopped making official estimates of crowd sizes for large gatherings in Washington due to controversies that ensued regarding the accuracy of their counts. However, the local government and other experts have filled the statistical void with unofficial counts in recent decades.
Due to the unique circumstances regarding Biden’s upcoming inauguration, the event will have an asterisk when it is listed in the history books.
That is similar to Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 when dangerously frigid temperatures forced inauguration events inside and led to the cancellation of the traditional parade.
That year, Reagan was sworn in at the White House at the constitutionally-required time, just before noon on January 20. However, the full swearing-in ceremony was delayed one day and moved from the West Front inside to the Capitol Rotunda, where he was sworn in a second time before delivering his inaugural address.