Seen but rarely heard: Melania Trump’s approaches to public role of first lady

|     Krissah Thompson     |

WASHINGTON – In her first months as first lady, Melania Trump was rarely seen in public. Soon after her husband’s inauguration, she returned to their Trump Tower penthouse in New York for nearly six months, tending to her young son, Barron, while slowly hiring a small staff to help her run her White House office.

For a while, it appeared that she would be as publicly disengaged from her husband’s administration as she had been from his campaign, when she gave few speeches and rarely travelled to his events. There was grumbling around Washington: Could the White House function well without the president’s spouse on site? Would she make any use of the platform that comes with her title?

Trump answered those questions after she moved to Washington over the summer. While still largely avoiding public speaking, she has spent her first year communica-ting her support for her husband with her silent presence and a stream of curated images and short statements posted on social media.

In September, she was photographed picking kale with children in the White House garden – but did not use the event to discuss health or nutrition as Michelle Obama often did.

She visited a child-care centre at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, donating crayons and colouring books in a show of support for military families – but made no public statement to go along with the photo op.

Melania Trump at an event in the White House garden in September, 2017. The first lady has spoken relatively little during her first year but instead has presented a series of vivid images for photojournalists and social-media audiences
The first lady, with her husband, President Trump, at the White House in October

She travelled twice to Texas to survey hurricane damage and made brief remarks on the second trip – but communicated more with her much-photographed presence volunteering at relief centres and in a public service announcement seeking donations to underwrite such efforts.

Trump has not yet added a policy director to her relatively small staff of 10, though she plans to do so soon. She has put her initial focus on images, say the academics who have been following her closely.

“She is a ceremonial first lady,” said Myra Gutin, a communication professor at Rider University and author of ‘The President’s Partner’, a study of modern first ladies. “They had the Easter Egg Roll, Christmas parties; she had the congressional spouses over to the White House. That’s all pro forma… The advocacy for a project or policy initiative, I still really don’t see.”

Unlike her recent predecessors, Trump has not yet launched any formal initiatives or programmes to advance her interests. Laura Bush, a former librarian, hosted the first National Book Festival during her first year in the White House – an event she said could highlight the key role of literacy in supporting a democracy. Michelle Obama planted the White House garden in her first year, a precursor to her ‘Let’s Move!’ programme to reduce the childhood obesity rate. Betty Ford helped lobby state legislatures to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Nancy Reagan didn’t fully move into advocacy until her second year as first lady, when she launched her ‘Just Say No’ campaign to complement federal government’s anti-drug policies.

The first lady’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said Trump’s approach suits her. “She is very focussed on her own role and her own time as first lady… Mrs Trump has actually spoken publicly on several occasions both domestically and internationally, and she looks forward to more speaking roles when appropriate.”

Grisham has said that Trump hopes to use her time at the White House to help children, and she is frequently photographed with young people. One of her first solo outings as first lady was a surprise visit to a New York hospital where she read a Dr Seuss book to sick children. There have also been visits to child-care centres, and one to a West Virginia drug recovery centre for infants, intended to bring attention to the opioid epidemic.

Trump’s most extensive public remarks thus far came at a luncheon she hosted for the spouses of world leaders during a United Nations General Assembly in September. In a seven-minute speech, she condemned bullying and roughly outlined an interest in boosting the well-being of children.

But she did not outline any specific policy suggestions at the time.

The relatively quiet first lady is very different from her husband when it comes to their public communication styles, said Jennifer Golbeck, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and an expert in social media. If he is the Twitter president, she is the Instagram first lady.

Trump’s professional background as a model comes through in the photos said Goldbeck, who analysed the first lady’s postings on Twitter and Instagram over the past year.

“She’s very comfortable in front of a camera,” Goldbeck said. Her use of social media is “very formal. She’s trying as much as she’s comfortable to give a personal glimpse of herself, but it is clearly hyper-controlled… There are a lot of (photos of) her impeccably dressed with perfect hair – that’s what I get from the imagery.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post