Most presidents in recent history have hosted their first state dinner within their year in office: Bill Clinton hosted South Korean President Kim Young-sam in November 1993. George W. Bush honored Mexican President Vicente Fox in September 2001. Barack Obama invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House in October 2009.
But the current commander in chief seems less concerned with tradition and protocol, and his previous comments about state dinners suggest a rather different approach: Instead of extravagant ceremony and haute cuisine, Trump once said he preferred the idea of serving burgers around a conference table.
“We’re not going to have state dinners,” he said at a campaign rally in February 2016 — then swiftly clarified: “I’ll have state dinners, when we break even, I’ll have a state dinner, and when we start making money, I’ll have a double state dinner.” (It remains unclear what, exactly, he might have meant by “double state dinner.”)
Presidents and first ladies have always brought their own personal taste and flair to this most formal of White House events — some opt for intimate gatherings in the State Dining Room, others throw starlit soirees on the South Lawn — but historically, a state dinner is always a lavish and glamorous affair, one that typically requires several hundred thousand dollars to produce and many weeks to plan. And the first invitation extended by a new administration is especially significant, says Anita McBride, a board member of the White House Historical Association and former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
“The first dinner will send a message about the importance of a relationship,” McBride said. “State visits are generally held for countries and leaders where there is strategic importance, or a personal relationship we may be developing.”
The State Department and the National Security Council weigh in about possible invitees, McBride notes. And now that Trump has had several months to circulate on the global stage, there are plenty of possible contenders.
Could it be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a longtime ally whose handshake Trump once appeared to refuse? Or the recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron, whose handshake Trump once refused to release? And there’s certainly been plenty of attention focused on Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump shared private words at the G-20 summit.
“I’ve wracked my brain about what Trump’s choice will be,” said one former Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk freely. “I have no idea who they would even be considering. When we do eventually hear who it is, I feel like it’s either going to be completely normal, or it’s going to be completely crazy and we’re going to think, ‘why is that our first state dinner?’”
Despite the administration’s unpredictability, McBride expects that a state dinner under Trump would be a memorable and stylish event — much like the annual Governors’ Dinner in February, the first black-tie event of the Trump administration.
“I think we have every reason to think it will be elegant and beautiful, because we’ve seen events they’ve hosted at the White House already look like that, and we have a first lady who seems keenly interested in history and tradition, and she has a very skilled social secretary,” McBride said. “That’s a great formula for a successful event.”