In the US, the last things presidents do are usually tie up loose ends from their administration, say goodbye, and prepare for the transition to the next president. As lame ducks, a president and vice president leaving office have little to do, and on their actual last day, they have even less. The President’s last day in office begins with them as leader of the free world and ends with them as a private citizen. But some presidents have actually managed to get things done on their last days. Laws have been signed, states created, and frantic negotiations have all occurred as the White House was being packed up. Oh, and the pardons. They sign a lot of pardons – sometimes to great controversy.
The Constitution allows for the President to grant pardons to those convicted of “offenses against the United States.” While presidents can and do issue pardons and grant clemency throughout their term, a long list of last-day-of-work pardons has become traditional for lame ducks. George H.W. Bush controversially pardoned Iran-Contra figure and former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, while Jimmy Carter pardoned folk singer Peter Yarrow, who was in prison for taking sexual liberties with an underaged fan.
But most famously, Bill Clinton caused controversy when he issued 140 pardons on his last day, including one to disgraced financier Marc Rich, two members of terrorist organization the Weather Underground, and his woebegone half-brother Roger.
Hand Back the Nuclear Codes
There might be no more sacred responsibility that a president holds than stewarding the codes needed to launch nuclear missiles. And while Washington might be in full-on party mode during an inauguration, that doesn’t mean POTUS can’t do the unthinkable, should it be necessary.
The details of what exactly happens with the nuclear transition are classified. But during the inauguration, there are two aides carrying the “nuclear football” briefcase with the necessary attack protocols. One is for the old president, which likely goes dead at noon on inauguration day, and one for the new president, which goes live at that exact moment.
Whatever the procedure is for nuclear control transitioning, it’s much more formal than simply handing over the card with the codes on it, as Ronald Reagan tried to do in 1989, until he was persuaded not to by Colin Powell.
Sign Some Actual Laws
While the final days of a presidency are marked by fanfare, moving, issuing pardons, and accomplishing little, a few presidents have managed to sneak in some actual legislating in their last days. With two days left in office, Thomas Jefferson signed an act closing US ports to England and France, while John Tyler spent his last day in office signing legislation that admitted Florida to the Union. William Howard Taft vetoed a bill calling for literacy tests for immigrants a few days before his term ended, while Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba just two weeks before he left office.
Play a Small Role in the Inauguration
George Washington last move as President of the United States set a precedent we still follow – he attended the inauguration of the guy replacing him, John Adams. Since then, outgoing presidents have always done the same, and in 1837, Martin Van Buren took it a step further by riding in a carriage to the inauguration with newly-elected Andrew Jackson. In the early 20th century, the outgoing president and first lady began arranging luncheons for the incoming president and first lady, a tradition that continues to this day. The outgoing president plays a minor role in the inauguration, and sometimes even reviews the Inaugural Parade with the new president.
But once the new president has been sworn in, the love fest is over. The outgoing president is escorted from the Capitol, gives one final salute, and leaves on Marine One, never to be heard from again. Or at least not until they publish their memoirs. The new president goes to the luncheon their predecessor planned, then parties the night away.
Write a Letter to the New President
It’s always been a tradition for outgoing presidents to speak to the newly inaugurated POTUS. Legend has it that when he left office with the country on the verge of Civil War, the outgoing James Buchanan told Abraham Lincoln, “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am in leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in this country.”
The tradition of the outgoing president writing a letter for the new one started with Ronald Reagan, who left a note for his former Vice President, George H.W. Bush, in the Oval Office desk. It read, in part, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” The content of the letter is usually very personal, and most presidents don’t make theirs public until years later.
Take Stuff Home
Leaving the highest office in America and returning to private citizenry is a hard transition. But it helps if you loot the Oval Office before you go. Legend has it that Lyndon Johnson admired the official White House china on board Air Force One so much that he had it shipped back to his ranch in Texas, while the Reagans were investigated by the IRS for taking $25,000 worth of diamonds and a gown home.
Most famously, the Clintons got in some hot water for taking gifts that had officially been given to the White House. They ended up returning about $50,000 worth of furniture and paying the US government for other items they wanted to keep.
Prank the Noobs
Presidential transitions are a stressful time, especially if your party or administration lost. So outgoing staffers sometimes blow off steam by pranking the next occupants of the White House. The Clintons set the standard for pranks, or destruction of property if you’re less charitable, with their transition in 2001.
Most famously, they took all the “W” keys off the keyboards, ensuring George W. Bush wouldn’t be able to type his name. There were also reports of broken glass desktops, tangled phone lines, and “Gore 2000” bumper stickers left in paper trays. Clinton staffers pointed out that when they took the office in 1992, Bush staffers had done the same thing, slathering the office with Bush/Quayle bumper stickers and so on.
Tie Up Some Loose Ends
Outgoing presidents usually don’t have a lot to do in their final days and spend their final week in the White House saying goodbyes and wrapping things up.This usually means a flurry of phone calls, which is what Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all did. For Jimmy Carter, however, who was frantically trying to negotiate an end to the Iranian hostage crisis, it meant spending 48 hours straight in the Oval Office – an effort that was for naught, as the Iranians released the hostages the moment Reagan was sworn in.
Pack Up Their Stuff
The President and First Family usually vacate the White House a few days early, giving the staff time to prepare for the transition to the next First Family – a move that has to be done in hours. President Bush was having boxes moved and paintings wrapped in bubble wrap in his final days, while Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office only had a desk left by the last day.
Feud With Their Rivals
The frat boy-ish transition from Clinton to George W. Bush aside, the transition from one president to another has been pretty smooth in modern times. But in the rough-and-tumble early days of America, it could be anything but.
James Monroe spent his last days in office in 1825 rifling through three decades of papers finding proof to support financial claims against the government. John Tyler, the first “accidental president,” was the recipient of the first congressional override of a presidential veto in American history on his last day, likely one last insult from a Congress who hated him. And Herbert Hoover and FDR spent the entire transition period feuding over the direction that the economic recovery would take, and especially over a bank holiday that Hoover opposed, and which FDR signed into law on day one.