A week after the election, President-Elect Donald Trump went to the 21 Club for dinner with his family. He sat at his favorite table, number 11, and placed his usual order: a well-done burger. Despite a certain predictability to the tastes of our new president, the question of how the Trump administration will entertain and engage with culture—which boldfaced names will attend his parties, which artists will perform for his guests, which pals will sleep over at the White House—has left observers grasping.
Despite the ubiquity of his name, Trump himself is hardly a social butterfly among Manhattanites, and, to put it politely, celebrities disavowed him en masse during his campaign. It’s hard to picture the Trump White House having the salon atmosphere of the Obama White House, where the likes of Beyoncé and Lin-Manuel Miranda were regulars and there was star power not seen since the Reagans.
“The biggest question is, Will he grow into a statesman?” says Alexis Coe, a historian and co-host of the Presidents Are People Too podcast. “There is nothing in the Constitution that requires dazzling White House dinners, but it’s considered a diplomatic tool.”
State dinners started in 1874, when Ulysses S. Grant hosted one for David Kalakaua, king of the Hawaiian Islands. Since then presidents have steadily held them, though some barely satisfied the most basic requirements of hosting. “Silent Cal” Coolidge “experienced what was likely a major depressive episode during his presidency,” Coe says, “and would leave his own state dinners early.”
As to who might attend a Trump state dinner, “executives from companies that supported him, like Chick-fil-A; conservative country singers; actors like Jon Voight—they’ll come,” Coe says. And for all their bluster during the campaign, celebrities have been known to waver in their political beliefs. (Consider Ricky Martin, who headlined George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration ball but in a 2007 concert made a profane gesture while referring to the president in a song.) But when Sam Hunt, a prominent booking agent, was asked whether his musicians would perform at a state dinner, he said, “My clients are not likely to be Trump supporters across the board, so anything associated with his administration likely would be toxic in their eyes. Plus, it could upset a lot of their fan base.”
You have a family of billionaires. They have entertained. They know the politics of mixing the tables. They know that chicken keeps its heat and steak doesn’t. They’re going to bring a skill set that may surprise people.
Those speculating about such things agree that Hollywood types like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood, and sports figures like Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman, and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, will be at White House affairs. Certainly the choice of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary and Wilbur Ross as Commerce secretary means that the scattered members of the Manhattan elite who supported Trump’s candidacy, such as Rebekah Mercer, will show up.
And there are the business associates Trump socializes with, such as real estate developer Richard LeFrak, and Howard Lorber, chief executive of Vector Group. Beyond that things get hazy. “I knew Donald when he was with Ivana, and the crew was more Carolyne Roehm, Lynn Wyatt, Kelly Klein, etc.,” says the perennially plugged-in Nina Griscom. “I’m clueless who’s on board now. There’s no Jerry Zipkin sending suggested guest lists in the middle of the night. If only a Bunny Mellon would materialize.”
Indeed, Trump is something of a homebody these days. “There was a time when he was more of a man about town. He met Melania at a Fashion Week party. Since then he has settled down,” says Matt Viser, who covered the Trump campaign for the Boston Globe and this magazine. “He’s fixed in his ways. The sense is that he’s home at night watching cable news and on Twitter.” Griscom adds, “I suspect there will be minimal entertaining.”
“They’ve never been part of the Hamptons scene, and not the other elite watering holes like the Vineyard or Nantucket,” says Washington journalist Sally Quinn. “I suspect they have a bunch of Palm Beach friends.”
And yet, one area of the presidency in which Trump arguably does have experience is entertaining, notes Doug Wead, historian and former special assistant to President George H.W. Bush. “For all the areas where he may lack experience, social is not it. Here you have a family of billionaires,” he says. “They have entertained. They know the politics of mixing the tables and sitting him next to her. They know that chicken keeps its heat and steak doesn’t. They’re going to bring to this a skill set that may surprise a lot of people.”
He draws a connection to the Reagan years, when “they knew to pay for the dog to fly first class with Helen Hayes. Many stars, like Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson, were Democrats, but they just loved Ron and Nancy because they knew how to treat them and baby them.”
If the administration tries to reach out to people who didn’t support Trump, “half will turn him down, particularly movie stars and performers, and the other half will say, ‘This is the people’s house: If I get invited, I go,'” Quinn says.
Meanwhile, expect the younger Trumps to expand the political base via invitations to White House events. “People will be disarmed socially by the kids,” Wead says.
“After the Carters were out, Nancy Reagan said, ‘There will be a return of dignity.’ I can’t say that is what we’re going to have here, but the Trumps are fancier and more formal than the Obamas were,” says Alex Hitz, chef, philanthropist, and close friend of Nancy Reagan’s. (He says he would accept an invite to cook for Trump: “He’s the president.”)
Still, however rococo Trump’s taste in interiors is, his palate is much more modest. He’s a McDonald’s and KFC enthusiast who has suggested the White House do away with lavish events to save money: “We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table, and we should make better deals with China and others and forget the state dinners.”
But the truth is, these things vary only so much from administration to administration, says interior designer Michael S. Smith, who redid the Oval Office for the Obamas. “The people who work at the White House—the curators, the kitchen staff, the house people—they stay the same,” he notes. “They are incredibly professional and make sure everything is beautifully done. That’s the power of the White House, that it has its own iconic culture.”
Hitz says Trump would be wise to harness this power. “These are situations in which you have to talk to each other and you have to be polite. Chances are people end up liking each other. There is no way,” he adds, “to overestimate the equalizer a dinner table is.”