For Melania Trump, protocol is paramount during high-stakes UK state visit

Updated 11:11 AM EDT, Tue June 4, 2019
British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk along The Colonnade of the West Wing at The White House on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. British Prime Minister Theresa May is on a two-day visit to the United States and will be the first world leader to meet with President Donald Trump. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk along The Colonnade of the West Wing at The White House on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. British Prime Minister Theresa May is on a two-day visit to the United States and will be the first world leader to meet with President Donald Trump. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Whether you’re a common citizen or the President or first lady of the United States, an audience with the Queen of England is a big deal. But when you’re as glamorous and mysterious as the current US first lady, the pressure is even more so.

As such, all eyes will be on Melania Trump as she navigates the often tricky waters of palace traditions, royalty and impressing one of the longest reigning monarchs in modern history.

“This trip, like most foreign travel, is very complex,” Trump’s deputy chief of staff Stephanie Grisham recently told CNN. “Mrs. Trump spends a significant amount of time preparing for every trip. This includes protocol briefings, event memos, logistics, speech preparation when applicable and research and selection for the gift exchange.”

In other words, it’s not exactly like she’s popping over for tea, as she and President Donald Trump did last summer at Windsor Palace when they were guests of the Queen for a scant half an hour.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

This week, the Trumps will be honored guests at an official state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a white-tie affair for several hundred VIPs and diplomats, including members of the royal family and the President’s own adult children, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump, who are also making the trip across the pond.

There will be cocktails and dinner, musical performances of anthems, and speeches by both Trump and the Queen. Though the banquet is paramount event of the first day in the United Kingdom, prior to it in the afternoon, there is a welcome ceremony by the Queen and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (Charles and Camilla, as most Americans less formally acknowledge them) at the palace. That ceremony includes an inspection by the royals and the Trumps of the British honor guard troops, and a royal gun salute, fired off in Green Park and the fabled Tower of London.

Then there’s lunch with the Queen, and a tour for the first couple of items of historical significance to the United States which are part of the official royal collection.

It’s a lot – and it’s the kind of trip that involves multiple arms of the White House coordinating apparatus.

“We send advance teams ahead and once on the ground they coordinate with staff and Mrs. Trump on all aspects of the trip – event and press logistics are probably the largest components,” Grisham said. “We work very closely with our counterparts in the West Wing so that everyone is aware of each principal’s movements and we also work alongside Secret Service to ensure safety.”

Don’t stress it

JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images

The role of first lady has no defined rules or job description, one of the nebulous elements of being the spouse of the leader of the United States, but it is assumed that she is a de facto representative of the country, and that she will behave accordingly as such.

It’s a lot of pressure to mingle with the Queen, a monarch who since the 1950s has met 10 of the last 11 presidents, and can cause even the most astute first lady to have anxiety.

There was the famous “faux pas” committed by first lady Michelle Obama during her first audience with the Queen in 2009 at Buckingham Palace, when she touched her in a manner more familiar than was considered by many to be appropriate.

Obama, a well-known hugger, placed her arm around the Queen’s back – a no-no. Obama wrote in her memoir, “Becoming,” that she was simply commiserating with the Queen over what a pain it can be to stand for hours in uncomfortable high heels.

“Forget that she sometimes wore a diamond crown and that I’d flown to London on a presidential jet; we were two tired ladies oppressed by our shoes,” Obama recalled. “I then did what’s instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. I laid a hand affectionately across her shoulder.”

Obama recovered from that protocol break, of course, and she and the Queen met several times through President Barack Obama’s presidency.

“There’s always a concern first ladies have about protocol, even someone such as Barbara Bush, who had been second lady and married to the head of the CIA, and knew more about protocol than most, even before she became first lady,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”

Bush wrote in her memoir about a trip to Great Britain during President George H.W. Bush’s first year in office, and how she asked the Queen a question during a visit to Buckingham Palace. Bush wrote the Queen responded “rather coolly,” saying, “I thought, ‘Oh my, you are not supposed to ask the Queen a direct question or something.”

“It can be nerve-wracking,” Brower said. “But the Queen and the Bushes grew close and the Queen and Prince Philip surprised them with a fireworks display after one dinner at Buckingham Palace before they left office.”

First lady Betty Ford got nervous around the Queen, too. During a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip to Washington in 1976, Ford recalled in her memoir that though the Queen was “easy to deal with,” she mixed up calling her “Your Highness” and “Your Majesty.”

For the record, Prince Philip is the former, the Queen is the latter. Ford wrote she would “give myself four stars” for how she handled the visit, were it not for the slip of the titles.

Practice your protocol