On two separate overseas ventures, the President will be treated to the elaborate pageantry he treasures, hosted by royal heads-of-state on opposite sides of the globe both eager to cement their countries’ position as staunch American allies.
On Tuesday, the White House and Buckingham Palace simultaneously announced plans for a long-delayed state visit to London, where Trump will finally be awarded the British ceremonial rituals – such as a horse parade and royal banquet – that were first offered to him by Queen Elizabeth more than two years ago.
The trip in early June will come days after a visit to Tokyo, where Trump will act as the first state guest to the country’s newly enthroned emperor. Planning is already underway in the Japanese capital for formal banquets and cultural displays – including, according to officials, a possible ringside drop-in to a sumo wrestling match.
The cheerful displays of friendship on offer abroad will come as welcome respite for a president beleaguered by accusations of corruption, and worse, that were fueled by the deeply unflattering report written by special counsel Robert Mueller. Democrats are weighing impeachment proceedings and have already ramped up their oversight requests on the administration and Trump’s personal finances.
White Houses have long looked across the water for an escape from domestic turmoil, including after electoral losses left them politically weakened. Presidents enjoy far more unilateral leeway on foreign policy than they do domestic matters. Yet for Trump, royal receptions in the UK and Japan will be as much about personal uplift as they are about diplomatic wrangling.
Foreign leaders have come to ascertain that feting Trump with outsized displays of flattery can bear ample fruit, at least for a time. French President Emmanuel Macron so wowed Trump with a Bastille Day parade in 2017 that the US leader ordered up his own procession upon returning home (it was later scrapped due to cost, and Macron and Trump have had a falling-out).
Just Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would name a town after Trump in the contested Golan Heights, which Trump formally recognized as Israeli territory just before the country’s recent election. Poland’s leader also said he would name a military base after Trump.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resolved to become Trump’s closest foreign friend, gifting him with gold-handled golf clubs and custom ball caps embroidered with the phrase “Donald and Abe: Make Alliance Even Greater” in a bid to cultivate the US leader. In Trump’s telling, Abe even nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize following his diplomatic gambit with North Korea, an effort that Abe has privately viewed skeptically.
In May, Abe will jet to Washington in the days before his new emperor’s elevation for talks at the White House and a celebration of first lady Melania Trump’s birthday before returning to Japan just in time for the once-in-a-generation enthronement ceremony. Abe, like many of his foreign counterparts, hopes the visits can keep his country in Trump’s good graces.
For Trump and the UK, it’s complicated
Flattery was British Prime Minister Theresa May’s calculation in early 2017 when she arrived to the White House as Trump’s first foreign visitor, bringing with her an invitation from the Queen for a royal state visit. What ensued was an awkward two-year back-and-forth over scheduling the date, a period that saw the relationship between Trump and May sputter amid differences over Brexit and repeated comments from Trump viewed as slights to the British government.
When Trump visited the British capital last summer, the stop was downgraded from a state visit to merely a working stop, though organizers did what they could to load up with moments of pomp, such as a black-tie dinner at Winston Churchill’s palatial birthplace and a drop-in to the Queen at Windsor Castle.
But that visit only illustrated the potential for pitfalls, particularly for a leader like Trump who is known to disregard diplomatic protocol. The evening after May hosted the formal affair at Blenheim Palace, the Sun newspaper published an interview with Trump in which he disparaged her handling of Brexit while naming a conservative rival, Boris Johnson, as a possible replacement.
And during a walk around the Windsor courtyard, Trump seemed to veer off course – including in front of the Queen herself – as they reviewed an honor guard. Protocol experts said it didn’t amount to a breach, but the British press decried the President as a lumbering boor.
The entire stop occurred mostly outside of London, where protesters (with the permission of the city’s mayor) flew an orange balloon of Trump as a baby wearing a diaper. It’s likely protests will occur again in June, when Trump is expected to spend considerably more time in the capital.
A royal source told CNN the stop would include some of a same ceremonial elements that President Barack Obama enjoyed when he was treated to a state visit in 2011, including a formal welcome at Horse Guard’s Parade followed by state lunch and dinner the same day at Buckingham Palace.
Still, there will be no carriage procession, the source said, and the Queen is unable to host the presidential couple overnight at the palace with their entourage due to long term refurbishment works. American presidents usually stay at the stately US ambassadors residence Winfield House in Regent’s Park during stops in London.
It’s not yet known whether Trump will address Parliament, a prospect that has been written off by John Bercow, the animated speaker of the House of Commons. But he will visit Portsmouth to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy before a stop in France the next day. The event on England’s south coast is expected to include a massive military display of the kind Trump has enjoyed in the past.
How the popular younger members of the royal family might participate in the visit is unknown. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, was an outspoken critic of Trump’s before marrying Prince Harry, though she’ll likely be excused from any royal engagements after the imminent birth of her first child.
Protocol is paramount
American presidents abroad have long been required to navigate sometimes-tricky royal protocol. The Obamas were not immune to perceived slights; during a G20 meeting in 2009, former first lady Michelle Obama drew scrutiny for wrapping an arm around the Queen’s shoulder. Later, she wrote in her memoir the incident initially caused her to worry but that the monarch didn’t seem to care.
President George H.W. Bush famously vomited at a state banquet hosted by the Japanese prime minister in 1992; earlier in the day, he had played tennis with Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito, who will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1.
That Trump’s visit will help herald in the new imperial era is an indication of how much weight Abe places on his personal friendship with the US leader. The two are expected to again play golf during the stop, in addition to attending royal banquets with the new emperor and empress.
The visit to a sumo wrestling tournament, though still under discussion, would involve Trump awarding a trophy to the national champion after viewing the match from a ringside box. Traditionally spectators sit on the floor.
It’s all meant to demonstrate to Trump how important his friendship is to Japan, particularly as the country begins talks with the United States on a new trade deal and as diplomacy with North Korea continues.
The individualized treatment of a state visit also compares favorably to the large summit meetings of foreign leaders that Trump has come to resent. He angrily departed early from last year’s G7 talks in Canada, refusing to sign onto a joint communique. And in 2018, he skipped a set of yearly leaders’ summits in Asia altogether.
Those occasions are generally more workmanlike, lacking the formality and grandeur that Trump prefers. Yet for all his love of a grand state affair, Trump has so far felt little inclination to reciprocate the gesture: he and the first lady have hosted only one state dinner, for Macron and his wife, in their more than two years in office.