It was the moment when a famous, powerful dynasty, built on inherited wealth, hounded by tabloids and with a weakness for palatial, gold-encrusted residences met … the British royal family.
The Trump clan descended on Buckingham Palace on Monday, and Queen Elizabeth II seemed to cast a calming spell on the President, who put his smash mouth style on hold for a few hours while in her presence.
The opening of Trump’s often surreal state visit came as political tornadoes rage around the governments in Washington and London, and the President reigns supreme as the world’s most divisive figure.
But the Queen, who started meeting presidents when Harry S. Truman was in the White House and she was a mere princess, earned a rarely seen deference and respect from the often raucous American commander in chief.
It’s all but certain to be a temporary interlude, given that the sensitive politics of the trip – including US visions for a retooled special relationship – muscle to center stage Tuesday.
The President had flown into Britain looking for trouble – firing off a tweet blasting London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “a stone cold loser” – before Air Force One’s tires kissed British soil in a puff of smoke.
But 66 years and one day from the time he watched the coronation on TV with his Scottish mother, Trump appeared enthralled and unusually engaged alongside the 93-year-old head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith.
Finally on equal footing
Trump was once spurned as too vulgar and self-promoting for the most exclusive circles in Manhattan. But here he was on equal footing with the world’s longest serving monarch and the latest in a privileged line of kings and queens dating back more than 1,000 years.
At the state banquet, Trump, smartly dressed in white tie, praised the Queen as a “great, great woman.”
“She has embodied the spirit of dignity, duty and patriotism that beats proudly in every British heart,” he said.
The Queen, while warmly praising Trump and America, was nevertheless pointed in her praise for post-World War II security structures that the President has often criticized.
“After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated,” said the Queen, who wore a state evening gown with a blue Garter sash secured by a broach bearing 10 diamonds that once belonged to Queen Victoria.
“While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard-won peace,” the British monarch said.
Earlier, breaking with formality, the President chatted good-naturedly with guardsmen in their towering bearskin busby hats who were lined up in his honor in the gardens of Buckingham Palace as field guns thundered a salute.
Heirs from both families looked on. Trump was greeted at the door of Marine One by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who is embroiled in a fresh political storm back home, peered from a palace window.
As the Queen shepherded Trump around an exhibition of artifacts paying homage to the US-UK relationship, he for once didn’t try to steal the scene or give in to his limited attention span.
The Queen presented Trump with an abridged first edition of “The Second World War” – the historical epic that helped her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, win a Nobel Prize for literature.
In the monarch and the President’s wake, Trump’s West Wing courtiers, such as Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders and Stephen Miller, marveled at treasures that included an 18th-century map of New York and pictures of St Andrews, the home of golf.
Also on hand, was Prince Harry – the focus of particular attention since the President caused a stir with remarks about his American wife, the Duchess of Sussex. Trump said he “didn’t know that she was nasty” in a weekend interview over her previous criticisms of him.
‘Crowds of well wishers’
An exuberant Trump tweeted before the state dinner that the “London part of trip is going really well. The Queen and the entire Royal family have been fantastic,” and referenced “tremendous crowds of well wishers.”
But he couldn’t resist a swipe at “fake news” journalists who he said would do their best to find protesters, and in a lull in his schedule he took a jab at Mexico for not doing more to stop flows of migrants toward the US border.
But for most of a harmonious day, questions about impeachment, widening trade wars, showdowns with Iran and North Korea, Trump’s constant political scheming and protests that attest to his unpopularity in the UK seemed relics of another world.
Never mind that Trump had spent most of the weekend meddling in Britain’s domestic political crisis from Washington. Or that the lavish ceremony laid on by his hosts more recalled the glories of a lost empire than the crisis of national identity that threatens to rip the small island kingdom apart.
At the ornate state banquet, Trump and the Queen sat at the head of the table.
The members of the Trump family – in their role representing America – sat between royals. First lady Melania Trump, wearing a Dior Haute Couture ivory silk crepe gown, sat next to Prince Charles, who is taking on more and more duties as the future king. Kushner was beside the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne. Ivanka Trump sat next to Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, for the meal of steamed filet of halibut and saddle of new season Windsor lamb.
The purpose of such adulatory treatment – which was also offered to Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent years – is to grease the wheels of statecraft.
The bet is that targeting Trump’s weakness for exaggerated shows of respect will make him look kindly on Britain amid its deepest political crisis since World War II.
Yet experience suggests that the unpredictable and often self-absorbed President rarely draws such straight lines and he’s less deflected from his ideological aims than it’s often assumed.
He marveled at being guest of honor on Bastille Day on the Champs-Elysees but that didn’t stop him breaking with French President Emmanuel Macron when politics pulled them apart.
Foreign policy dictated by domestic policy
Trump’s foreign policy is often calculated to advance his domestic political goals – one reason why he has so fulsomely embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aspirations. So it doesn’t follow that he will be so transfixed by his visit with the Queen that he will put Britain’s interests before his own in the post-Brexit era.
The opposite looks to be true. By being so outspoken in favor of pro-Brexit Conservative candidates to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump is pushing his own political interests.
A weakened European Union and a more independent Britain that has ditched the idea of multilateral progress fits with the vision of nation-states pursuing their own interests first embraced by Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton.
Trump is due to hold talks with May’s team on Tuesday before a joint news conference, which will be closely watched for signs of awkwardness between the two trans-Atlantic leaders.
The President has frequently lambasted May’s handling of Brexit negotiations with Europe, most recently in an interview with The Sun over the weekend. While he insists he still respects May, Trump is unlikely to show her the kind of deference he reserved for the Queen.
His state visit, however, might not have happened without the beleaguered Prime Minister, who will on Friday call a Conservative Party leadership vote to find her replacement.
She rushed to Washington soon after Trump was inaugurated in 2017 with a highly unusual invitation for such a visit in a President’s first year – seeking to forge a bond that could magnify her own power. But she was lampooned back home for being pictured holding Trump’s hand in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Trump’s searing political style – including his radical immigration policies – meant that his state visit was repeatedly delayed, in an embarrassment for the UK government.
It’s ironic, then, that his visit will be the last meaningful act of a premiership destroyed by attempts to withdraw from the EU – which Trump so aggressively championed.