UPDATE: On Sept. 9, President Trump announced that he is nominating Sean P. Lawler of Maryland to serve as chief of protocol. Lawler is the director for visits, planning, and diplomatic affairs at the National Security Council. Prior to that, the Navy veteran was the chief of the Office of Visits and Protocol at the U.S. Cyber Command in Fort Meade, Md.
Partisanship aside, we should all be able to agree that Donald Trump takes a nontraditional approach to the presidency. This is particularly evident in his communication style. To some, it’s a breath of fresh air. To others, especially foreign leaders accustomed to their counterparts strictly adhering to protocol, it, well, stinks.
In the nine months since Trump assumed office, his style, often off the cuff and gruff, has left Americans and foreigners alike scratching their heads. For instance, there was the cringe-worthy time he told French first lady Brigitte Macron, “You’re in such good shape.” And the time he told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull “that is enough” during a phone conversation, and reportedly hung up. And the time Trump shoved his way past Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, during a NATO summit, igniting an internet firestorm.
But Trump’s blatant disregard for the formalities of protocol has had more far-reaching consequences than serving as fodder for viral memes and late-night jokes. It has had serious policy implications that have hamstrung the president’s own agenda. Trump reportedly refuses not only protocol guidance from his emasculated State Department, but he also eschews policy background briefings before engaging world leaders, meaning he goes in brash and uninformed about the issues of the day, a potentially combustive combination.
Trump’s perennial disregard to heed the advice of those around him has led to some inflammatory choices, such as Trump’s oddity-laced meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in May. The first oddity was the timing of the meeting, coming a day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian officials. Additionally, only Russian media was in allowed in the room. Most importantly — and most strangely — it was reported that during the meeting, Trump divulged highly classified intelligence allegedly from Israel when he boasted about knowing of an Islamic State plot.
Another incident that raised eyebrows, especially in light of the Russia probes, was Trump’s hour-long private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Germany in July. During that interaction, the two leaders used a Kremlin translator and no U.S. national security staff were present. That leaves open the potential that Trump disclosed more classified information — and it’s a sharp break with protocol. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss told NBC News that the only other time he remembers a U.S. president leaving translation to a Russian was when Richard Nixon met with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.
More recently, Trump lobbed a volley of threats at Kim Jong-un reminiscent of the fire-and-brimstone hyperbole for which the North Korean dictator is frequently mocked. After a series of missile tests that raised fears about Pyongyang’s rapidly expanding nuclear weapons program, Trump warned he would rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea and later doubled down by bragging that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” for battle.
The comments apparently weren’t cleared by Trump’s national security staff and sent top officials scrambling to tone down the rhetoric. Experts worry that empty, bellicose threats only make the president look weak, not strong. Already, there are reports that Pentagon officials and other top advisors have begun ignoring the noise emanating from the Oval Office, whether it’s Trump’s declarations on North Korea or his musings about invading Venezuela.
And we haven’t even gotten to the tweets, which are often factually wrong, grammatically frightening and make Trump appear more prepubescent than presidential. Some outsiders have been chagrined by the limited, colorful vocabulary in these 140-character missives — when was the last time anyone heard a U.S. president say “super-duper?” On a less humorous note, Trump’s tweets often create manufactured crises (whether it’s inflated inaugural crowd sizes or nonexistent White House wiretapping) that distract from his agenda or, as is the case with his shifting story on Russia, land him in legal jeopardy. And because Trump has said his tweets carry the weight of the presidency, diplomats and others are forced to take every word seriously.
Even tweets that seem benign to many Americans still carry the power to affront and anger foreigners who are accustomed to more diplomatic restraint, such as the one Trump aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”
On its surface, Trump’s tweet drew cheers from Americans who want to see numbers even out, but an incendiary tweet can burn bridges. For instance, should the United States want to increase NATO’s troop presence in Afghanistan, Germany, a longtime U.S. ally, may not be so willing to support the effort.
Merkel responded to Trump’s tweet by saying, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.” The reply, while tame by Trump standards, showed the potential for the president’s words to alienate even America’s closest allies.
