Where's Melania Trump? First Lady raises questions after making no appearances since inauguration

She’s made no appearances since January 21 and is in no rush to build her White House staff

Krissah Thompson
Tuesday 31 January 2017 14:36 GMT
Melania Trump
Melania Trump

Melania Trump has finished her first week as first lady — a title that automatically makes her one of the most prominent women in the country. And yet she was barely visible.

She cut an elegant figure at her husband’s swearing-in and at the inaugural balls. But two days later, she returned to New York, as she had said she would, to tend to her 10-year-old son, Barron, who remains in school there.

Meanwhile, she has given little indication of how much she intends to embrace the life of a public figure. She is said to be building her staff. But she has made no public appearances since a prayer service the morning after the inauguration, given no media interviews as first lady and has not indicated with any specificity what she has planned for her new role.

“There’s a public expectation for communication, and she’s not providing it,” said Lauren Wright, a political scientist and author of “On Behalf of the President.” “It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to shape her public image, despite the public interest.”

By any measure, Melania Trump’s East Wing has gotten off to an unusually slow start. Last week came word that the first lady had made her first hire: Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a New York party planner, who will serve as a senior adviser, according to a person with knowledge of the appointment.

Still, several key positions on her staff have not yet been filled, including chief of staff, communications director and press secretary. That last job is so essential that a volunteer has stepped in to field calls. The volunteer, Jessica Boulanger, is a former Capitol Hill staffer who is now the senior vice president for communications at the Business Roundtable.

Most striking, the Trump team has not yet named a social secretary, a position responsible for planning all White House events. Most previous administrations filled the job before Inauguration Day.

Amid the silence, some members of the public are rushing to assumptions.

Internet wits spent days dissecting the first lady’s facial expressions and body language during the inauguration, painting several interactions with her husband as fraught — a moment when he left Melania several paces behind him as he met the Obamas on the White House steps, and another when she appeared to frown behind his back. The Twitter hashtag #FreeMelania caught fire.

But all seemed well on the couple’s official social-media accounts. Although occasionally reactive to jibes, neither responded to the Twitter conjecture, which came amid a fire hose of larger administration controversies. President Trump’s @POTUS account tweeted a thank you to his family, with photo of his wife smiling. Melania, who has not tweeted from her personal account since Election Day, has sent only one message from her new @FLOTUS account, saying that she is “deeply honoured” to serve as first lady.

She entered the White House with the lowest favorability ratings of any modern first lady. Only 37 percent of the public had a favourable view of her in a Gallup poll released Jan. 16, while the same percentage gave her an unfavourable rating. Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton each had a favourability rating above 55 percent when she became first lady.

Americans are accustomed to seeing the first family together, said Myra Gutin, a communication professor at Rider University and author of “The President’s Partner.” And the Slovenia-born former model’s decision to live in New York for now may be compounding any negative perceptions of her. (She has said she intends to return to Washington on weekends to see President Trump.)

“She could be giving the administration a little bit of a softer touch, because we do make certain decisions about a president based on his family,” Gutin said. “Ivanka and her family are there, but with Mrs. Trump and Mr. Trump’s younger son, it would be a different kind of feeling.”

Melania Trump’s quiet first week may signal that she is reluctantly grappling with how to embrace the increased scrutiny. Or she could simply be taking her time to determine how she will make an impact.

“Each first lady takes on the role and makes it their own. That evolves over time,” said former White House social secretary Ann Stock. “First [priority] for every president and first lady is settling in their family.”

Michael D’Antonio, a Donald Trump biographer, said Melania “seemed eager to preserve her privacy” when he met her.

“Her husband playfully begged her to tell me he was a great husband and she complied. However, she fled the room as soon as possible,” D’Antonio recalled. “I expect her to be gracious when acting as first lady, but I would not be surprised if she limits herself to a minimal engagement with the role.”

Does it matter that she’s taking her time with the job? One former White House official noted that staffers who arrive after an administration’s early days can have a hard time finding traction within the larger organisation — assuming, of course, that Melania Trump cares about wielding influence in that space.

The job is more than ceremonial: Federal courts have ruled that the first lady is a de facto public official, and Congress has authorised staffing to support her assistance to the president, said MaryAnne Borrelli, a professor of government at Connecticut College and author of “The Politics of the President’s Wife.”

Meanwhile, there are 228 years of tradition surrounding the role, and Melania Trump will be measured against the women who came before her — whether or not she chooses to play along.

Michelle Obama, whom Melania Trump has said she admires, was also a reluctant first lady. She, too, worried about raising her children in the spotlight. But from the beginning, she positioned herself as a vital part of her husband’s administration. While billing herself as “mom-in-chief,” Michelle Obama nonetheless had a team building her agenda when she entered the White House; in her second week, she began a tour of federal agencies, thanking the employees for their work.

Other first ladies, though, have waited months before rolling out their agendas. Melania Trump has so far cited one issue she hopes to champion — cyberbullying, which is said to affect about a quarter of adolescents. Experts in the field say they have not yet heard from the first lady but are eager to collaborate.

“Everyone is kind of looking around, saying, ‘Who is she going to turn to?’ ” said Justin W. Patchin, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre. “She is a very public figure. At the very least, she can bring this issue to further light.”

Jane Hampton Cook, a novelist and author of popular histories about the White House, said Melania Trump’s reserve could heighten interest in her when she does surface. She recalled a short speech the future first lady gave in Pennsylvania near the end of the campaign, in which she vowed to “be an advocate for women and for children.”

“I found myself listening to her more because I hadn’t heard from her for a while,” Cook said. “Sometimes less is more, and she represents that side of the equation. Her husband is more, more, more.”

Copyright: The Washington Post

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