On the eve of her big speech headlining the second night of the Republican National Convention, first lady Melania Trump appeared in front of the White House to talk up her husband’s record on women.
“Since taking office,” she said Monday at an event celebrating women’s suffrage, “my husband and this administration have taken historic measures to empower and support women in the United States – and around the world.”
It was a prelude to Tuesday’s prime-time speech, her biggest since the 2016 Republican convention and a far more public and political spotlight than she normally seeks. With President Donald Trump’s campaign strategists privately saying that suburban women are a weak spot for him, they hope she will help attract voters from that crucial bloc.
For the first lady, it also will be a chance for redemption. The last time she spoke at the Republican National Convention, she was accused of plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. (A Trump Organization employee took the fall, though others have pointed fingers at poor staffing that meant no one had vetted Melania Trump’s remarks.)
This time around, Trump – the only first lady who did not grow up speaking English – has spent days crafting the speech, according to a White House aide. She’s leaning heavily on departing presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, one of her top allies in the West Wing, and Stephanie Grisham, the former press secretary and her current chief of staff, as well as her top aide, Marcia Lee Kelly. Kelly, who is also CEO of this year’s convention, has been closely working with Trump in Washington to prepare her speech in recent days, a person familiar with the matter said.
White House officials and members of the first lady’s staff would not answer basic questions on the record, if at all, fully aware that she prefers to be tight-lipped.
“It’s a chance to rebrand herself – at least a bit,” said Lori Cox Han, a political science professor at Chapman University who has written about first ladies. “It’s almost as if it’s a do-over from 2016, an opportunity to leave a better impression.”
The first lady’s speech will not delve deeply into policy details. The Slovenian native is planning to praise her husband’s agenda and mention her own story of coming to America, emphasizing that she came to the country legally, according to someone close to her. It’s a tricky subject matter. The Trump administration has sought to curb both legal and illegal immigration, while she has helped her family members get legal status in America using the visa system President Trump disparages as “chain migration.” Since his election, her parents have become naturalized U.S. citizens. Her sister, Ines, also quietly became a legal permanent resident.
“I do think the speech is consequential,” said Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University. “She doesn’t make very many public appearances, especially ones where she gives extended remarks, and so the instances in which she does do that are disproportionately important.”
Melania Trump’s term as first lady has been a relatively quiet one. A former model, she has often seemed more comfortable being photographed than speaking to large audiences. In her pre-pandemic days of promoting Be Best, her initiative aimed at raising awareness about the opioid crisis, promoting child welfare and discouraging online bullying, she would keep her remarks brief and seemed most comfortable chatting with children, out of the earshot of the press.
Perhaps her most provocative statement was not spoken but written on the back of a jacket she wore in 2018 while visiting migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border at the height of the outcry over the Trump administration’s child-separation enforcement: “I really don’t care, do u?” The first lady later said that it was a swipe at her negative press coverage. “I wore it for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me,” she said in a TV interview. “And I want to show them that I don’t care.” In fact, she was fed up with all the criticism of her, including some from her stepdaughter Ivanka, and did not understand the optics of wearing that message while visiting children, according to one person close to the family.
The blowback from her 2016 speech stung. Before she announced the name of her signature Be Best program, she had been warned it sounded grammatically awkward. But she stuck with the name and retorted: “At least they won’t say I plagiarized it!”
It remains to be seen what kind of role the first lady might play in helping her husband lift his poll numbers and win a second term. In a January Fox News poll, she had net positive favorability while the president did not. Surveys that Wright conducted in 2016 and 2017 show that she is the most effective Trump surrogate at shaping opinions of her husband, particularly among independent voters, and especially among independent women.
“I think Melania Trump, if she wanted to do those things, would be a tremendous draw and a tremendous fundraiser,” Wright said. She grew up working-class, has a more bootstrapping American story than her husband or his adult children, and is seen as less partisan. “I think there’s intense interest in her,” Wright said. “It’s just that she does not tend to do those types of campaign events.”
In the final few months before the election, campaign officials have been urging the first lady to be more active, and some are frustrated that she has not been more involved in the reelection effort. One White House official said Trump is likely to campaign occasionally this fall but said a schedule had not been set. In 2016, the official said, she agreed to campaign for her husband on a few occasions. The official said that she was also helping care for parents and a teenage son.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the East Wing has been largely dormant, with many aides working from home – a difference from the busier West Wing. Four administration officials say they have seen Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff, infrequently since March. (Grisham and other staffers have been working mainly from home and coming in for some meetings, a senior administration official said, at Melania Trump’s direction.) The first lady has not been a player in most critical political meetings in recent months, officials say.
