President Biden revealed on Wednesday that Donald Trump had left him a ‘very generous letter’ before vacating the Oval Office – leading to a flurry of tongue-in-cheek speculation about what former president Trump might have written.
The notes left by previous presidents were seen as symbols of bipartisan unity, with George H.W. Bush graciously telling his conqueror Bill Clinton that ‘your success now is our country’s success… I am rooting hard for you’.
Trump has torn the whole transition process to shreds by refusing to accept the election result and boycotting Biden’s inauguration – but did uphold the tradition of leaving a letter for his successor.
Biden described the letter as ‘private’ and said he would not reveal its contents without speaking to Trump first, a comment which press secretary Jen Psaki said was not a sign of a ‘pending call’.
But social media users were quick to imagine what it might have looked like, with some mocking up a request for a pardon while others pictured mundane advice about the White House bins or toilets.
Pardon me: Some mocked-up letters imagined Trump asking Biden for a pardon after apparently deciding against the unprecedented step of issuing one to himself
Many users imagined Trump either continuing to deny Biden’s legitimacy or writing in childish lettering – with this effort displaying both of those attributes
President Biden sits in the Oval Office where he said Trump had left him a note but added that it was ‘private’ and he would not release it without speaking to his predecessor – a comment which press secretary Jen Psaki said was not a sign of an impending call
Many imagined Trump leaving a letter in childish handwriting, in keeping with the thin-skinned behavior which often led critics to compare him to a petulant child.
One idea put forward by the anti-Trump Lincoln Project was a note scrawled in purple ink asking ‘will you pardon me?’ with boxes for Biden to tick either yes or no.
Others posted variations on the same theme, with one version imagining Trump asking for a pardon before adding: ‘PS, you lost bigly’.
Trump is thought to have sounded out the idea of a self-pardon, an unprecedented step with dubious legal validity.
But neither he nor any of his relatives were on the list of 73 pardons announced in his final hours in office. Biden could theoretically pardon him, though.
Some users imagined Trump using the letter to repeat his false claims of election fraud, with one mock-up simply saying: ‘Joe, you know I won’.
Another suggestion had Trump writing ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ on a notepad – a reference to the cognitive test in which he claimed he had dazzled doctors by reciting five simple words.
Trump, 74, had tried to raise fears about the cognitive abilities of the now 78-year-old Biden by implying that the Democrat could not have passed the same test.
The mock-up on the left referred to Trump’s dubious boasts that he had dazzled doctors in a cognitive test by reciting the words ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ in the correct order, while the one on the right combined the themes of disputing the election result and giving Biden some mundane practical advice about the White House facilities
Some people imagined Trump leaving a mundane note to the new occupant of the White House, with this letter reminding Biden to take out the trash on Tuesdays
These proposals had Trump continuing to contest the election result – with the person behind the left-hand picture imagining that he might have struggled to spell the word ‘illegitimate’ before eventually settling on the simpler word ‘fake’
This version imagines Trump refusing to apologize for the historic collision of crises that Biden has inherited as president
This version is a reference to a comedy moment on the TV show Come Dine With Me in which one contestant berates another for their lack of ‘decorum’ and says they have ‘all the grace of a reversing dump truck’
Some users joked that Trump might have given Biden some more practical advice as the new occupant of the White House.
One suggestion followed up a diatribe about the election results with the footnote: ‘PS, it usually takes three flushes on the Oval Office toilet’.
Another user imagined a scrap of paper crudely torn out of a notepad with the simple message: ‘Bin night is Tuesday’.
The true contents of the letter are not expected to come to light anytime soon, with Biden saying they were a private matter.
New White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s comment that he would not release the letter without speaking to Trump should not be taken as an ‘indication of a pending call’.
The letter would usually be the final act in a series of handover rituals including a White House meeting after the election and a joint appearance at the inauguration.
But Trump chose instead to leave for Florida before his term had officially expired – although outgoing VP Mike Pence stayed in Washington for Biden’s swearing-in.
From George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton: This 1993 letter is often held up as an example of gracious presidential behavior, with the elder Bush telling Clinton only weeks after they fought an election campaign that ‘you will be OUR president when you read this note’
From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush: After the prolonged 2000 election battle, Clinton left this letter to his successor saying that ‘from this day you are president of all of us’
Former presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama also attended the inauguration with their wives, including 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton, who once said that the 1993 letter that George H.W. Bush left to her husband was so touching it made her cry.
‘When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too,’ the elder Bush wrote.
Only weeks after losing the 1992 election to Clinton, he continued: ‘You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
‘Your success now is your country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck – George.’
Eight years later, Clinton wrote to the younger Bush that ‘from this day you are president of all of us’ as he wished the new president ‘success and much happiness’.
In 2009, Bush wrote in his letter to Obama that he would have ‘a country that is pulling for you, including me’.
‘No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead,’ the 43rd president told the 44th.
During that transition, Bush’s twin daughters Jenna and Barbara also wrote a letter of sorts to Malia and Sasha Obama, then aged 10 and seven.
It included such advice as ‘slide down the banister of the solarium’ and ‘when your dad throws out the first pitch for the Yankees, go to the game.’
From George W. Bush to Barack Obama: This 2009 letter told the 44th president that he would have ‘a country that is pulling for you, including me’
From Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush: This light-hearted 1989 note was the last time that the presidency changed hands between two men of the same party
In his letter to Trump in 2017, Obama congratulated his successor on a ‘remarkable run’ and said that ‘all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure’.
But Obama also offered some advice that Trump would have done better to follow – urging the 45th president to respect America’s democratic institutions.
‘We are just temporary occupants of this office,’ he wrote. ‘That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for.’
‘It’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them,’ Obama said.
Last time the presidency changed hands between two men of the same party, in 1989, Ronald Reagan left a lighter-hearted note to the elder Bush.
In a pithy note on stationery headed ‘Don’t let the turkeys get you down’ with an illustration of an elephant surrounded by turkeys, Reagan wrote: ‘You’ll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery.’
‘George, I treasure the memories we share and I wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers,’ he wrote.