“The truth is they [other countries] don’t respect us. When President Obama landed in Cuba on Air Force One, no leader was there, nobody, to greet him. Perhaps an incident without precedent in the long and prestigious history of Air Force One. Then amazingly, the same thing happened in Saudi Arabia. It’s called no respect.”
— Donald Trump, in his foreign policy address, April 27
Reporters are taught to avoid using the word “unprecedented,” as that is setting a rather high bar that might easily be disproven. Yet here is Donald Trump, in his major foreign-policy address, referring to an incident “without precedent”— that the president of the United States flew to another country and there was “no leader” to greet him.
Oddly, Trump framed this in terms of the prestige of the jet, not the office of the presidency.
As usual, the Trump campaign did not respond to a query. But readers were curious: Was Trump right?
As far as we could tell, there is no central listing of the official greeters who stand on the red-carpeted tarmac when a president arrives in a foreign country.
The State Department historian just lists presidential travel (which, by the way, is missing the last two years). White House officials also said they did not have a central listing, but said there have been a number of trips when the head of state or government chose not to greet the president at the airport.
“It is not at all uncommon for the president … not to participate in ceremonial arrival ceremonies with heads of state when he arrives at the airport,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He said it was not regarded as a snub.
We decided to double-check this by examining numerous photographs of arrival ceremonies and the pool reports written by reporters traveling with the president. Gawker has posted many pool reports from the past year, and we collected others that had been in our email traffic.
Let’s start with the president’s historic trip to Cuba on March 20. Who met the president when he arrived in Havana?
The pool report says:
Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla, minister of foreign affairs, Cuba
Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, general director of the United States division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba
Gustavo Machin Gomez, deputy director for American affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba
Jose R. Cabanas Rodriguez, ambassador of Cuba to the United States
Ines Fors Fernandez, wife of Ambassador Jose R. Cabanas Rodriguez
Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, charge d’affaires to Cuba at the U.S. Embassy, Havana
Jennifer Lee DeLaurentis, wife of Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis
Okay, so Obama was met by the foreign minister. That may not be the president, but that’s fairly high up in the government.
In the case of the Saudi Arabia trip on April 20, here’s who greeted Obama:
Governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir
Mayor of Riyadh Region, Ibrahim al-Sultan
Director of Riyadh Police, Saud al-Hilal
Director of KKIA airport, Abdul-Aziz Bin Saad Abou Harba
U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Joseph W. Westphal
Wife of U.S. ambassador, Linda Westphal
So here we have the foreign minister (who is not a member of the royal family) and the governor of Riyadh, who is a royal. But not the king. As far as we can tell, Obama was greeted at the airport by King Salman or his predecessor King Abdullah on his earlier visits — as was President George W. Bush. So maybe the Saudis — known to be unhappy with the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program — were sending a signal.
But if Trump is suggesting these greetings by lower-level officials were “without precedent,” he’s really off base. We found numerous examples of when the president was not greeted by a head of state or government, though obviously there were also other times when he was greeted by a fellow leader.
On Obama’s recent trip to Germany, the most senior German to greet the plane was Ambassador Jurgen Mertens, chief of protocol at the Federal Foreign Office. When Obama arrived in London, there was just a very small party: The Lord Petre, Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, along with the U.S. ambassador and his wife. Presidential trips in 2014 and 2015 to Belgium, Turkey, Burma, Estonia, France and Jamaica also involved tarmac greetings by lower-level officials.
Our favorite example is a trip to Panama in 2015, when Obama was greeted by Alvaro Aleman, minister of the presidency. Then Obama and Aleman walked together down the red carpet, and Obama was greeted by a group of children: Stefan Varela, the president’s son; Felipe Duboy, son of a minister; Julio Alvarado, the vice president’s son; and Ana Hincapie, the deputy foreign minister’s daughter.
Kind of sweet, if you think about it.
While it did not seem worth cataloging every presidential trip, we did spot check some previous presidents. Trump referred to “our great president” Ronald Reagan, but he might be surprised to learn that even Reagan was sometimes not greeted at the airport by other leaders.
In a 1984 trip to China, Reagan landed in Beijing and received what was described as a low-key welcome by Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian. In a 1985 trip to West Germany, Reagan was met by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, not Chancellor Helmut Kohl. And in 1988, when Reagan traveled to Moscow to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he was greeted at the airport by the far less powerful president, Andrei A. Gromyko.
Finally, one of the most famous presidential trips overseas should be noted. In 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China, a trip that launched a historic diplomatic thaw after years of icy relations between the two countries. (Interesting historical oddity: The communist government insisted that only Chinese pilots could fly Air Force One into Beijing. The White House, amazingly, agreed to this unusual demand.)
So did Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong greet Nixon after Air Force One touched down in Beijing? Let’s watch the videotape, courtesy of the Richard Nixon library.
Check the 1:18 mark. Hey, that’s Premier Zhou Enlai! He was the No. 2 man. As the video makes clear, Mao only sent a message that he would meet with Nixon after the president arrived at the Beijing guest house.
The Pinocchio Test
We don’t know where Trump comes up with this stuff, but once again he’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Not every tarmac greeting for the president overseas involves a fellow leader; in fact, the airport ceremony is a relatively unimportant part of the trip. The real business is done in the formal meetings.
In any case, we are sure Air Force One was not insulted.
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