“Do not worry” with this simple advice, The First Lady of The United States, Melania Trump tries to calm down her aides, as the First State Dinner of the President Donald Trump era approaches. While her husband tries to tease his opponents, this sentence was meant as both encouragement and directive. But for White House aides, who plan to host French President Emmanuel Macron for a lavish ceremony that belies more serious negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and trade concessions, this may be easier said than done, according to a report in The New York Times.
- A banquet with half the number
President Barack Obama’s days have passed since events were held in the White House’s southern prairie to accommodate guest lists of more than 350 people. This year, under Donald Trump era, the state dinner guest list was whittled to around 120 people, down from highs of 350 or so people who attended previous bipartisan and media-filled dinners featuring celebrities and pop icons like Beyoncé. (The Washington National Opera will perform this year instead, the White House said.)
Trump spent his first year without receiving a foreign leader on an official visit, making him the first American president in almost 100 years to do so. But finally, Trump chose Macron to be the first foreign leader of his era to receive a state visit.
- Throw out Tradition
Typically, the leadership of the opposing party is invited to a state dinner, but the Trumps’ threw out that tradition as they also shunned journalists, who in previous administrations received a handful of invitations — not surprising for a president who derides the “fake news” media.
“It’s a throw out Tradition,” said Berman, who was the White House social secretary during the George W. Bush administration. There is at least one Democrat on the list, according to a White House official: John Bel Edwards, the governor of Louisiana.
Much of the planning for Mr. Macron’s arrival on Monday and the Tuesday dinner — components of the most prominent affair A First Lady can pull off — has fallen to a small East Wing staff of 10 people.
Melania declined to be interviewed, has instructed her staff not to agonize over details and to stay focused, even amid swirling headlines about the Russia investigation and Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress who was paid hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she has said she had with President Trump.
In interviews, several of The First Lady’s media-skittish East Wing aides, including Rickie Niceta, the White House Social Secretary; Daniel Fisher, the Director of the Visitors Office; and Lindsay Reynolds, Mrs. Trump’s Chief of Staff, said they were bracing for criticism.
- She Hasn’t Failed
Stephanie Grisham, Mrs. Trump’s Communications Director, was characteristically defensive on behalf of the First lady, saying the small team had learned to weather negative feedback as part of the job. “We’re probably not going to get the credit we deserve,” she said in an interview. “But I know this team is great and she knows this team is great. We have not failed, and she has not failed.”
The guest list was so small that after the must-invite American government officials and the large French delegation, there was room for the president to personally invite only four people, according to a White House official. Keeping with tradition, not all cabinet members are expected to attend, although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, made the cut.
There will be subtle hints at bipartisanship in the décor: Along with 1,200 Obama-inspired cherry blossom branches to decorate the Cross Hall, Mrs. Trump will use China from the Clinton White House.
“Where it goes from there,” Ms. Berman said, “it’s a way of reading the tea leaves of who’s in with the Trumps. It will be interesting to see how many family members make the cut.”
- Melania prepares French ambiance for Macron
Aides within the East and West Wings say planning such a detailed event has been well within Mrs. Trump’s comfort zone, and that she has grown comfortable with her role over time.
“She is very organized,” Ms. Niceta said, “and she is very exact in how she wants something. There is no wavering.”
Mrs. Trump chose white sweet peas and white lilacs for the tables in the State Dining Room, and it was the first lady’s idea, Ms. Niceta said, to host Mr. Macron and his wife, Brigitte, for a private dinner on Monday evening at Mount Vernon. The estate was home to America’s first President, George Washington, who hosted “Marquis de Lafayette” there years after the two fought as allies in the Revolutionary War.
The White House has searched for ways to increasingly warm up a relationship between two leaders that is at its heart a pragmatic one: East Wing aides arranged a helicopter tour for Mr. Macron on Monday so that he could get a bird’s-eye view of a city designed by the French-born Pierre Charles L’Enfant on the way to Mount Vernon.
Both Trump and Macron interactions will be observed by the public during the visit, but there will be one that will indicate if discussions have gone well, according to Ms. Berman.
“The toast will reflect how the day has gone,” Ms. Berman said. “You can usually tell from the toasts if they’re really getting along or not.”
As for Mrs. Trump’s ability to strengthen diplomatic ties with the Macrons, Ms. Reynolds, Mrs. Trump’s Chief of Staff and Former aide in the Bush White House, said she has learned over the past year that the First lady does not require as much direction as she initially expected.
“I realized very quickly I was getting in her way” with early attempts to direct the first lady on protocol during diplomatic visits, Ms. Reynolds said. “She’s perfectly fine.”