A White House state dinner is almost always an opportunity for a president and a first lady to showcase the significance and grandeur of the White House, as well as the cultural components of the host and guest countries, their notable residents, and special flourishes – flags, flowers, curated menu, black-tie dress code and the like.
But a state dinner is also an important gesture of diplomacy, the pretty bow atop the package that binds one nation to another in friendship and alliance. This is why a state dinner during a Donald Trump presidency has been a more challenging undertaking, and perhaps part of the reason why Friday’s dinner for Australia is only the second state dinner of the administration, a number smaller than previous administrations at this point in their tenure.
“It is always the hope that a state visit will enhance the relationships between countries, and between leaders of the day,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, which works in tandem with the White House to provide context and history, as well as maintain and preserve the People’s House.
“Even the best of allies have times of challenge in relationships. This has been true since the beginning of diplomatic relations,” he said.
Trump, in particular, has a unique way of dealing with his global counterparts, and it often includes a straight-talk bravado that most presidents reserve for adversarial relationships, making picking a state dinner guest a bit of a challenge. Kim Jong Un might write Trump “beautiful letters,” as he has said, but he can’t exactly invite the North Korean dictator to dine by candlelight in the State Dining Room.
McLaurin said it isn’t solely warmth and camaraderie that make for a successful guest, it’s a whole host of components. “Some presidents find other means of interaction more effective and to their strengths. But many, many factors go into such an invitation. It is not as simple as who we like or who is compatible ideologically.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a Trump ally in many ways, sharing similar philosophies on immigration, supporting Israel and trade.
“State dinners themselves are used as important diplomatic means and serve as a form of public diplomacy, strengthening relationships with an ally,” said Charity Wallace, founder and president of Wallace Global Impact, and deputy chief of protocol for the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.
What might seem from the outside like a fancy dinner party on steroids, is actually a more delicate dance between the White House, the East Wing, the social secretary’s office and the State Department.
“While different administrations may change how they interface with protocol, classically the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol is very engaged in a State Visit,” says Wallace. “The office has several divisions that would work closely with the social secretary’s office on the arrival ceremony, the dinner, the staff dinner – which takes place simultaneously for those staff members from the delegations that are not included in the state dinner), and more.”
Trump’s social secretary, Rickie Niceta, was one of Melania Trump’s first staff hires, in February 2017. Trump has said she was impressed with Niceta’s handling of the Inauguration Day luncheon at the US Capitol; at the time, Niceta was a senior level executive at a Washington, catering and events company.
For Niceta, a state dinner is the equivalent of the Super Bowl.
When French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron were guests of honor last year, attention to detail resulted in French-influenced Cajun jambalaya rice dish in the main course, and the Domaine Serene Chardonnay “Evenstad Reserve” 2015 wine, grown from French plants from Dijon, but planted in Oregon soil.
It falls to Niceta, primarily, to carry out not only the aesthetic vision of the first lady for the dinner itself, but also make for smooth sailing the finer details like guest lists, invitations, seating charts, entertainment, arrivals, menu coordination, decor, and perhaps the most stressful, the timing of the entire evening.
“The first lady is the orchestra leader of a state dinner,” McLaurin said. “Every element is determined and directed by the first lady.”
As she did with the France state dinner, Melania Trump chose everything for Friday’s dinner for Australia, down to the color scheme, based on the national colors Down Under: yellow and green.
Friday’s state dinner will take place al fresco, while not unprecedented, is a departure from how the Trumps hosted the Macrons.
“It was the first lady’s idea to have the dinner in the Rose Garden,” a White House official told CNN.
The iconic green space outside of the Oval Office will be filled with tables and diners will eat under the stars. The grass will be protected – as will the high heels of the guests – by a carpet covering of sisal, a natural fiber rug that for Friday will blanket the Rose Garden.
The tables, between 10 and 15, are covered in gold, taffeta tablecloths and adorned with massive floral centerpieces of yellow roses (more than 2,500 were used) and sprigs of golden wattle, the national flower of Australia, which has fuzzy, sphere-shaped buds of bright yellow and green leaves.
Trump, with the help of Niceta, designed the details, settling on the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidential china sets, both have gold filigree. On the tables, in addition to the flowers, are small dishes of candied ginger, also yellow. Additionally, “the tables will be illuminated with gold oil lamps. Golden champagne grapes will be placed on top of the tables, highlighting the richness of each of the countries’ wine industries,” according to the first lady’s office.
But there are “Trump” touches, for certain.
The President’s favorite dish, Dover sole, which aides tell CNN is the most-popular main course served at the White House for any event, is the featured entrée.
But broadly, the food, “pays homage to Australia’s special blend of culinary adaptations from its various cultures, not unlike the diverse food traditions of the United States,” according to the first lady’s office.
A first course of sunchoke ravioli will be followed by the sole, which will be roasted whole and served with a fennel mousseline – accompanied by green and yellow summer squash blossoms, keeping with the color scheme, of course. The additional “garlic rouille” contains herbs from the White House Kitchen Garden, Michelle Obama’s beloved project which is still utilized by the White House chefs.
The piece de resistance for the dinner is without a doubt the setting. As guests arrive and throughout the dinner, the United States Army Strings corps will be stationed down the long colonnade in single file, facing the garden and the guests, playing familiar tunes as gentle background music, each song personally approved by the first lady. In fact, the entire entertainment for the evening will be provided by the military.
It’s “the largest gathering of premier military musicians for a state dinner at the White House,” according to a release from the first lady’s office, including musical groups from the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. In past administrations, state dinners entertainment has featured marquee singers such as James Taylor, Kenny Chesney, Gwen Stefani, Demi Lovato and the cast of “Jersey Boys.”