Presidents Trump, Macron solidify political bromance with state visit

President Trump will host his French counterpart next week at the White House.

April 22, 2018, 6:10 AM

Their relationship began with a show of machismo –- an extended, white-knuckle handshake on their first meeting last year in Belgium.

Emmanuel Macron had reportedly studied Donald Trump’s style of domineering power-grabbing handshakes, apparently prepared to avoid being outdone by his counterpart. Instead, it was President Trump who at one point in the 5-second-long handshake attempted to withdraw his hand from Macron's firm grasp.

The maneuver marked the start of what has become a close partnership between the two leaders, who recently joined forces along with the United Kingdom to strike Syria earlier this month.

"It's no secret that President Trump and President Macron enjoy a good working relationship. I may say a close personal relationship," a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters.

President Macron has already feted Trump in grand style, inviting him to be his guest of honor at France's elaborate Bastille Day celebrations last summer. The president and first lady dined with Macron and his wife at the Eiffel Tower and sat side-by-side as French military tanks, planes and troops rolled down the Champs-Elysee in the elaborate military parade.

The event so inspired Trump that he has since called on the Pentagon to look into organizing a military parade in the United States. That parade is now set to take place on Veterans Day.

By extending an invitation to host Macron for a state visit in the United States, Trump is in many ways returning the favor and celebrating the deeply-rooted historical ties between the two countries and marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. This will be the president and first lady's first time hosting a foreign leader to the full ceremonial honors of a state visit and sends a symbolic message about the value Trump places on his close ties with the French president.

“This will be a visit of symbolism of the strength and history of the U.S.-French relationship,” says Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It will be more symbolism than substance.”

The events

When Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a three-day visit, he and his wife will stay at Blair House, the presidential guest house, and will dine privately with the president and first lady at George Washington's Mount Vernon home and pay a visit to the first president's tomb.

French President Emmanuel Macron greets President Donald Trump at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 13, 2017.
Stephane Mahe/Reuters

“President Trump is eager to host the Macrons for this special event, as he remembers fondly the dinner the couples shared together in the Eiffel tower on the eve of Bastille day last July,” a senior administration official said.

President Trump will officially welcome Macron to the White House on Tuesday with an elaborate welcome ceremony on its South Lawn, complete with honor guards and marching bands. They are scheduled to engage in bilateral meetings and partake in a joint news conference. Macron will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence at the State Department for a luncheon that is traditionally hosted by the Secretary of State, and visit the tomb of the unknown soldier.

The day will conclude with a formal white-tie state dinner that has been in the works for several months at the personal direction of First Lady Melania Trump.

Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, said the dinner will be a chance for the first lady to showcase her skills as a hostess. McBride predicted that Melania Trump has put a keen interest in creating an elegant evening.

"Mrs. Trump wants her guests to have a wonderful, sensory experience. The flowers and lighting in the room. She pays great attention to detail. It’s really a chance for her to show how they entertain," McBride said.

The White House is closely guarding the invite list, with plans to only release the names of the invitees after the final guest has arrived for the evening, which is sure to include both French and American dignitaries. But the guest list is one of the most important and trickiest matters to navigate -- to strike the right balance and set the desired tone.

Several offices and departments are involved in the process, with recommendations flowing in from the State Department, the Office of Public Liaison -- which largely manages the White House's relationship with outside groups -- and the offices of Cabinet Affairs and legislative affairs, McBride said.

But the most important suggestions of all, she added, are those that come from the first couple.

"The most important list of all is who the first family wants to have there," said McBride.

As for what's on the menu, the White House has yet to reveal what will be served but says the first lady has personally selected and taste-tested the dishes.

While some modern state dinners have been hosted in a large event tent on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday's dinner will be in its State Dining Room. Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for Melania Trump, says the setting is a "nod to tradition and the historic relationship between the two countries."

She added that there has been an effort on the part of the first lady's office "to keep things elegant and more traditional than perhaps some of the last few state dinners."

The live musical accompaniment for the evening will be "classical and traditional," says Grisham.

She suggested the entertainment will be a departure from the modern artists who made a splash at some of former President Obama's state dinners, which included live performances from A-list artists like Gwen Stefani and Beyonce Knowles.

On Wednesday, Macron will deliver an address to a joint session of Congress, which Elysée Palace says will be a “very important moment" of Macron's visit.

