President-elect Donald J. Trump has said he’d feed the Chinese president “a McDonald’s hamburger” rather than throw him a lavish official dinner, but it’s possible that the biggest way State Dinners at the Trump White House will differ from those in the Obama era will be that there will absolutely, definitely, never ever ever be any meals served in tents.
According to official White House protocol, State Dinners are held in the State Dining Room, which seats 120, though guests lists for the glittering evenings can easily outgrow the space. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, foreign dignitaries have been taken out to the Rose Garden or the South Lawn for a tented affair — the large, temporary space of a tent smoothing out any of the protocol complications of seating guests throughout several rooms.
But for Trump, tents absolutely won’t do. In a 2011 appearance on the Rush Limbaugh Show, he publicly debuted his withering disdain:
“I see that the White House — the White House, Washington, DC — when a dignitary comes in from India, from anywhere, they open up a tent. They have a tent. A tent! ... An old, rotten tent that frankly they probably rented, pay a guy millions of dollars for it even though it's worth about $2, okay?”
(The tent for the 2009 India dinner, which Vanity Fair described as “a massive pavilion, complete with an orchestra platform, theatrical lighting, a professional sound system, full heating, satellite kitchens, and a dozen chandeliers bedecked with sustainably harvested magnolia branches and ivy,” took six days to construct and cost a reported $85,000.)
Trump revisited his loathing for tents earlier this year, at a June 15 campaign event in Atlanta, recalling the same India State Dinner he’d railed into on Limbaugh years before: “Do you remember when I saw a state dinner — and it’s a tent! Which is actually unsafe, you know, canvas — it’s a tent on the White House lawn ... Which looks like hell.”
(“I've never been to a more beautiful White House dinner,” said Alma Powell, wife of General Colin Powell, of the 2009 India dinner.)
Trump elaborated on his horror of tents in his 2011 book, Time to Get Tough, writing “That’s no way for America to host important meetings and dinners with world leaders and dignitaries. We should project our nation’s power and beauty with a proper facility and ballroom.”
(The government of India regularly holds its own grand banquets for visiting dignitaries; a 2006 dinner for President George W. Bush was held in a Mughal-style tent erected in a garden on the grounds of the presidential palace.)
Trump writes on: “If there’s one thing I know how to build, it’s a grand ballroom. At my private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, I built what many consider to be the single greatest ballroom in the world ... but I own many beautiful and very successful ballrooms.”
In fact, Mar-a-Lago’s 20,000-square-foot, Versailles-inspired Donald J. Trump Ballroom served as an early indicator of Trump’s allergy to tented affairs. After a protracted battle with the National Trust over an ocean-view easement that prevented Trump from building the club’s third ballroom in his preferred location on the property, he exploited a regulatory loophole allowing for temporary structures and put up a massive, 1000-person tent, which played host to events for nearly five years. By the time of Trump’s own third wedding in 2005, to Melania Knauss, the National Trust still wouldn’t budge, and for Trump, the prospect of holding his wedding banquet in a tent was more galling than the indignity of giving in to the suits. He finally caved, and constructed his cavernous event space — including seventeen Austrian crystal chandeliers, walls inlaid with $7 million in gold leaf and, in the women’s bathroom, four gold-plated sinks — elsewhere on the grounds.
As a remedy for our nation’s too-many-tents-not-enough-ballrooms problem, in 2009 Trump offered to donate a $100 million ballroom to the White House, a gift the Obama administration did not accept, despite the fact that would have spared us the shame of, for example, hosting the prime minister of Italy in an “old, broken, rotten-looking tent.” (EOnline: “Nothing short of spectacular ... a luxurious tent that featured cream-colored drapes, gorgeous flower arrangements and tall crystal candelabras at each table. There were also crystal chandeliers hanging from the tent's ceiling that also had green vines draped around them.”)
On many occasions, Trump has complained about Obama’s failure to accept his offer of a ballroom, holding it up as an example of Washington’s lack of interest in saving money. Ballroom construction at the White House is not yet among his official planned Presidential acts, but it may well end up there: “My offer still stands,” he writes of the ballroom in Time to Get Tough, and in 2015 he told Cigar Aficionado “Any time you can build a ballroom, do it.”
Trump has attended a White House State Dinner once before: With his then-wife Ivana, he was a guest at a 1985 banquet honoring King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, which like all Reagan administration State Dinners, was held indoors, in the State Dining Room. (“I never went for the tent number,” Nancy Reagan sniffed to Vanity Fair.) In his toast to the king, Ronald Reagan delivered praise to the guest of honor that surely put Trump off his supréme of chicken bigarade: “When fire destroyed a major cultural facility at Wolf Trap here in Washington,” said the President, “threatening to short-circuit an entire theatrical season, the Saudi Embassy quickly located a huge tent and had it flown to Washington, and the show went on.”