State dinners are when the White House truly rolls out the red carpet (or should we say le tapis rouge in this case?) for high-stakes diplomatic entertaining, where what’s on the table isn’t only exquisite food but also international alliances.
And this one, reportedly slated for April 24, comes with a higher anticipation factor than usual — the Trumps are the first occupants since Calvin Coolidge to hold off so long in hosting a foreign leader for a state visit, according to the White House Historical Association. For clues of what to expect, look to the more formal events they’ve hosted, which so far has included the dinner at Mar-a-Lago in April for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife or the two black-tie dinners for the nation’s governors at the White House. So far, the mood has been intimate and the tone classic, with traditional menus, music by military bands and safely elegant fashion choices by the first lady.
One behind-the-scenes item to note is that Melania Trump will almost certainly not have the counsel of Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, her longtime friend and New York-based event planner who had been working on a contract basis as an unpaid senior adviser to the East Wing. The White House severed ties with Wolkoff, whose résumé included pulling off glamorous and grand events including the Met Gala, after reports that her firm had received $26 million in payments to help plan Trump’s inauguration.
But even without the first lady’s trusted party planner, the soiree will most definitely go on, and it will be the first big show for social secretary Rickie Niceta. Even the most experienced social secretaries often rely on outside help for big events like state dinners — but who might Niceta enlist? Our money isn’t on David Monn, a New York designer who lent his skills to state dinners under the Obamas — and to Trump’s inaugural. According to the New York Times, Trump, “who is notoriously tight with money, was also enraged” when he learned that Wolkoff had brought on Monn to help plan inaugural events, for which his firm was reportedly paid $3.7 million.
So what to expect?
Size: We hear that the dinner will probably be held in the State Dining Room, one of the smallest venues on White House grounds for such events. The size of the room dictates a guest list of fewer than 140. That’s a cozier space than the East Room, the largest entertaining space in the executive mansion (which can seat about 200) or a tent on the South Lawn, which can accommodate large-scale gatherings of more than 300 (382 VIPs attended the Obamas’ last such event, in honor of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife).
Guest list: The relatively limited number of guests will keep the number of random invitees to a minimum (like at the Obamas’ 2014 state dinner for France when we asked actress/writer Mindy Kaling about her connection to the country, and her answer was, “Um … I like French food?”). Once you’ve accounted for top White House staffers, high-ranking state department and diplomatic types, the relevant members of Congress, and the French visitors’ own diplomatic coterie, there probably won’t be seats left for more than a chief executive or two.
Menu: Don’t expect anything too exotic from the Trumps (the president’s own palate is famously … uh, limited), and they haven’t shown any indication that they will have the White House chefs try to incorporate elements of the guest country’s cuisine. Like his politics, Trump seems to like his menus “America first” — like the dinner for the Chinese president that, according to the pool report, included familiar dishes like Caesar salad, Dover sole or New York strips, herb-roasted or whipped potatoes and roasted root vegetables. And dessert? Chocolate cake.
FLOTUS’s big fashion moment: The first lady’s gown is one of a state dinner’s big moments. An easy nod from Melania Trump to her guests would be to choose Hervé Pierre, her go-to stylist/designer, and the man responsible for her inaugural black-tie look. He’s French-born and became an American citizen in 2016. Another possibility is Dior, the iconic French design house whose fashions Trump sported on her visit last year to Paris.
Gaffe potential: No doubt the organizers are mindful of the cautionary tale of the Obamas’ first state dinner, when now-notorious gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi (now Michaele Schon) managed to talk their way past Secret Service to mingle with guests and even have their photo snapped with POTUS, a mistake that led to congressional hearings and near-endless jokes by late-night comedians. And there’s always the potential for last-minute seating arrangement adjustments, like the one the Obamas faced in 2009, when then-president François Hollande arrived without his longtime partner Valérie Trierweiler, with whom he’d recently publicly split.
That’s an unlikely one to be repeated, of course, but other potential quicksand could come in the form of opportunities for Trump to misstep on a high-profile stage. State dinner toasts are typically scripted and carefully delivered, but the president does like to meander well off prepared remarks. And his diplomatic advisers would probably warn him away from another “compliment” to the French first lady that he offered during his visit to France last year. “You’re in such good shape,” Trump reportedly remarked. “She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful.”