Earlier in the year, Trump agreed to be the draw at her first two solo fundraisers, including one in California, but then the coronavirus hit and criticism of how her husband has handled the public health crisis soared. Those fundraisers, scheduled for March, were canceled and never rescheduled, even though other members of the Trump family have switched to raising money via Zoom – including Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter, who raked in $4 million earlier this month. Asked whether Melania Trump would appear for virtual campaign fundraisers, a White House official said, “Not sure yet, details still being worked out.” She has been more careful about the coronavirus than her husband and has largely eschewed campaign travel with him in recent months.
This convention speech, then, may be her biggest contribution to the reelection campaign. And while the president plans to speak every day of the convention, and his adult children will also have turns at the microphone, Conway said the first lady’s speech might be “the highlight of the week.”
It is sometimes hard to discern how much the first lady is really invested in her husband’s political career. On one hand, in a 2011 interview, she echoed his false claims questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. On the other, she’s been both a reluctant campaigner and public speaker.
After her 2016 convention speech, she mostly disappeared from the campaign trail, saying that she had chosen instead to focus on raising Barron, the first couple’s son. “They would have me on the trail all the time,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper then, referring to her husband and his campaign. “They wish to have me there. But I made the decision. I will be a parent to our boy.” She didn’t move to the White House for six months after the election, instead choosing to stay at Trump Tower in New York City, at a cost of millions of dollars a month for Secret Service and New York City Police Department protection. She said it was so that Barron could finish his school year, but several people close to the Trumps said she was also using her absence as leverage to renegotiate her prenuptial agreement with the president.
Once she arrived in Washington and started taking on official duties, reviews were mixed. First-lady historians point to her first state dinner, welcoming French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, as a highlight. “I think she’s a graceful and gracious first lady whose background of being foreign-born makes her very comfortable on the world’s stage,” said Anita B. McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush and runs the First Ladies Initiative at American University. (Trump has hosted only two state dinners, not counting one that was canceled because of the pandemic; Michelle Obama hosted six in her first term, and Hillary Clinton hosted 12.)
The lowlights almost all seem to be clothing-related: The “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket. The stiletto heels she wore while planting a tree and visiting hurricane victims in Texas in 2017. The white pith helmet that unintentionally evoked colonialism that she wore on an otherwise successful tour of Africa. She has few close friends but one who used to be close to her, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, is expected to be critical of the private first lady in a book coming out next week.
Trump’s public activities, first-lady experts agree, have been less numerous than those of her predecessors. “Her volume of speaking is certainly nothing compared to Michelle Obama’s,” said Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
The Be Best campaign represents the most visible example of her venturing out into America to address the nation’s social ills – opioid addiction, child welfare and cyberbullying. It’s difficult to measure the impact of any first lady’s initiative, said McBride, particularly one like Be Best. It’s not as concrete as Laura Bush starting the National Book Festival, which is still going, for instance. Trump’s initiative remains ill-defined and little understood. On its second anniversary this year, CNN found that, of the goals announced at the program’s first anniversary – such as expansion of the part of the campaign focused on opioids or the appointment of Be Best “ambassadors” (representatives from various government agencies who would be responsible for finding ways to “make a difference in the lives of children,” a White House official told CNN) – none seemed to have been fulfilled.
Her work has also been undermined indirectly by the president’s public fits of pique. The irony of a first lady touting the importance of online civility while the president rages against his political opponents on Twitter did not go unnoticed. Last year she was booed, amid some cheers, when she spoke at a youth opioid summit in Baltimore, a city her husband had called “a rodent and rat-infested mess.”A person close to the first lady said she knew she would get attacked for an online bullying campaign but decided to do it anyway. The women who say they had sexual relations with her husband during their marriage continue to be an uncomfortable issue for the first lady. Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer who has said he paid hush money to two women, is expected to go into new detail about the affairs in his book due out soon.
The president, for his part, has told others that the first lady is popular and that he knows she is an asset to him politically.
“How popular can you be when your last name is Trump?” said Cox Han, the Chapman professor. “It’s challenging because of how divisive her husband is. We’ve never had a president like Trump before, and that reflects on how the public views his spouse, as well.”
