Melania Trump is perhaps a unique first lady in modern history, an immigrant, a fashion model, a third wife and, by her own account, a notoriously private woman.
After delaying her official move into America’s most famous residence until June, the first lady has worked the past several months to make the unfamiliar place a comfortable home.
“She is clearly not comfortable revealing too much of herself,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” and a CNN contributor.
“And while we should respect her privacy, it makes it difficult to relate to her, or to feel like we know her at all,” she added.
One year in
Trump has settled into the role to a degree that appears to please her supporters but still not quite satisfy her critics. Though she outlined a nascent platform in September — helping children — she has yet to deliver a refined agenda for just how she will accomplish this, or which specific areas of “help” require her full attention. Her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN to expect a “formal” unveiling of the first lady’s agenda “in coming months.”
“I think she will continue to focus on the apolitical issue of helping children,” Brower said. “But because her husband is so divisive, almost anything she touches, including cyberbullying, is radioactive.”
Trump appears to be forging ahead, however, starting 2018 with a staff expansion, adding a communications aide, a new director of advance and operations and, most telling, a director of policy, signaling there is in fact policy to be had.
“She’s likely to roll out an initiative, or set of initiatives,” said Anita McBride, who served as first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff. “At least now there’s a structure around her staff. You also have to remember in this role, it’s important to be prepared for the things you can’t plan for.”
McBride recalled how quickly Bush’s team had to pivot in the wake of 9/11, and she is hopeful that Trump’s staff of now 12 full-time employees is cognizant of the first lady’s needs, no matter how new to the role she is.
To an extent, it should be expected that a former model with zero experience in politics, social work and public speaking would take more time than most to find her voice, not to mention her footing.
“Any person thrown into the role of first lady that doesn’t have public ambitions is in a tough spot,” said Barbara Perry, a professor and director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “To be honest, they’re all thrown in, especially in the modern media age — it’s a very difficult position. Then layer upon that not being a native English speaker and being more introverted as a person.”
The world was introduced to Trump’s penchant for privacy when she kicked off her tenure as America’s most-recognized woman by virtually disappearing to New York, opting to finish out her son’s school year from the family’s gilded Manhattan penthouse rather than immediately move in to the White House.
Brower believes that decision might have made Trump’s first year a more difficult road to acceptance.
“I think Melania set the tone when she refused to follow protocol and immediately move into the White House, as every other first lady has done — with the exception of Anna Harrison, who didn’t move in because her husband, William Henry Harrison, died after one month in office,” Brower said.
Since June, when she and Barron moved to Washington, Trump has expanded her presence, both at events and through travel.
In September, she ventured solo to Canada to represent the United States at the Invictus Games opening ceremonies; she also made trips by herself to West Virginia, Michigan and Texas, spreading messages of helping children and families with everything from the opioid crisis to middle school bullying and hurricane recovery.
In November, she accompanied the President on his lengthy visit to Asia, setting aside time for her own outings, chatting with schoolchildren in Japan, even taking a quiet tour of the Great Wall of China by herself.
Highs and lows
“She was a rock star on the foreign stage in the Middle East and Europe on that first trip in May,” said McBride. “She immediately showed our country and the world that she was comfortable traveling abroad.”
Foreign press dubbed Trump the best-dressed first lady in decades, showering her with sartorial praise. Trump’s savvy overseas wardrobe reminds Perry of another first lady with good taste, Jackie Kennedy.
“They are these young, very attractive, fashion plate kind of women, so they draw attention to themselves with good looks and style,” Perry said of the similarities between Trump’s bright moments and Kennedy’s. “Both are also not completely comfortable with being in the public eye. If it were up to them, Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Trump would probably live out of the spotlight and protect their children.”
McBride also gives Trump high points for the events she has hosted at the White House, even pre-June, when she wasn’t living there full time.
“They’ve all gone off without a hitch — the Easter Egg Roll, Mother’s Day, the Governors Ball, the White House Historical Association dinner, the holiday parties — every one was an A+ event and she presided over them,” said McBride.
Brower said she would give a “B-” to Trump for her first year in office, citing a lack of a public persona as the first lady’s main challenge. Being slow to completely roll out her agenda is also a concern for Brower.
“People are going to expect her to come up with an issue, like Michelle Obama did with ‘Let’s Move’ in the second year, but again, I don’t think it’s an easy road for her,” she said.
McBride said her least favorite “Melania moment” of 2017 happened in October, when Trump opted to respond to some comments from Ivana Trump. The President’s first wife suggested that Melania Trump might be “jealous” of her own relationship with the President, while jokingly referring to herself as the first lady.
Trump released a biting statement in response.
“Mrs. Trump has made the White House a home for Barron and the President. She loves living in Washington and is honored by her role as first lady of the United States. She plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books. There is clearly no substance to this statement from an ex, this is unfortunately only attention-seeking and self-serving noise,” Grisham told CNN at the time.
What to expect
Brower said first ladies are at their best when they reveal their “humanity” — a skill that would indeed help warm Trump to her critics, or those who aren’t sure about her just yet. But the complex divisiveness that her husband’s presidency has churned up could make this tactic a tricky one.
Revealing moments — when Trump reminded with a gentle nudge that the President should put his hand over his heart during the National Anthem at the Easter Egg Roll, or even when she swatted his hand away on that infamous tarmac walk in Israel last spring — certainly cultivate a more realistic persona for a first lady who for many conjures an image of an unsmiling face behind big, dark sunglasses.
Ironically, in Trump’s case, channeling her charisma has been most successful when she isn’t near the President. Her visits with children, in the United States and overseas, are clearly the best chances to see Trump’s smile, or witness her dropping to her knees to look a child in the eyes and have a hug, or hear her laugh at a joke or snap a selfie.