Pageantry and politics mix at the White House at those most festive of evenings when the president rolls out the red carpet to host a foreign head of state at the presidential mansion for an official state dinner.
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But in a break with precedent, the Trump White House has yet to utilize the power of the Oval Office to its full social and diplomatic advantage by feting a foreign leader with the honor of a state dinner.
Almost every other president in the last century hosted at least one such affair during the first years of their presidency — the trend remaining unbroken until now in presidential history as far back as Herbert Hoover’s presidency.
The formal dinners, which are part of a larger affair of an official state visit, provide the president with a powerful opportunity to do the business of diplomacy complimented with the flourishes and flattery of hosting an allied leader to a grand social affair.
“It is an event that also showcases global power and influence,” according to the White House Historical Association. “The traditional toasts exchanged by the two leaders at the dinner offer an important and appropriate platform for the continuation of the serious dialogue that has taken place earlier in the day.”
President Barack Obama first rolled out the red carpet for India's prime minister Manmohan Singh, while President George W. Bush welcomed Mexico’s Vicente Fox and President Bill Clinton hosted South Korea’s President Kim Young-sam - all in their first years in the White House.
But even though President Trump has welcomed more than 35 heads of state and foreign dignitaries to the White House and multiple other countries have bestowed Trump with the honor of official state dinner and elaborate welcoming ceremonies — complete with honor guards, marching bands and red carpets — Trump has yet to return the favor to another foreign leader in such elaborate fashion.
“It is unprecedented and also unpresidential not to host state dinners for heads of government who visit,” said Barbara Bordine, a retired U.S. ambassador professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. “One of the things that he's lost, on the diplomatic side, is the ability to be looked at as a good and gracious host in the way he expects to be hosted himself. It looks as if you expect others to play court to you but you won't return the favor.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says there is no ‘‘singular reason’’ why there has not yet been a state visit but teased that the administration hopes to schedule a state visit soon.
Formal state visits aside, Trump has bestowed special treatment on two visiting leaders, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping, with invitations to his Mar a Lago club in Florida, where the leaders were afforded opportunities for relaxed, extended one-on-one interactions. During Abe’s visit, the two leaders spent hours getting to know one another while hitting the links on Trump’s golf course.
Ahead of Xi’s visit, one senior administration explained the president’s preference for hosting him at his Florida home expressly for the purpose of escaping the trapping of official Washington.
“It's a place where he feels comfortable and at home, and where he can break the ice with Xi Jinping without the formality, really, of a Washington meet-up,” the official said prior to Xi’s visit.
While Trump has demonstrated a preference for engaging with world leaders in unconventional settings, the president has also expressed disdain for at least one state dinner prior to becoming president.
Back in 2015, then-candidate Trump criticized then-President Obama for hosting China’s President Xi Jinping to a state dinner at the White House.
"I would not be throwing him a dinner. I would get him a McDonald’s hamburger and say we’ve got to get down to work because you can’t continue to devalue," Trump said of concerns over Chinese devaluing of American currency during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” in August of 2015.
Even so, when Xi did come to visit Trump at Mar a Lago, the president hosted him to a formal dinner at the club. And when President Trump went to China, Xi lavished Trump with an elaborate show of diplomatic pageantry throughout his stay that included multiple red carpets, military marching bands, groups of jumping school children, and a lavish banquet dinner in the president’s honor.
The president made no secret of the fact that he was clearly impressed by the welcome and declared during the visit that Xi and he had developed “great chemistry,” saying of the elaborate visit that “they say in the history of people coming to China, there's been nothing like that.”