The first lady’s legacy may end up being what she did inside the White House grounds, rather than any interaction with the public.
Trump, who studied architecture and loves design, just finished managing a project to restore the Rose Garden to the original design overseen by Jackie Kennedy. The project seems to have personal meaning, as her affection for Jackie Kennedy runs deep. Amalija Knavs, Melania’s mother – a dark-haired, elegant woman who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and wore heels to work every day to her factory job as a seamstress – was called “Jackie” by those in her small town. Amalija has often stayed in the White House, as Michelle Obama’s mother did, and helped her daughter raise Barron.
The Rose Garden “renewal” is “really long, long, long, long, long, long, long overdue,” said McBride, who remembers dealing with maintenance issues back when she worked for Laura Bush.
The fixes involve irrigation and wear and tear from the garden being used for many of President Trump’s news conferences. There is new lighting and electrical wiring for broadcast television crews, and new limestone walkways that make the garden accessible for those with disabilities. While the new garden has many more roses, and the distinctive crabapple trees are gone (the White House said they were casting too much shadow on other plantings), Melania Trump made sure that a rose named after Pope John Paul II remained in the garden. The first lady, who was baptized Catholic, has said her meeting with Pope Francis in Rome in 2017 was particularly meaningful.
She has taken a keen interest in the rest of the White House grounds, too. “Before the inauguration, she requested copies of all of our books and publications and wanted to know about our history and our work,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, the private nonprofit that funds renovations.
While her seasonal decorations have made the most headlines (remember those “creepy” blood-red Christmas trees she had lining the colonnade in 2018?), much of what she’s done is unglamorous restoration work: organizing a massive storage room of relics in the basement; redoing the Nixon bowling alley; refinishing worn historic wooden doors; replacing the parquet floor of the East Room, which had loose tiles; and refreshing the worn fabric in the Red, Blue and Green rooms. A rug in the diplomatic reception room had gone threadbare because it’s what the president crosses every time he walks outside to catch a helicopter; she had it remade in the style of the old one, replacing the original border of all 50 state seals with a border of all the state’s flowers.
The time she got dinged for wearing stilettos to a tree-planting? She had invited the largest gathering of presidential descendants in history to plant the tree with her on the South Lawn.
“These aren’t the flashy, showy things, but are necessary to keep the house going,” McLaurin said. “I think she understands that families who live in the house, it’s like a relay race. You receive the baton and you carry the baton for your four or eight years, and then you hand the baton to another family.”
Michelle Obama, for instance, chose new wooden chairs with brown upholstery for the State Dining Room. McLaurin said that every time he has seen President Trump give an interview, he has been sitting in one.
Just as the president seems obsessed with criticizing his predecessor, the White House seems determined to measure the first lady’s performance in Tuesday’s prime-time speech against Michelle Obama’s remarks at last week’s Democratic convention, where she received widespread praise and news coverage for delivering a stinging rebuke of the Trump presidency.
The president responded by criticizing Obama for pre-taping her speech, saying he could tell because she cited a coronavirus death toll that is at least 17,000 deaths lower than the total count when Obama’s speech aired. “Frankly, she should have made the speech live, which she didn’t do – she taped it,” he said. Grisham has said publicly that the Tuesday speech will be given live, not taped.
At crucial times Melania Trump has backed up her husband. After the 2016 “Access Hollywood” tape came out and voters heard him boast about grabbing women, she made a rare solo campaign appearance in Pennsylvania (which he narrowly won) five days before the election.
But she has made it plain she does not agree with everything her husband says. Early in the pandemic, she was the first Trump administration figure and first Trump family member to post a picture of herself wearing a mask, at a time when her husband said he refused to wear one, in defiance of a national recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the president had his infamous photo op outside St. John’s Church in Washington, after law enforcement had cleared his path by violently dispersing protesters, the first lady was nowhere to be seen.
She reads all the polls, said someone close to the campaign. She knows her husband is down. His campaign is already using her convention speech to raise money: An email to Trump supporters promised those who contribute “ANY AMOUNT IMMEDIATELY” will get their name “broadcast live during her address.” She knows that for this president, at this moment, she has unique value.
At the women’s suffrage event on Monday, the mother of one of the children chosen to attend praised the first lady. Lisl Lange, one of the few people wearing a mask, had traveled from Missouri with her 12-year-old daughter Abigail.
She called the first lady “exquisite” and said, “The president wouldn’t be where he is without her.”
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