Joe Biden Jill White House
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden embrace before entering the White House on Inauguration Day in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. Timothy Harleth, a former employee of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, was fired from his post as the White House's chief usher earlier that day. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: It was the culminating moment of a transfer of power: President Joe Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, walked up the driveway to their new home late Wednesday, ascended the steps to the North Portico, waved to the crowd as a military band played "Hail to the Chief," turned to head inside - and came face to face with a closed door.

As the world watched and a small crowd of Biden family members came up behind them, the first couple waited.

Was the president supposed to open the pair of big wooden doors himself? Had former President Donald Trump, who had left eight hours earlier, locked him out?

Soon enough the doors were swung open, and the Bidens entered. The awkward moment had lasted only a handful of seconds - about 10, if you time it - but it did not go unnoticed in Washington.

"There was a protocol breach when the front doors were not held open for the first family as they arrived at the North Portico," said Lea Berman, who served as a White House social secretary for President George W. Bush.

"The delay in opening the door did puzzle me a bit," said Betty Monkman, who was a White House curator for 30 years and helped supervise changeovers between previous administrations.

The breach turned out to be a small but curious bit of disarray in the chaotic 2 1/2 months between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Nothing was normal in the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration, and turning over the White House to new occupants was no exception.

No chief usher

For one, there was no chief usher to greet the Bidens when they arrived. Although it is unclear exactly what caused the delay with the doors - which are normally opened by Marine guards - the chief usher of the White House, who manages the residence, had been fired less than five hours earlier.

Timothy Harleth, the Trumps' chief usher and a former rooms manager of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, was busy moving furniture on Inauguration Day when he was told at 11.30am that his services were no longer needed, people familiar with the process said.

The incoming president's counsel called the White House counsel on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the process, and said the Bidens planned to bring in their own person. Harleth's departure was first reported by CNN.

Harleth was chosen by Melania Trump in 2017, when she was first lady. His duties included handling personnel issues and overseeing budgets for the family residence.

"He was selected because of his impressive work history and management skills," Melania Trump said in 2017.

The job has traditionally been non-political, but Melania Trump's decision to hire a Trump Organisation employee added partisanship to the role, even though Harleth tried to frame his work there as one stop in a long career in the hospitality industry. The White House job was well-compensated - former chief ushers say salaries run in the $200,000 range - but the days are long, particularly if the president is an early riser or a night owl; Donald Trump was both. (Biden is not a morning person, people familiar with his schedule say.)

Since Election Day, Harleth had found himself in an untenable position: trying to begin preparations for a new resident in the White House, even as its occupant refused to concede that he would be leaving the premises. Donald Trump never met with Biden at the White House, as is tradition. Melania Trump also never invited Jill Biden to take a look at the residence before move-in day.

Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, was unhappy with Harleth for trying to send briefing books about the residence to the Biden transition team in November, people familiar with the process said. A spokesman for Meadows did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Jill Biden also did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not clear who Jill Biden will select to replace Harleth, although there are several deputy chief ushers who are said to still be in their roles.

"It has been an honour to serve as chief usher, a position whose loyalty is not to a specific president, but rather to the institution of the presidency," Harleth said in a statement. "I am proud that I had the opportunity to lead the residence staff to receive the incoming first family with the utmost respect and dignity, not just for this administration, but for the future success of the office of the president."