In a July 2 article, The Washington Post documented just how extraordinary Trump’s tweets are compared to other heads of state, who use social media to trumpet sanitized statements such as “We are truly blessed to live in this great country” (Canada’s Justin Trudeau) and “I send my warmest good wishes to Muslims in the UK and around the world celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr (Britain’s Theresa May).
Trump’s supporters say his blunt talk cuts through the stilted social media bromides that most of the world tunes out. But critics say the president misses every opportunity to be presidential, thanks in part to his self-destructive tweeting habit.
After bloody clashes broke out between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August, the president’s failure to call out the KKK, neo-Nazis and alt-right groups drew widespread criticism. After blaming “many sides” for the rioting, it took Trump two days to specifically denounce racism. He was quicker to attack the African American head of Merck Pharmaceuticals, who resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council following the violence, than he was in condemning the hate groups behind the rally.
“I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement,” Trump said in his defense. Yet this newfound judiciousness was all the more curious given Trump’s rapid-fire penchant for tweeting 140-character observations on everything from “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski’s “bleeding” cosmetic surgery to attacks on his own staff or fellow Republicans in Congress (the same ones he’ll need to pass legislation). In fact, the very same day that he urged caution before criticizing hate groups, Trump had to take down a tweet showing a train running over a CNN reporter. (The following day, he repeated his assertion that “both sides” were responsible for the violence, reigniting the firestorm his aides had hoped to quell.)
“Half his tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan in a scathing July op-ed. “The president’s primary problem as a leader is not that he is impetuous, brash or naive. It’s not that he is inexperienced, crude, an outsider. It is that he is weak and sniveling. It is that he undermines himself almost daily by ignoring traditional norms and forms of American masculinity.”
Yet Trump also won the election by ignoring those norms. While his poll numbers have sagged, Trump’s base still relishes a fight, whether it’s with the #fakenews or global elite. Trump also pioneered the notion that any press is good press. The former reality TV star has shrewdly used social media to commandeer the news cycle, with the media salivating over every tweet. Trump’s instincts have helped him defy not only convention, but also predictions. Despite the near-certainty among pundits and pollsters that Trump’s blunt talk would appall voters, the billionaire still wound up in the White House.
Whether he succeeds there is another matter. But today, without question, Trump’s way of speaking is the most distinct of any U.S. president. To his fans, he is a straight shooter who eschews formal diplospeak in favor of relating to the masses. To his critics, his unfiltered thoughts are unintelligible and childish at best, dangerous and dishonest at worst. Either way, the president has tossed out the traditional protocol playbook in favor of uncharted diplomatic terrain.
Merriam-Webster defines “protocol” as “a code prescribing strict adherence to correct etiquette and precedence (as in diplomatic exchange and in the military services).” It evolved out of the tradition of treating visitors with hospitality and has grown to play an important role in brokering communications among world leaders. That’s why the recent string of breaches puts the United States and its foreign relations in a precarious position.
One reason for Trump’s missteps may simply be his inexperience. “President Trump doesn’t have any government or military experience,” said Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington. “I think that’s a disadvantage for him, because as you know, he’s very much a businessman, a CEO…. He didn’t know these types of protocol, what I consider government and diplomatic protocol.”
Additionally, every president goes through a learning curve when it comes to protocol. “Very rarely does anyone enter the position knowing the chapter and verse,” said Leslie Lautenslager, president of Protocol and Diplomacy International – Protocol Officers Association and former assistant chief of protocol and special assistant to the secretary of state. She cited President George H.W. Bush as an exception because he’d been exposed to protocol as vice president under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and as CIA director in the late 1970s, among other top-ranking positions.
Shortly after President Barack Obama took the oath of office, for instance, his wife, Michelle, put her arm around England’s Queen Elizabeth II even though touching the queen is off limits. To be fair, the queen also wrapped her arm around the then-first lady.
This kind of protocol breach is OK, Lautenslager said. “It was not meant as an insult, it was not meant for anything to be inappropriate,” she said. “It was genuinely the warmth that she was showing somebody that she had a rapport with on that occasion, but it was a breach of protocol so to speak in that ‘thou shalt not touch the queen.’ But you come into the position and you don’t necessarily instinctively know that.”
