As a candidate, Donald Trump criticized President Barack Obama for hosting a state dinner to honor China. “Just take them to McDonald’s and go back to the negotiating table,” he said at a rally in South Carolina in July 2015.
But faced with the reality of playing host to a rival superpower, now-President Trump settled for something in between an official East Room black tie gala and a stop for Big Macs on the side of the road.
He welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday not to the White House, but to his Mar-a-Lago beach club in Florida. The choice of venue lent him the gilded, salmon-colored backdrop of his private resort to satisfy a world leader who places a high value on ceremony.
But Trump’s choice of venue also didn’t derail him from his regular winter Palm Beach weekend routine. He’s traveled to Mar-a-Lago for the majority of his weekends in office, frequently indulging in his favorite pastime: golf, which was purposefully missing from the schedule during Xi’s 48-hour visit (frowned on by the Chinese Communist Party as a rich man’s sport).
And the menu for the formal dinner – held at two long tables set with white tablecloths, candelabras and red-and-yellow flower arrangements under gold chandeliers – included some of Trump’s known favorites, dry-aged steak and whipped potatoes.
“We had a long discussion already and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing,” Trump joked in front of reporters during the meal. But “developed a friendship.”
Former State Department officials questioned the location for the state visit – where the optics are almost as important as the substance – speculating that the Chinese would be offended that Trump was hosting them at the same place he already spent the weekend with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, including a round of golf.
While the Florida setting did bear some resemblance to Xi’s first visit with Obama, who hosted him in 2013 at Sunnylands, a 200-acre estate in Southern California, the officials worried Trump’s choice of his own club could come across as a self-promotional gesture at Chinese expense.
“While there are definitely instances where dispensing with diplomatic formalities and cutting to the chase will be well received, a leader-to-leader meeting with the President of China isn’t one of them,” said Philippe Reines, a former top State Department official under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was intimately involved with organizing many meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials.
A White House spokesman said the Chinese requested Mar-a-Lago as the venue for the meeting.
Trump, accompanied by the First Lady, hosted Xi and his wife inside a formal living room on the Mar-a-Lago campus for a pre-dinner photo-op. Melania Trump appeared to be enjoying a glass of red wine, while the Chinese First Lady, Peng Liyuan, sipped tea. A Chinese and an American flag display were set up behind them.
Sen. John McCain said in an interview with POLITICO: “I do know in the past an ideal setting for real serious negotiations has been Camp David,” a woodsy presidential retreat in Maryland that the sun-chasing Trump has yet to set foot in.
The two leaders were expected to discuss North Korea, which on Tuesday fired off another ballistic missile test, as well as differences on trade.
During the campaign, Trump often slammed China for stealing blue collar American manufacturing jobs.
Trump’s first face-to-face encounter with his superpower rival was also a choreographed dance where both men were eager to look like the bigger statesman. “Given the grave and growing threat of North Korea, it may the president’s most important day yet,” said David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser. “Without the cooperation of the Chinese, it will be very difficult to stop North Korea’s march to a nuclear weapon that can reach our coast.”
As the two leaders kicked off their visit, political observers said they expected a 180-degree change in tone from the longtime critic of China. “President Trump has been far less bellicose about China than was candidate Trump,” Axelrod said.
On the campaign trail last year, China was one of Trump’s favorite targets.
“China’s upset because of the way Donald Trump is talking about trade with China,” he said, referring to himself in the third person during a campaign rally on Staten Island last year. “They’re ripping us off, folks, it’s time. I’m so happy they’re upset.”
But ahead of Thursday’s meeting, that aggressive Trump was already softening into a man who went out of his way to find more common ground.
He has scrapped his campaign talk of imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. In an interview last week with the Financial Times, Trump said he wanted to find a deal.
“I have great respect for him,” Trump said of Xi in the interview. “I have great respect for China. I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries and I hope so.”
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