POLITICS
04/27/2017 03:37 pm ET

Melania Trump Has Upended The Role Of First Lady In 100 Days

"The first lady can pick up the phone and change someone’s life. To not take advantage of it, it seems, to me, like a shame.”

WASHINGTON ― Nearly 100 days into President Donald Trump’s administration, first lady Melania Trump has been reluctant to embrace her new role, and it’s unclear how she will define what can be a somewhat nebulous, arcane and sexist position.

Just as she avoided involvement in her husband’s campaign, Melania Trump has chosen to remain out of the spotlight as first lady. She and their son Barron continue living at Trump Tower in New York, and reportedly plan to move into the White House this summer once Barron’s school year ends. Her staff remains unfilled, and she has eschewed many ceremonial duties.

This failure to embrace even basic functions has been particularly unusual, according to Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies. Melania Trump’s decision not to immediately move into the White House, for example, is “unprecedented,” Brower said.

Some of Trump’s slowness to fill her staff can be attributed to her lack of involvement in her husband’s campaign. Many first ladies will bring on advisers and staff members who worked closely with them before they entered the White House.

“Even at the very beginning, they have a dozen staffers working for them,” Brower said of previous first ladies. “Because she was barely on the campaign, she didn’t develop those relationships with staffers, and I think that was detrimental.”

Trump hired a communications director only a month ago. Leaving the key post unfilled for the first two months of her husband’s administration was particularly glaring, Brower said. Without someone to coordinate her message, Trump remains mostly unknown to the public, generating further speculation about her.

“She’s like a cipher,” Brower said. “You have to direct that message.”

A full staff could help Trump avoid kerfuffles at otherwise routine events. For instance, she read a passage from a Dr. Seuss book last month to children at a hospital in New York. The event was described by a White House pool reporter, but the White House later issued a statement that appeared to embellish Trump’s remarks and actions. 

Trump has sporadically joined her husband in Washington and at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for ceremonial events, like dinners with foreign leaders. In his wife’s absence, the president has sometimes dispatched his daughter, White House adviser Ivanka Trump, to handle duties that might normally be performed by the first lady.

In February, Melania Trump broke a longstanding tradition that the first lady accompanies the spouse of a visiting foreign leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was alone during her visit to Washington. The White House claimed Melania Trump’s absence was the result of a scheduling error with Abe.

Brower called the White House’s handling of the visit “embarrassing.”

“You’re being a rude host, really,” Brower said. “Part of the job of the first lady is to escort spouses, men or women, around Washington, and you kind of just suck it up and do it, even if you don’t want to.”

While some first ladies have spent a large portion of their time away from Washington, “you at least make the effort to say that you live in the White House and that you understand of the responsibility of the position,” Brower said.

Modern first ladies have pressed policy issues that interest them. Laura Bush focused on literacy. Michelle Obama pursued initiatives on wellness, girls’ education and military families.

Brower said it’s not unusual for first ladies to take a while to find their footing and “figure out how they can help.” But for Melania Trump, choosing a policy area could be challenging.

The first lady can pick up the phone and change someone’s life. To not take advantage of it, it seems, to me, like a shame.” Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies"

If she were to advocate health and physical fitness, for example, she could expose the administration to controversy, given the president’s long history of denigrating women by talking about their physical appearance.

“These are such innocuous things, but because of her husband, everything is so politically charged,” Brower said. “It’s very hard to find something that doesn’t offend people.”

During her husband’s campaign, Melania Trump pledged that as first lady, she would combat cyberbullying — a promise that immediately drew mockery because of her husband’s frequent Twitter rants. She has yet to follow through.

Last month, military veterans criticized the first lady for not commenting on a scandal involving Marine Corps personnel sharing explicit photos of female service members on social media.

“We are waiting for our first lady to support our women in uniform against continued harassment,” Navy veteran Trina McDonald, a member of the group Common Defense, said in a press release. The group urged Trump to “break her silence and speak up,” according to the Military Times.

But in recent weeks, the first lady appears to have been tiptoeing into her new reality. She has hosted events that have included a women’s empowerment panel and the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, a tradition that some people worried would end under Trump.

On Wednesday, the first lady appeared with the president at a White House event honoring the National Teacher of the Year. On Thursday, she joined him during a visit from Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri and first lady Juliana Awada.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“Maybe she’ll figure it out,” Brower said. “I think she’s caving to the pressure. I think it takes time to realize that you have to live in the White House and make some sacrifices.”

First ladies come under intense scrutiny, often in gendered terms, especially when they become involved in crafting policy.

Hillary Clinton, in particular, faced sharp criticisms throughout her husband’s presidency for having an office in the West Wing and for spearheading the Clinton administration’s failed attempt at health care reform.

Former first lady Michelle Obama helping kids in the White House Kitchen Garden.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images
Former first lady Michelle Obama helping kids in the White House Kitchen Garden.

Trump’s approach is not without historical analogues. Brower compared her with Bess Truman, who also was reluctant to become first lady and did not like the spotlight.

“I think Melania is bringing us back to the 1950s approach to first lady,” Brower said. “In her actions, she has been traditional.”

Still, her decision to eschew tradition and continue living in New York could be perceived as “strangely feminist,” and a sign of independence, Brower said. 

As she settles into the role, Trump will face unique challenges, Brower said.

“She’s not from the U.S., and I do think that’s part of it,” Brower said. “Growing up in this country, the first lady symbolically is a part of your life, and a part of American culture, and so I think people should give her some slack for that. She didn’t grow up with that, and so in a way, it is a very foreign concept.” 

Further, Michelle Obama was a popular first lady who left “big shoes to fill” in finding creative ways to reach the public, from late-night TV appearances to making viral videos, Brower said.

Michelle Obama with Stephen Colbert in September.
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images
Michelle Obama with Stephen Colbert in September.

“You can’t picture yourself having coffee, or in a carpool with Melania Trump,” Brower said. “She’s not relatable in the same way. But clearly, she does not plan to do as much as Michelle Obama or Laura Bush.”

Trump’s distant approach could indicate that the role of the presidential spouse is no longer necessary, Brower suggested.

“I still think it’s important,” Brower added. “You can do a lot of good. The first lady can pick up the phone and change someone’s life. To not take advantage of it, it seems, to me, like a shame.”

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