"The French president will introduce himself to the American people, will send a message of friendship, of respect and affection toward the American nation," the Elysée Palace says. "Our common history is incredible, a history of friendship that started 250 years ago. The central message that we will see at the Congress will be: Do you want to continue to write history together?”

Macron will also make a public address at George Washington University, and hold his own news conference at the conclusion of his U.S. visit.

The Issues

Amid all the pomp and circumstance of the ceremonial visit, there will also be the work of high-level diplomacy between the two leaders and their delegations.

Macron has described his relationship with Trump as “extremely direct and frank," telling the BBC in January: “Sometimes I manage to convince him, and sometimes I fail."

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron attend the traditional Bastille day military parade on the Champs-Elysees on July 14, 2017 in Paris.
Chesnot/Getty Images

Macron appeared to test the limits of that frankness when he seemed to take credit recently for convincing President Trump not to pull U.S. troops out of Syria in the immediate future; Trump had said days before that the U.S. mission in Syria was nearly complete and that troops would be coming home "very soon."

“We convinced him that it was necessary to stay there long-term,” Macron said during an extended televised interview on Sunday.

The White House then came out to refute Macron's assertion.

“The U.S. mission has not changed -- the President has been clear that he wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

And Macron himself also sought to walk back the comments, later attempting to clarify: “I did not say that either the U.S. or France will remain militarily engaged in the long term in Syria."

After the joint strike earlier this month and the public fissure around Macron's comments on the duration of a U.S. military commitment, one issue to watch will be whether the two countries come to any sort of shared understanding around next steps for war-torn Syria. A senior administration official said the leaders would "discuss probably in some detail the way forward on Syria" but said it's "difficult to say right now" how far those discussions will go.

"The question around Syria would be, 'Now what?'" says Conley. "President Macron very much wants to see a diplomatic process come through. He wants more U.S. engagement ... [and] wants to talk to President Trump about what the U.S. policy towards Syria will be at the same moment where President Trump has publicly announced that his desire is to remove U.S. forces from Syria."

Conley added that it will be interesting to see how the "leaders comment publicly on their two positions on Syria and a diplomatic process moving forward."

While the Elysée Palace has made clear they don't have high expectations for producing substantive agreements, the French delegation will try their hand at the art of persuasion in presenting the French position on issues of disagreement, namely the Iran nuclear deal, trade, and the Paris Climate Accord.

“We hope that this State visit will be useful and allow us to present our arguments, to convince and move forward. But on these three topics, we do not expect to obtain results, make deals [or] agreements during the visit. For example, on the Iran deal, we know that President Trump has not made a decision yet. We do not think there will be a diplomatic breakthrough during the State visit," the Elysée Palace said.

A senior administration official said the Iran nuclear deal is sure to be a "a major topic of discussion" during the meetings but said that any decisions as it relates to the United States’ continuing participation in the agreement would come in mid-May, when the president faces a deadline on whether to continue to keep the U.S. a party to the deal.

Even as both U.S. and French officials say there's no expectation that a final decision will be reached on the Iran deal during the visit, Conley says Macron is uniquely suited among European leaders to make potential headway with Trump as he seeks to convince him not to withdraw the United States from the pact.

"This visit will be dubbed the 'Save the Iran Nuclear Agreement' trip," Conley said. "The French have historically been the toughest EU of the three –- that’s U.K., France, and Germany -– on being tough on Iran, getting the toughest compliance possible. So in some ways, President Macron is the best to provide the president with ... the toughness that he wants about and towards Iran, but trying to do so in a way that preserves the Iran nuclear agreement."

But as it relates to the Paris Climate Accord -- the historic pact on climate change to which President Obama had previously committed the United States and has since been adopted by every other country in the world -- the Elysée Palace says President Macron will refrain from trying to convince President Trump to get back on board with the agreement.

“We are not trying to get the United States back into the Paris Accord," the Elysée Palace said. "What we are doing is describing the consequences of climate change. We continue scientific and economic cooperation with the U.S. This goes beyond the U.S. Federal state; working with American cities, NGOs, companies. By working collectively, the United States will reach their objective of decreasing gas emissions. On the political aspect, it can show the Trump administration the positive consequences of actions to fight climate change in terms of job creations and innovation.”

Asked if Paris Climate Accord is set to be discussed, a senior administration official said, "I don't have any insight on that for you" and said the topic is not on the agenda "unless it's brought up by President Macron."

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