On a day President Trump was accused of a new low in his brand of bullying, using Twitter to accuse a dead soldier's pregnant widow of lying, Melania Trump urged Americans to treat each other with “kindness and compassion.”
The comparison between her husband’s behavior and the anti-bullying initiative Melania Trump was advocating could not have been starker.
Back in September, Mrs. Trump spoke about children’s issues and cyberbullying during a private luncheon at the United Nations, making good on her pre-election promise that raising awareness around bullying would be her signature issue in the White House. But Monday marked the first lady’s first public outing dedicated to anti-bullying education, and what the White House called the beginning of “a week of inclusion.”
Ten months into a role she’s often seemed uncomfortable and unengaged in, Melania seems finally to be embracing her first lady position with what looks vaguely like enthusiasm.
Mrs. Trump encouraged 7th and 8th graders at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Broomfield, Michigan, to “find a new friend and eat lunch with a new friend” for an anti-bullying, “No One Eats Alone Day” event.
“As part of my ongoing commitment to the overall well-being of children, I am looking forward to today’s visit,” Mrs. Trump stated before the visit. “By our own example, we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit. We need to remember that they are always watching and listening. It is our responsibility to take the lead in teaching children the values of empathy and communication that are at the core of kindness, mindfulness, integrity, and leadership.”
At the school she seemed relaxed, even playful, in the middle of the lunch room while urging students to ask each other about their hobbies and interests so “nobody becomes sad, stressed” and “everybody feels included.” She also stressed the importance of “choos[ing] kindness and compassion,” then engaged them as a teacher would do.
“When I walked in I saw tables of only girls, tables of only boys. So maybe you can get together and just become friends. Do you agree?” Students responded with a hearty “Yeah!” followed by more cheers when the first lady explained she would “go table to table and get to know some of you.”
The first lady’s anti-bullying trip came hours after Sgt. La David Johnson's widow Myeshia told Good Morning America that in a telephone call President Trump had not remembered her husband’s name, and that the tone of his voice had upset her.
Trump protested via Twitter that he had had a “very respectful” conversation with Mrs. Johnson, and that he had used her husband’s name “without hesitation.”
As President Trump was roundly criticized for his tweet, Melania sat in on a 6th grade class at Orchard Lake Middle School that emphasizes “social emotional learning,” according to a White House statement Monday morning that announced Mrs. Trump’s surprise visit to the school with controvesial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The first lady recently emerged as the most popular Trump in the White House, according to a CNN poll from late September which measured favorability ratings for the president, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Melania Trump was the only Trump family member with a net positive score.
It’s a low bar, but Melania, in my estimation, is far and away the least offensive Trump. She seems an outsider in the family and in the White House, where she’s kept a low profile until recently, and is often silent and unsmiling around her husband, if not swatting away his attempts to put on a united front.
The first lady is such an enigma that a photo of her with the president last week spawned viral conspiracy theories that a body double was standing in for the real FLOTUS.
The “Melania Impersonator” rumors spread quickly after Twitter users noted that her height, nose, and hair all looked different than usual. The conspiracy theorists’ narrative was fitting with the public perception of Melania–particularly during the first seven months of Trump’s presidency.
Where Ivanka Trump is fiercely loyal to her father, perennially smiley and on script, Melania is fiercely loyal to her son and less inclined to publicly hide her disdain for her husband.
She denied him a hand-holding photo opportunity in Tel Aviv. This came after her well-documented refusal to take Trump’s hand, while they walked down a flight of stairs on Inauguration Day.
When they danced during inaugural festivities, Melania looked stiff and unaffectionate. She looked particularly miserable during the Trump family’s visit to the Vatican, though she has looked miserable more often than not in public appearances with the her husband and other Trumps—with the exception of her son Barron. Not for nothing did the #FreeMelania hashtag take off.
She was also the first member of the Trump family to publicly condemn the violence in Charlottesville. “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville,” she tweeted on Aug. 12, nearly 45 minutes before her husband voiced his thoughts about the deadly white supremacist violence on Twitter. She also beat her husband to the punch after the Aug. 17 terror attacks in Barcelona, tweeting a full hour before he did.
A White House official told CNN that the first lady runs her social media accounts independently of President Trump and doesn’t seek her husband’s approval or advice before tweeting. “She is her own person,” the official said.
“As the press release stated, this visit was about talking to children about kindness and inclusion. This was not the launch of a new campaign, it was a continuation of what Mrs. Trump has been doing through words and actions since her husband took office—and that is shining a spotlight on the importance of children’s health and well-being,” Stephanie Grisham, a spokesperson for Melania Trump, said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“Mrs. Trump is independent and acts independently of her husband. Her only focus is that of using her role as First Lady to help children in any way that she can, with the many issues they face as they are growing up.”
How independent Melania Trump is, how she chooses to express her independence of mind and spirit, will be intriguing to watch.