Four years later and the scene is still striking: outgoing President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama standing, smiling, in front of the White House alongside incoming President Donald Trump and soon-to-be first lady Melania Trump on his inauguration day in 2017. Trump hadn’t just run against Obama’s record but had pushed birther conspiracy theories attempting to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. Still, Obama had previously invited him to a post-election meeting in the Oval Office and both he and Michelle exuded warmth in greeting the Trumps that January, taking care to help Melania up the stairs.
Michelle Obama is now revealing the difficulty behind that historic moment. “I have to be honest and say that none of this was easy for me. Donald Trump had spread racist lies about my husband that had put my family in danger. That wasn’t something I was ready to forgive,” the former first lady wrote in a candid Instagram on Monday. “But I knew that, for the sake of our country, I had to find the strength and maturity to put my anger aside. So I welcomed Melania Trump into the White House and talked with her about my experience, answering every question she had—from the heightened scrutiny that comes with being First Lady to what it’s like to raise kids in the White House.” Just as President George W. Bush and Laura Bush had done for the Obamas, they instructed their staffs to “run a respectful, seamless transition of power—one of the hallmarks of American democracy.”
This is what the peaceful transfer of power looks like. It is what, over a week after Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Trump is still obstinately resisting. As someone who personally took part in the ritual last time, the former first lady has some thoughts about Trump’s refusal to participate, despite the grace they were shown by the Obamas four years ago. After Hillary Clinton’s loss, she wrote: “I was hurt and disappointed—but the votes had been counted and Donald Trump had won. The American people had spoken. And one of the great responsibilities of the presidency is to listen when they do.”
The country is already suffering because of Trump’s stubborn refusal to admit he lost (and bigly): In the middle of the second wave of a historic pandemic, he hasn’t allowed his coronavirus task force to communicate with president-elect Biden’s transition team, Dr. Anthony Fauci told The New York Times. The Trump administration has yet to free up millions of dollars in federal funds to aid in Biden’s transition, and the president-elect is not yet receiving intelligence briefings.
Michelle Obama has become one of the country’s most effective and most stirring orators, and a kind of national voice of reason. This power translated even to Instagram on Monday, as she issued a grave warning to Trump and the Republican party. “This isn’t a game,” Obama wrote on the eve of her husband’s blockbuster book release. “So I want to urge all Americans, especially our nation’s leaders, regardless of party, to honor the electoral process and do your part to encourage a smooth transition of power, just as sitting presidents have done throughout our history.”