Another reason for Trump’s mistakes may be that the chair in the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the State Department has sat empty since Jan. 20. In July, he appointed Michael Karloutsos acting chief of protocol with the mission of “creating an environment for successful diplomacy,” according to the office’s website. Meanwhile, the Obama political appointees, including former Protocol Chief Peter Selfridge, have departed, along with a cadre of career professionals who have retired or changed jobs. However, that doesn’t mean the Trump administration has not been without protocol guidance, Lautenslager said.
“Just because we don’t have a chief of protocol in place does not mean we don’t have a very vibrant, very dedicated, very professional staff of protocol officers,” she said.
Presidents often take several months or longer to name their protocol chiefs in the face of more urgent priorities. The office also has career employees whose jobs don’t rely on appointments, Eyring noted. “When he’s traveling abroad, don’t think no one’s advised him on the protocol,” she said of the president. “Like any head of state, they sometimes do what you tell them they should do and sometimes they don’t.”
‘Grease, Glue and Wallpaper’
“My ideal way of describing people in protocol is three words: grease, glue and wallpaper,” Lautenslager said. “We’re all working very hard on protocol that keeps the grease — the international, diplomatic wheels — in motion. It’s the glue that ties the different cultures together, different principles together. We in protocol, if we’re doing our job correctly, we’re simply the wallpaper. We should not be the ones that are seen in the picture. We should not be the ones that are seen driving the bus, so to speak. The protocol officials really are in the background, making sure everything else goes smoothly, looks good, appears well, the relationships are facilitated amongst the leaders who are then focused on the much more important issues of the day.”
For those who are out front, however, it takes self-awareness to adhere to protocol because you have to understand how you’re coming across to someone from another country, Eyring added. “You have to understand your own communications style and understand theirs,” she said, noting that foreign officials are less likely to kowtow to Trump’s style, which she called direct.
Like many other observers, Eyring said the most outstanding protocol breaks come in the form of Trump’s prolific use of Twitter. He’s not the first to use the social media platform; the Obamas tweeted frequently. But many of Trump’s tweets come across as blaming or sarcastic, often exposing rifts within the administration, which is not usually something presidents want to make public, Eyring said.
“He’s being so direct. It’s offending other people. I think that is really offbeat for a president to do,” she said. “Also, bringing up some of the things in his own government — blaming other departments in his own government, you don’t see that. You’re supposed to be part of a team or allies even if you don’t believe in the mission he has for our country. They have a code of conduct…. The world sees all this and then they think, ‘Oh my gosh. What’s going on in the administration?’”
Of course, there are times when breaking protocol is the right move. For example, Reagan was hard of hearing in his right ear, so although the seat of honor is to the right of the president, putting someone there might not have been the best choice given the circumstances, Lautenslager said.
Another time a breach is forgiven is when safety is involved. Three summers ago, Obama and Jerry Mateparae, New Zealand’s former governor-general, helped Queen Elizabeth down some stairs by grasping her elbows.
Negative protocol breaches can have lasting effects on foreign relations, both experts said. To the average person, snubs may seem an everyday part of life, but world leaders aren’t average and expect the respect that protocol dictates they’ve earned by virtue of their position. Snubs can be subtle but memorable to the person at the other end. For instance, because the Trump administration has struggled to fill thousands of vacancies across the government, visiting dignitaries aren’t always paired with a U.S. counterpart who is equal in status. So when a head of state can only secure meetings with a lower-ranking diplomat at the State Department, it can be seen as an affront to that country.
“I think there’s huge potential for damaging relationships,” Eyring said. “We want relationships, we want to be respected and when we have that around us, we know we can call for help or help others. What if we had a war and we needed help from Canada, which is a great ally? But if that relationship was damaged because of lack of respect to that country, they’re not going to be eager to support us.”
To undo some of the harm Trump has caused with his protocol breaches, he needs to “start behaving differently and understanding what diplomatic protocol can do,” she argued. “If we act only one way with every culture, well maybe people from a few cultures will be accepting, and some aren’t.”
As Trump continues to navigate his new job and define his foreign affairs priorities, Lautenslager and Eyring said they’re hopeful that protocol will fall back into place.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re rearranging chairs on the Titanic,” Eyring said, but “there’s still that strong underground of civility and code of conduct…. These changes that he’s just delayed in the protocol side will not change our customs and courtesies.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.