MOUNT VERNON, Va. — President Donald Trump served up a dinner of Dover sole and political talk on the first night of his inaugural state visit, with intensive discussions over the Iran deal and Syria still to come on Tuesday.
Trump’s friendly discussion with French President Emmanuel Macron at Mount Vernon on Monday evening centered partly on the American political and economic situation, specifically the upcoming midterm elections and Trump’s ranking in polls, a French official said.
Trump has tweeted regularly about his polls, which he insists are higher than people realize.
Expected matters, such as Syria and trade also arose, as did the fight against radicalization. The leaders also raised the issue of Internet regulation, a matter of hot debate in both France and the US after Russian attempts to interfere in elections.
Full display of pomp
Trump is deploying the full trappings of formal state entertaining for the first time in the hopes an elaborate display of diplomacy can lead to a deeper bond with the young French leader.
But beneath the pomp and circumstance the state visit brings — streets lined with fluttering French and American flags, an elaborate military welcome and a meticulously planned state dinner — the two leaders are expected to tackle a slew of pressing foreign policy issues, from the Iran deal to the Syrian civil war, counterterrorism and Russian aggression. The daylight between the men on some of those issues will become apparent.
Macron touched down in Washington midday Monday aboard a French government plane. Later, the couple greeted Trump at the West Wing with kisses on each cheek to formally begin the visit.
Joined by Melania Trump, the foursome used golden shovels to plant a European Sessile oak tree on the South Lawn that had been plucked from the Belleau Woods, northeast of Paris, where 9,000 American troops lost their lives during World War I. They departed soon after aboard a helicopter to Mount Vernon, the riverfront estate of George Washington, for a private dinner of lemon-ricotta agnolotti with citrus butter, salad, ballotine of Dover sole with lemon curd and heirloom asparagus and chocolate soufflé with cherry vanilla ice cream.
The two leaders get to business on Tuesday following a military welcome on the South Lawn. In the wake of the US-French strikes in Syria, questions remain about Trump’s willingness to maintain a military presence in Syria as Macron has urged his US counterpart to do. Trump’s harsh new new trade approach has led to fears of a trade war. And a fast-approaching deadline on the Iran deal also looms large.
Trump has threatened to pull out of the Iran deal and snapback US sanctions on Iran by May 12 unless major changes are made to the agreement brokered by the previous US administration, which capped Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. France, Germany and the United Kingdom — key signatories to the deal — are in the midst of negotiations with the US aimed at assuaging some of Trump’s concerns, but large gaps still remain.
Already, some US administration officials have been preparing options for withdrawal from the agreement, hoping to be ready should Trump abruptly make his announcement over Twitter. Macron’s visit could prove critical to swaying Trump toward a compromise, rather than the all-or-nothing approach he has signaled on the Iran deal.
The French leader — who has been dubbed a “Trump whisperer” by some — has forged one of the closest relationships Trump maintains with any world leader, some of whom he has openly feuded with or belittled.
But beneath the outward bonhomie is an underlying competitiveness, according to US and French officials familiar with the two men’s relationship. Both are alpha males highly attuned to their own reputations, and each entered office with grand promises of shattering their country’s political status quo. Officials in both countries have downplayed the notion of a “bromance,” insisting the two men are not close personal friends but rather closely aligned allies.
Ever since May, when the two men met for the first time inside the US ambassador’s residence in Brussels, fascination has swirled around their relationship. That first meeting was marked by strained grins and a lengthy, white-knuckled handshake that immediately went viral online.
Even before that session, which occurred on the sidelines of a NATO summit, Macron has carefully approached his interactions with an unpredictable American leader. He studied videos of Trump’s handshakes, which sometimes include a firm tug inward. He and his aides continue to closely monitor Trump’s Twitter feed for a daily reading of the US President’s mood and his shifting policy sentiments.
Perhaps most shrewdly, Macron recognized that Europe’s other dominant leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, would be permanently tarnished in Trump’s mind after fostering deeply personal ties to President Barack Obama. Long averse to his predecessor’s policies and platforms, Trump has viewed Merkel as irrevocably tied to Obama, according to people who have spoken to him.
Macron has cast himself as a blank slate, without a pre-existing relationship that might color his interactions with Trump (though Macron has met privately with Obama, and even secured Obama’s endorsement during his campaign last spring).
Merkel will visit the White House on Friday with none of the elaborate trimmings associated with a state visit. Once the favored European leader for US presidents, including Obama and President George W. Bush, Merkel got off to a frosty start with Trump and struggled to recover. The two leaders went more than five months without speaking earlier this year.