The most surprising formal protocol presidents and first ladies have to follow during official state visits

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shovel dirt onto a freshly planted oak tree gift as first lady Melania Trump watches on the South Lawn of the White House on April 23, 2018..

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President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shovel dirt onto a freshly planted oak tree gift as first lady Melania Trump watches on the South Lawn of the White House on April 23, 2018..
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Reuters/Joshua Roberts

At the most powerful address in the country, receiving special visitors is not just part of the job, but a long-held diplomatic tradition.

State visits are the highest-ranking form of diplomatic visits – only heads of state qualify for the lavish public ceremony.

Every president since Calvin Coolidge has held at least one state dinner a year, except President Donald Trump, who waited until his second year to invite French President Emmanuel Macron.

Though each state visit varies to best accommodate the president and first lady’s wishes, much of the walking, standing, and shaking hands is required as distinct ceremonial steps are planned months in advance.

The Office of the Chief of Protocol assists White House staff in making sure the event goes off without diplomatic faux pas or embarrassment.

Take a look at some of the carefully coordinated pomp and circumstance, step by step:


The first visit foreign head of state to visit the White House was King David Kalakua of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), who former President Ulysses S. Grant hosted in 1874.

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King Kalākaua of Hawaii meets President Ulysses S. Grant in the Blue Room of the White House in the first state visit for a ruling monarch to the US in December 1874.
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Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The leaders and their 36 guests enjoyed 29 courses, an impressive precursor to the event that would become a widely publicized expected duty of a president.


A state visit includes: a full-honors arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House with a 21-gun salute, a state luncheon at the US State Department, and a White House state dinner.

Only chiefs of state are invited to state visits, meaning the reigning monarch, ruler, or president of a country.


To kick off a state visit, the president and first lady receive the guest of honor at the South Lawn to demonstrate their role as hosts to their visitor.

Visiting leaders usually greet the president in their native language as they join the American leader outside the White House.

They are accompanied by military footmen before reaching a welcoming committee, then the leaders take the stage together.


The president, first lady, and guests take their places for the national anthems — but no one is supposed to clap after they play.

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US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen to the national anthems during a state visit on the South Lawn of the White House on June 7, 2011.
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Andrew Harrer, Getty Images

As a courtesy, the visitor’s anthem is played first. Heads of state like Macron on state visits qualify for a 21-gun salute, whereas heads of government only get a 19-gun salute.


The president and the guest of honor walk the South Lawn to inspect the troops in a ceremony intended to invoke a combination of diplomacy and pageantry.

Though the state visit is meant to be a friendly one, American protocol dictates the military exercises are a show of the Commander in Chief’s control of American forces.


The president delivers remarks, to which the guest replies with a speech of their own, typically reflecting on the relationship between the two countries.

Here, Queen Elizabeth II stands by as President Bush speaks during the 2007 arrival ceremony in her honor.


The president and his guest are expected to pick and exchange the perfect gift as a symbol of goodwill in their diplomatic relationship, prioritizing meaning over cost.

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US President George W. Bush and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 17, 2005.
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Larry Downing/REUTERS

US presidents are limited by law on what they can accept from foreign leaders and have had to pass up dogs, jewelry, and a jewel-encrusted sword.

The current limit on acceptable gift value is $390, and all gifts are handed over to the National Archives, unless the official decides to purchase it at the end of their term.


Onto the state dinner — the evening begins with cocktails for the president, first lady, and select guests upstairs in the family residence of the White House.

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Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Margaret and Denis Thatcher, among others, upstairs prior to a state dinner.
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White House Photo Office

Just off the presidential bedroom, the Yellow Oval Room is a private space for the head table to mingle.

It’s usually a private study for presidents and is where former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt heard the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Once the rest of the guests arrive downstairs, the heads of state descend the grand staircase to the song “Hail to the chief” and the visiting country’s national anthem.

US protocol only allows four reasons for rejecting the president’s invitation to a state dinner: death in the family, serious illness, “unavoidable” absence far away from D.C., or a family wedding.


The president and guest receive the rest of the state dinner attendees. Every single one.

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President Obama greets members of the public who notably turned out to be crashing the state dinner
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Samantha Appleton, White House

Guests are individually announced by a military aide upon entering the Blue Room and greeted by the president and visitor before being seated at dinner.

Dress is formal, white- or black-tie attire. Women are expected to wear formal gowns or cocktail dresses, and men should be in tuxes.


The president and the head of state exchange toasts, the highlight of the dinner.

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Xi Jinping and Barack Obama toast at a White House state dinner for a 2015 state visit.
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Pete Souza, White House

The president and his guest’s remarks may come as part of the celebration part of the evening, but are considered important diplomatic statements and kept on record by the White House.


Guests then eat a four- or five-course meal, which the first lady meticulously selects with White House staff.

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A preview of the food first lady Melania Trump chose for the French state dinner on April 24, 2018.
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White House

It looks like first lady Melania Trump is only doing three courses. Her menu includes:

First Course

Goat Cheese Gateau Tomato Jam Buttermilk Biscuit Crumbles Young Variegated Lettuces

Main Course

Rack of Spring Lamb Burnt Cipollini Soubise Carolina Gold Rice Jambalaya

Dessert

Nectarine Tart Crème Fraîche Ice Cream


After dinner, it’s up to the president and first lady to continue the party with entertainment.

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American president Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at an April 2015 state dinner recession.
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Pete Souza, White House

After the dessert course, the president and visitor lead guests down the Cross Hall to the East Room of the White House, where performers like Gwen Stefani, Frank Sinatra, and Kenny Chesney have entertained past guests.

This year, the first lady has chosen the Washington National Opera for the after-dinner entertainment.


Former President John F. Kennedy banned champagne and non-American wines from being served at the White House, even after dinner.

Only American bubbly, like California sparkling wine, can fill the glasses.

Melania Trump chose a Crémant from California for the sparkling wine this year, a popular choice at official White House events.


Dancing is a casual diplomatic tradition meant for guests and heads of state alike to mingle.

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Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta at a White House dinner for the Prince and Princess of Wales.
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Pete Souza, White House Photographic Collection

Live music fills the East Room, where guests enjoy sparkling wine and dancing.

We’ll have to see whether the Trumps and Macrons decide to dance Tuesday night.