Politics Here's What Presidents Do in Their Final Days in Office  

Mike Rothschild
82.8k views 10 items

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.

Here are some of the things presidents do in their last few days in office - from the mundane to the vitally important.

Issue Pardons


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Photo: United States House of Representatives/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

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


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Photo: Jamie Chung/Wikimedia Commons

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


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Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons
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


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Photo:  National Endowment for the Humanities

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.