VERIFY: Donald Trump used the wrong title to address Spain’s head of government

Reporters from the BBC, and other media outlets, falsely accused Donald Trump of using the incorrect title to refer to Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy.

BACKGROUND: During a visit to the White House on September 26, 2017, Mariano Rajoy head of the Spanish government was addressed by President Donald Trump as follows: “Good afternoon. I’m greatly honored to welcome President Mariano Rajoy of Spain, and it’s a great honor to have you at the White House.”

THE CLAIM: Several journalists and media outlets falsely claimed that Donald Trump erred by referring to Mariano Rajoy as “president” and not “prime minister.”

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Paul Danahar of the BBC tweeted the following assertion: “Trump speaks to Spanish President about Barcelona attacks says White House doesn’t have a president. They mean Prime Minister” [sic]. The claim that Trump erred was repeated by at least 13 other journalists and outlets, including the New York Daily News’ Jason Silverstein who devoted an entire column to repeating the false claim, writing that “even after meeting with Rajoy beforehand, Trump couldn’t seem to remember what the leader’s position was.”

INVESTIGATION: Spain is a parliamentary state in which the functions of chief of government and head of state are bifurcated. In the case of Spain, a monarchy, its head of state is King Felipe VI. In parliamentary states, the role of chief of government is generally held by an officer titled “prime minister.”  However, in some cases prime minister may only be the description of an office rather than a formal title; Germany and Austria, for instance, style their chief ministers as “chancellor.” In fact, as the British government explains, the title prime minister in the United Kingdom was “originally a term of abuse rather than a description of an official role.” The first official reference to the title “prime minister” in Britain did not occur until 1917,  hundreds of years after the role of a leading minister, or head of a council of ministers, was generally recognized.

The title “president,” meanwhile, is one generally associated with the office of head of state in a republic.

For reasons both linguistic and historic that are too complex to explore here, these general principals are not ones followed by Spain (among some other nations).

The official English translation of the Spanish constitution, hosted on the website of the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament, refers to a “President of the Government” on 12 occasions, the first of these in Section 62. That these references describe the office commonly known as that of “prime minister” is without doubt since it is simultaneously referred to as such in the  marginal notes. (Marginal notes are interpretative descriptions in legal texts that do not form part of the statute to which they’ve been added.) In the official text of the constitution, the term prime minister is never invoked.

It is, therefore, true that the head of government of Spain is, under Spanish law, styled as President of the Government and, only in common usage, referred to as prime minister. The term prime minister, in other words, is a description of his function as leader of the ministers of the government and is not his official title.

The language of diplomacy is exacting and formal, so we next turn to the question of whether or not it is correct, from the standpoint of diplomatic protocol, to refer to the chief of government of Spain as president and not, in fact, prime minister.

First, we note that it is the longstanding custom of world leaders to address Spain’s head of government as “president” on formal occasions and in official communications. We cite the following three examples among dozens of easily identifiable instances of this occurring.

  • On August 8, 2011, the Obama Administration issued a press release that began: “The President spoke today with Spanish President Jose Luis Zapatero and, separately, with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about the latest developments in the eurozone crisis.”
  • The official transcript of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s March 18, 2011 remarks during his press availability with Jose Zapatero notes that the Secretary-General said: “… my full support and appreciation for President Zapatero´s leadership and his Government´s firm …”
  • November 2, 2016 congratulatory letter from Japan’s Shinzo Abe is logged on the website of the Japanese foreign ministry with the following description: “Following the reappointment of H.E. Mr. Mariano Rajoy Brey, President of the Government of Spain, on October 31 (the same day in the local time), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a congratulatory letter to President Rajoy on November 2.”

Second, to ensure that Barack Obama, Ban Ki-moon, Shinzo Abe, and a dozen other world leaders had all not simply made the same error Donald Trump was alleged to have made by the BBC’s Paul Danahar, we contacted the embassy of Spain in the United States to request a copy of Royal Decree 2099/1983, the Spanish order of precedence. Orders of precedence are advisory documents that list a state’s officials in the order and by the titles with which they should be recognized on ceremonial and state occasions. Royal Decree 2099/1983 establishes that the “President of the Government” is fifth in Spain’s order of precedence. It is counter-signed by Felipe González (Spain’s chief of government in 1983, the year in which the decree was issued) as “President of the Government.” Separately, a protocol representative from the embassy confirmed to us that “president” is the preferred English form of address of Spain’s chief of government on ceremonial and state occasions.

RATING: While Mariano Rajoy’s office as chief of the Spanish government can be descriptively referred to as that of “prime minister” it is correct and appropriate to address him using his official title of “President of the Government” on formal occasions, such as a diplomatic visit. We rate the claim by the BBC, New York Daily News, and others about a purported error made by Donald Trump in addressing Mariano Rajoy as FALSE.

Status: None of the outlets published a correction within 72 hours of making the false claim. 

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