Why Melania Trump is the reluctant First Lady

by Joanne Black / 18 June, 2018

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Melania Trump: subject of a media frenzy. Photo / Getty Images

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Even before her recent “disappearance”, US First Lady Melania Trump’s commitment to the role was publicly doubted.

In a room that looks remarkably like the Oval Office, US First Lady Melania Trump is standing next to, but not touching, her husband, US President Donald Trump. She is wearing that now-familiar expression that seems to say she would rather be somewhere else.

In this case her wish is granted, because the Melania in the room is merely a waxwork version, and it is not the real Oval Office but Madame Tussauds New York.

In real life, Trump has been the subject of a media frenzy during a 25-day absence from the public spotlight as she underwent kidney surgery. Her “disappearance”, which ended last week, fuelled speculation about the state of her marriage and willingness to embrace the role of US First Lady.

In April, when President Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer was invited to Madame Tussauds to unveil the attraction’s latest celebrity lookalike, he was asked about the real First Lady.

 Spicer told the gathering that she was kind and intelligent. “[She is] very interested in who you are and the issues you have in your life,” the New York Times reported him saying. “And I think, you know, that’s kind of who she is. She’s a very supportive – she’s very well read and always interested in what’s happening and, to the extent possible, willing to share her thoughts and ideas about what’s going on.”

With Brigitte Macron.

The praise is similar to that from Brigitte Macron, the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French “first couple” made a state visit to Washington DC in April. Afterwards, Brigitte Macron praised her American counterpart, telling Le Monde that Trump was, “kind, charming, intelligent and very open”. Macron also revealed aspects of Trump’s restricted lifestyle at the White House.

She “cannot do anything”, Macron said. “She can’t even open a window at the White House. She can’t go outside. She’s much more constrained than I am.”

Despite those constraints, Macron said, the US First Lady was “actually really fun. We have the same sense of humour. We laugh a lot together.”

Public humiliations

Such glimpses into the life of the First Lady, are meagre. Early extracts from a soon-to-be-published book about America’s First Family, Born Trump, leave it unclear who has more influence with the President, Melania or Trump’s favoured daughter Ivanka. Melania Trump, according to the published extracts, did not want the family to parade down Pennsylvania Ave after the inauguration because she was worried about security. Ivanka prevailed.

Trump’s public utterances have been few since, against most predictions, her husband won the 2016 presidential election, upending the New York lifestyle of his family, including his third wife, now 48, and their only child together, Barron, now 12. On Inauguration Day, Melania Trump became the first US First Lady to be a naturalised citizen and only the second born outside the US. It was reported that she did not want to move to the White House, though this was explained as her staying in the family’s Fifth Ave, New York, apartment until Barron finished the school semester.

Although she moved to the White House a year ago, her demeanour has been that of a person doing her duty rather than embracing a unique opportunity.

She was born Melanija Knavs in 1970 in Slovenia. Her mother was a pattern-maker for a children’s clothing manufacturer for which Trump sometimes modelled. She was signed as a professional model as a teenager and modelled in Europe before moving to New York. Her agent was a friend of her future husband, whom she met at a Manhattan party. She reportedly took down Donald Trump’s phone number when his date was in the bathroom. The Trumps married in 2005 and Barron was born the following year. It was at this time that former Playboy model Karen McDougal and former porn star Stormy Daniels would later publicly claim they both had a sexual relationship with Donald Trump. Melania Trump has made no public comment on the devastating allegations, although she has been seen swatting away her husband’s hand when he tried to grasp hers. They are rarely seen together outside formal occasions.

“A hallmark of her experience as a candidate’s wife and First Lady so far has been one public humiliation after another,” Ohio University history professor Katherine Jellison told the Listener.

Because of those humiliations, Jellison thinks the public mood towards Trump is generally sympathetic.

“She gets big points from the press and public every time she shows up and things go right. People like the way she’s dressed, or when she shows up with a sense of decorum as she did at Barbara Bush’s funeral.”

Trump suffered an earlier humiliation when parts of a speech she gave to the Republican National Convention in 2016 were found to have been plagiarised from a speech by her predecessor, Michelle Obama. A speech-writer took the blame for the fiasco, but it seemed to suggest that Trump had not been particularly interested in preparing – and possibly delivering – the speech. Perhaps the fact that English is not her first language was a factor.

Jellison says the public’s expectations of First Ladies is that they will primarily be a White House hostess and appear with their husband at the major events of his presidency. Stylish, statuesque and expensively dressed, Trump has fulfilled those expectations.

“A hallmark of her experience as a candidate’s wife and First Lady so far has been one public humiliation after another.” Photo / Getty Images

Public expectations

But ever since First Lady Jackie Kennedy took on the project of overseeing the renovation of the White House, Presidents’ wives have also been expected to use their platform to advance a public cause.

Arguably, the most ambitious was Hillary Clinton chairing a taskforce on healthcare reform during her husband’s presidency. More recently, Michelle Obama championed children’s exercise and nutrition.

“So that has been the public expectation continuously since Jackie Kennedy,” Jellison says. “Now, approximately a year and a half into the presidency of Donald Trump, Melania Trump finally, in a big public way, announced her Be Best campaign.

“That was going to be her major project, but it was so long into her husband’s presidency before she made this official launch, and right after she launched it, she disappeared from view for nearly a month, which doesn’t seem like it was probably the original game plan, but that’s what happened.”

Be Best – a somewhat amorphous programme designed to enhance the social and emotional welfare of children – was launched on May 7. Quickly, striking similarities were noted to the “Be Better” programme launched during the Obama administration. A claim that the Be Best booklet was “by” Melania Trump was changed to say that it was a Federal Trade Commission publication “promoted by First Lady Melania Trump”. Again, the debacle suggested her heart may never have been in the project.

“It seems she’s been handed these things by advisers who themselves haven’t done due diligence,” Jellison says.

“It does seem that the Be Best project’s rolling out was not very successful, because immediately it was ‘there she goes again using Michelle Obama’s words’, and then Melania disappears.”

Conspiracy theories

None of this should be a great surprise. The most exhaustive biography of Trump yet published, Melania Trump: The Inside Story, by Bojan Požar and Igor Omerza, finds that there is not that much to say. Her interests were always modelling and fashion, for which she had a talent. She appears to have had no interest in public life. That did not matter until her husband became the 45th President of the United States.

“She had no previous experience in this kind of role, unlike her immediate predecessors, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, who had been married for several years to elected officials,” Jellison says. “They knew how to be a senator’s spouse or a governor’s spouse and be a public figure by virtue of who they were married to.

“But being a real estate entrepreneur’s wife doesn’t come with that same set of expectations, so Melania didn’t have any practice in dealing with that kind of role, and then it was unexpectedly dumped in her lap. That’s a lot to take in all at once.”

Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History, was more blunt in comments she made to the New Yorker. Melania is “the least-experienced and least-prepared First Lady in history”, Marton said.

Just four days after Be Best was launched, it was revealed that Trump was in hospital being treated for a benign kidney condition. It was announced that she would not attend a number of major summits with her husband. Meanwhile, stories about his infidelity continued to be followed by the media. Her absence provided opportunities for conspiracy theorists, satirists and the merely curious. “Missing” posters even appeared in New York, featuring the First Lady’s face and asking, “Has anyone seen this woman?”

Suggestions that the reluctant First Lady is trapped in a gilded cage are never far from the headlines.

In May, Late Show host Stephen Colbert congratulated President Trump on the return of three hostages from North Korea. “The President was there to meet the freed men – along with Melania, who is hoping to be freed next.”

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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