When French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, arrive Tuesday at the White House, they will be greeted by a military band playing strains of brassy notes and a 21-gun salute in a pomp-filled ceremony that will be followed by a state dinner.
The first official state visit of the Trump administration will be the biggest moment for first lady Melania Trump to play hostess in chief, an element of her role that comes more naturally than some of the other duties associated with her position.
State dinners, with all their protocol and symbolism, are the highest-profile entertaining any White House can do, and for Melania Trump, a state dinner is a chance to showcase her strengths, said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman.
“Remember, she has a design background,” Grisham said, referencing Trump’s education in art and architecture as well as a career as a fashion model and as owner of her namesake jewelry line.
“She has amazing taste, which makes things very, very easy,” added social secretary Rickie Niceta.
For her first state dinner, Trump did not engage the services of an outside event planner — as most modern administrations have done — to supplement the White House staff, preferring to rely on her own choices and those of Niceta, who before coming to the White House worked for more than two decades at catering and design firm Design Cuisine.
The first lady’s office on Monday released some details about the dinner, which will feature a cream-and-gold color scheme and a performance by the Washington National Opera. The décor includes 1,200 cherry-blossom branches and thousands of stems of white sweet peas and white lilacs. Using the Clinton and George W. Bush china, guests will dine on a menu that includes both American and French touches (the rack of lamb will be served with a Cajun-spiced Carolina Gold rice jambalaya and the nectarine tart with crème fraiche ice cream).
Trump chose to hold the dinner for the French dignitaries in the State Room, the smallest of the White House venues used for such events. The guest list is a modest 130 to 150, making for a more intimate soiree than many state dinners in previous administrations. (For example, the Obamas’ last state dinner, for Italy, packed nearly 400 guests into a tent on the South Lawn.)
It’s a reflection of one of the first lady’s principles for entertaining, aides said. Trump believes “it should never be too crowded,” Niceta said. “You should be able to move; you should be able to see the White House and feel special that you’re here.”
So far, the East Wing has held several large-scale events, including two Easter egg rolls on the White House lawn. Other formal dinners, including black-tie affairs for the White House Historical Association and the nation’s governors, have featured understated touches such as tapered candles and streamlined floral arrangements.
Properly presenting the White House to visitors is one of Trump’s preoccupations, said her chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, who was the associate director of the White House Visitors Office in the George W. Bush administration. Reynolds described the first lady’s involvement in even the smallest minutiae.
For example, a crack was recently detected in the door between the Green and Blue rooms on the State Floor of the White House. Repairing the historic fixture would take weeks. Trump was involved with the decision on whether it would be okay to leave it until after the state dinner. (It was fixed and reinstalled just in time for the dinner.)
“It’s just a constant back and forth with her on managing the residence and keeping the residence in a way that she wanted for folks who come through for tours and events,” Reynolds said.
Such attention to aesthetics, whether it’s the exact hue of napkins or the state of the White House doors, isn’t just about looks, Grisham said. “She doesn’t just choose colors or make things pretty. She really is wanting to make sure that people feel at home, that people look comfortable.”