In this, the era of modern air travel and mass media, heads of state are likely to draw more attention with regard to protocol faux pas than did early modern diplomats. And this is certainly truer of some than others. I followed the most recent visit to the United Kingdom by Donald Trump and his family with great interest – particularly in light of the protocol controversies surrounding his last trip.
In July of 2018, it was reported that Trump had not only kept Queen Elizabeth II waiting on him for tea at Windsor Castle, but that he did not bow to her, and then proceeded to walk in front of her while inspecting the guard. The first gaffe has been the subject of some dispute. Trump, while speaking at a rally in August of 2018 and expounding on his “fake” news” theme, claimed that the Queen had been the one to keep him waiting. This assertion in turn generated a great deal of press, with ‘royal’ sources being cited and people present tweeting about what happened. Between the eye witness accounts and the news footage, I think that there may indeed have been some kind of scheduling gaffe that resulted in bothparties being kept waiting. Regarding the second incident, Trump, as a head of state, is not required to bow to the Queen. The last incident, however, is less ambiguous in its interpretation – he clearly stepped out in front of her.
What’s fascinating here is not so much what did or did not happen, but the ongoing interest shown in it, and what the effect of that interest may have been. In the month proceeding this second UK visit, the footage of the Queen checking her watch, as well as that of Trump turning his back of her, repeatedly aired. And both were brought up again in the nightly US news recaps during the trip, which I watched on several different networks. While Trump caused some anxiety by renewing his childish Twitter tirades against London Mayor Sadiq Khan on his way across the Atlantic, he does seem to have been on his best behaviour with regard to the monarch, albeit with one exception. Trump did touch the Queen’s back. Michelle Obama did this on an earlier visit with President Barak Obama, and it seems that Elizabeth II did not take offense. Quite the contrary. However, it must be noted that the former First Lady – unlike Trump – has never been accused of physically assaulting a woman, let alone more than twenty of them. Perhaps the Queen feels differently when touched by a self-confessed sexual predator.
On the whole, I am inclined to think that the British had a hand in arranging affairs to avoid any possible gaffes this time around. I began to suspect as much when viewing the footage of the reception at Buckingham Palace. Once again, the guard was inspected – but with a difference: Charles accompanied Trump onto the lawn, and not the Queen. It is not a breach of protocol for someone to walk ahead of the Prince of Wales. Would the royal household arrange to stage manage events so as to cover for such lapses on the part of a foreign dignitary? It is entirely possible. Certainly, this has been done in the past.
In 1632, a Dutch envoy caused a scandal at his first two audiences before Charles I by putting on his hat when the Republic’s credentialed ambassador did so. This breach of protocol was noted by those present, and the king complained to his secretary, who then spoke to the ambassador. At later audiences, the issue of the envoy’s behavior was dealt with by the simple expediency of the ambassador choosing not to cover when the king invited him to, and so preventing his colleague from embarrassing both the Republic and the Stuart court by following suit.
A more diplomatic explanation for the difference in the reception arrangements for Trump’s visits is that the Charles escorted the famous host of The Apprentice in order to further the Prince of Wale’s environmental agenda by establishing a rapport. Considering Trump’s apparent inability to spell the prince’s title, let alone understand his concern for future generations, I doubt whether this strategy – if such it was – was successful.
As to Trump’s own behaviour, I cannot say whether the negative coverage from the last trip – which he was obviously aware of – had any impact on his behaviour during this trip. Certainly, it is unclear whether his staff has ever been in any position to influence him. His Chief of Protocol, and the man responsible for keeping him informed regarding proper etiquette, Sean Lawler, was suspended June 24, pending a State Department investigation into his own abusive behavior. Nor can I clarify Trump’s protocol errors. Much like one of my seventeenth-century Masters of Ceremonies when trying to explain the Dutch envoy’s “over forwardness and cheap carriage,” I cannot distinguish between pretension and ignorance in this matter.
“Donald Trump: US president in ‘Prince of Whales’ Twitter error.” BBC News. June 14, 2019. https://www.bbc.com
Finet, John and Albert J. Loomie, ed. The Note Books of John Fine, Master of Ceremonies, 1628-1641. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987: pp. 123-24, and 129.
Gabbatt, Adam. “Trump claims he was early to meet the ‘fantastic’ Queen, not late.” The Guardian, August 3, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com
Kosinski, Michelle. “Trump’s suspended protocol chief would ‘scream,’ use profanity and berate employees, sources say.” CNN. June 26, 2019. https://www.cnn.com
Locker, Melissa. “Michelle Obama explains that she hugged the Queen for this very relatable reason.” Time. November 14, 2018. https://www.time.com
Obama, Michelle. Becoming. New York: Crown, 2018. pp. 403-04.
Riley-Smith, Ben. “Donald Trump rejects claims he was 15 minutes late meet Queen – and says she made him wait.” The Telegraph. August 3, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk