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    Obama makes an appearance at White House’s Kenya state dinner

    Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

    Former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attend an official State Dinner in honour of President Ruto at the White House in Washington, on May 23, 2024.


    The invitation list for Thursday’s White House state dinner included celebrities, politicians, and allies of the president, as President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden roll out the red carpet for Kenyan President William Ruto and first lady Rachel Ruto.

    Former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actor LeVar Burton, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries were among the distinguished guests invited to the official state dinner – with former President Barack Obama making a brief, surprise appearance.

    “There is a bright light at the White House tonight,” Biden said to the Kenyan president during his toast at the state dinner. “Jill and I are honored to have you here.”

    He then joked that “many members of the African diaspora” were at Thursday’s black-tie event, including Obama who “just left.” Biden added that Obama has been “very gracious” and met with Ruto earlier Thursday.

    The former president was not on the initial state dinner guest list released by the White House. He attended a reception in the Blue Room prior to the dinner and stopped into the dinner area briefly, according to his office. Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, visited the country as president in 2015 and returned in 2018 after leaving office.

    Biden added that the United States has a “strong respect” for Kenya and recalled when former President Jimmy Carter hosted Kenyan leaders for the first time.

    He concluded with an Irish toast, saying in part “until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand – to Kenya, to our guests.”

    During his toast, Ruto asked attendees to raise a glass to the “continued wellbeing and long life” of President Biden and the first lady.

    A state visit is among the highest diplomatic tools a White House can employ to honor a top ally, with the meticulously planned event arriving as Biden seeks to emphasize the strong alliance between the two countries.

    Hollywood also had a presence at Thursday’s dinner – actors Wilmer Valderrama and Sean Penn were among those invited, and Burton told reporters that it is his first state dinner.

    The dinner was set to be held in a “transparent pavilion” on the South Lawn, according to the first lady’s office ahead of the event, that would be adorned with more than 1,000 candles. Guests were expected to be served three courses – the first was a chilled heirloom tomato soup. The main course for Thursday’s dinner was a “best of both worlds” duo of butter-poached lobster and smoked beef short ribs, according to White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford.

    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his wife TV producer Jane Skinner Goodell arrive at the Booksellers Room of the White House on the occasion of the State Dinner with the Kenyan president at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 23, 2024.

    Sports commissioners Goodell and Silver were among the guests invited to Thursday night’s state dinner. The NFL hosted a talent identification camp in Kenya last year as it looked to expand its “NFL Africa” program, according to a press release from the time. NBA Africa has a “subsidiary” in Kenya that was opened in November 2023, per the league.

    Philanthropist Melinda French Gates and former longtime Meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg were also among the guests invited to Thursday’s dinner.

    Country star Brad Paisley and the Howard Gospel Choir provided the entertainment at the glitzy event. Paisley donned a white cowboy hat as he entered the White House Thursday evening.

    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    Country star Brad Paisley and his wife actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley arrive at the Booksellers Room of the White House on the occasion of the State Dinner with the Kenyan president at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 23, 2024.

    Some members of Congress were also invited to the dinner, including Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Veronica Escobar of Texas, as well as GOP Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

    Rev. Al Sharpton was invited to the dinner and told reporters that “democracy is going to win in 2024” when asked if the president would win reelection.

    CNN’s Bianna Golodryga was invited to Thursday’s dinner, as were NBC News’ Lester Holt and the Associated Press’ Darlene Superville.

    This visit marks the first time an American president has hosted an African leader for a state visit since February 2008, when President George W. Bush hosted the president of Ghana. Thursday’s dinner is the sixth state dinner Biden has hosted since he became president.

    This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

    CNN’s Besty Klein and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.



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