Trump's dinner diplomacy

- April 04, 2018

It turns out that President Donald Trump loves to throw a good dinner party.

The president is known for his after-hours cellphone calls and his late-night cable news habit, but several times a month, he invites New York real estate pals and businessmen, conservative leaders, prominent TV journalists, former campaign aides, and lawmakers to private dinners inside the White House residence – gatherings never made public on the official White House schedule.

Even as the president has withdrawn from the types of public events that were standard for his predecessors, he’s sustained the dinner party as a staple of presidential power – though he’s traded the high-wattage salons hosted by the Obamas for clubby interactions with people he considers peers, according to eight current and former administration officials and sources who have been to the meals.

The parties, which have recently ramped up, afford Trump the chance to do something he loves – play host – a role that runs contrary to the narrative of him isolated at night in the White House.

Patriots owner Bob Kraft, news magnate Rupert Murdoch and conservative media figures Chris Ruddy and Matt Drudge have been. So has Trump’s longtime New York real-estate developer friend Richard LeFrak. He’s also welcomed former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and musician Kid Rock — who posted photographs on social media of themselves posing in the White House — to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was one of President Barack Obama’s closest Wall Street allies.

Sometimes, TV personalities such as Sean Hannity or former Fox News executive Bill Shine dine alongside son-in-law Jared Kushner, favored Cabinet secretaries like Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, or senior staff like Kellyanne Conway. Last month, Trump had steaks with former campaign staffers Corey Lewandowski, Brad Parscale, and David Bossie.


Sometimes, the dinners fill the vacuum left by the dissolution of the business advisory councils Trump envisioned early in his term. Earlier this week, Trump ate with top Oracle executive Safra Catz and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, both close advisers who offer the president insight on the tech and business community.

Presidents dating back to the Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy have entertained in the White House residence, tending to use the private quarters for interactions with close friends. Richard Nixon, who was seen as more of a loner, preferred to meet friends at Camp David or out on the presidential yacht, said former Nixon library director Timothy Naftali, now professor at New York University.

President Barack Obama, famously criticized for not mixing enough with official Washington, hosted Chicago friends, presidential historians and various famous people — singer Bono, actor Will Smith, fashion editor Anna Wintour — as a way to both socialize and pick up information about what was going on beyond the White House.

For Trump, the private residence dinners tend to function as a means of diplomacy, entertainment, and often an affirmation of his own worldviews. He hosted a small band of Democratic senators over the summer, when he hoped to earn their support for the Republicans tax bill, according to a senior administration official. But more often, he surrounds himself at the dinners with like-minded businessmen and families, or friendly staffers and Cabinet officials, or businessmen.

“Presidents usually don’t bring the opposition to the residence for social occasions,” said Naftali. “Some presidents surround themselves with people who reinforce the worst sides of their characters, while some have people who calm them down or challenge them.”

The dinners give Trump the opportunity to be in charge, steer the conservation, and show off the historic place he now calls home — with its trappings of valets, Marine guards, and historic artifacts. Plus, the dinners are free of the interruptions that can happen in the Oval Office, with people coming in and out, said one administration official.


If he’s feeling upbeat, he’ll give visitors a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom or show off the copy of the Gettysburg Address or a rug first installed by Ronald Reagan. Often, he’ll say to guests: “Have you ever seen luxury like this?” as he guides them through, said the administration official.

Attendees say the dinners are not rambling affairs. They usually kick off at 6:30 p.m. followed by a brisk meal — always Trump favorites like salads, steaks, chicken or salmon, followed by dessert like strawberry shortcake or slices of chocolate cake. Trump likes to solicit the opinion of fellow diners, tout what he sees as his accomplishments, strategize for the midterms, or sell fellow diners on legislation such as the tax bill.

Before people go, Trump is always happy to sign a book or a copy of the calligraphy menus produced for every dinner, giving visitors a souvenir for their behind-the-scenes visit.

“One of the things the president seems to miss most is the freewheeling nature of having people stop by. That is part of why he has the dinners — to stay connected,” said one former White House official who has attended a handful of gatherings.

The dinners are also something Trump alone controls, since senior administration officials can only enter the residence at his invitation.

He often organizes the guest list himself – telling his executive assistant, Madeleine Westerhout, to find a date that works for everyone he wants to invite. Sometimes senior aides — usually chief of staff John Kelly, legislative affairs director Marc Short, or personnel and political director Johnny DeStefano — help put together names for quasi-official dinners.

Melania Trump attends only infrequently, say administration officials.

For White House staffers, the dinners can offer the chance to impress the president outside of the Oval Office. In the weeks after former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn criticized Trump’s response following the fatal clash between neo-Nazi marchers and counter-protesters last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, a dinner in the residence helped the New York banker redeem himself, as he successfully ran a conversation that impressed Trump, said one Republican briefed on the night.


The most intimate dinners are held upstairs in the residence itself; Trump, for instance, invited Chris Ruddy for an impromptu meal after one White House holiday party. Ruddy declined to comment.

Other events, like a September dinner with conservative leaders and a few Cabinet members and staff, are held in the Blue Room on the first floor of the residence.

One attendee at that dinner said after guests arrived, they milled about for a half an hour before sitting down to a three-course meal. The president drank Diet Coke, while some enjoyed a glass of wine.

Trump took questions on everything from tax reform to the choice of conservative judges – and then asked for their opinions about then-contentious Alabama Senate race.

“The dinners are useful because they give you a better sense of what is on the president’s mind, and he gets a sense of other people’s perspectives,” said one conservative outside adviser who attended that meal. “Being in the White House can be an isolating experience, so it’s good to have exposure to the outside world.”


 

Start typing and press Enter to search