Why did Donald Trump block the Obamas’ portraits and why was the decision so controversial?

Portraits of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, and first lady Michelle Obama will finally be unveiled at the White House on Wednesday after their presentation was blocked by his successor in the Oval Office, Donald Trump.

The Obamas will be in attendance for the ceremony and hosted by Joe Biden, the 46th president and Mr Obama’s own former deputy.

Mr Trump, notoriously jealous of his Democratic forerunner’s achievements, refused to host such an event honouring him, leaving the first Black president to go unacknowledged in the corridors of power, which are otherwise adorned with the likenesses of every commander-in-chief in American history, from George Washington in the East Room onwards.

Whereas Mr Obama has typically preferred to maintain a dignified silence regarding Mr Trump’s chaotic and tumultuous single term in office, which ended with the US Capitol under siege from insurrectionists goaded on by his false claims of election fraud, the Republican has accused the Democrat of conducting the “biggest political crime in American history”, alluding to the FBI’s Russia investigation into his own victory in 2016, without ever providing any meaningful evidence to support the claim.

The Obamas themselves welcomed back George W Bush and his wife Laura Bush a decade ago to view their own portraits on display but, because of Mr Trump’s obstinacy, only now is Mr Biden able to return the favour for his old friend.

It will be Ms Obama’s first time returning to 1600 Pennsylvania since she and her family moved out in January 2017 and only Mr Obama’s second visit, after he attended an event in April honouring the 12-year anniversary of his landmark Affordable Care Act of 2010, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Representatives for Mr Trump have declined to elaborate on precisely why he objected to recognising the Obamas or to state whether or not portraits of himself and his first lady, Melania Trump, have been commissioned.

The White House Historical Association, which has funded the portrait series since 1965, beginning with commissions of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and then the Kennedys, says that it has become the custom among recent leaders and their first ladies to pick their preferred artists for the job and give their approval before they are added to the official collection.

Barack Obama applauds as George W Bush and his wife Laura see their portraits added to the White House collection on 31 May 2012 (AP)
Barack Obama applauds as George W Bush and his wife Laura see their portraits added to the White House collection on 31 May 2012 (AP)

“The portrait artists aim to capture each unique appearance and personality, piecing together our presidential history through these individual works of art,” the association reports on its website.

Speaking about the tradition when her own portrait as first lady was presented in 2004, Hillary Clintoncommented: “It is a somewhat daunting experience to have your portrait hung in the White House.

“It is something that really does, more than any other act, sort of put your place in history in this building for all the ages and all the people who come through here to see and reflect upon.”

Despite Mr Trump’s hostile disregard for tradition, portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, undertaken by black artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on 12 February 2018.