First Lady Melania Trump trumpeted her long-awaited move to Washington on Twitter Sunday evening with a photo of the lush view from her new White House digs, having arrived with her 11-year-old son, Barron, earlier in the day.
The move signaled a new beginning for Melania, who has so far spent most of her husband’s presidency holed up in the first family’s New York City home, joining him on weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago and, occasionally, official presidential duties.
But before last month, when she accompanied her husband on his first major international trip, Melania had been largely out-of-sight, excluded from White House affairs and seemingly less-than-eager to fulfill a traditional first lady role.
Yet many Americans remain eager to see more of Melania--and many activists even more eager to see her follow through on a pre-election pledge to combat cyberbullying as first lady.
It’s been nearly five months since Donald Trump was sworn in as president, and we've yet to hear a peep about her phantom anti-cyberbullying campaign.
That may change, however, now that she's moved into the White House.
Donna Rice Hughes, president and CEO of Enough is Enough, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children and families from keyboard warriors and pornography in the digital world, said she’s planning to discuss cyberbullying with the first lady’s chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, during a scheduled meeting next week.
“I think cyberbullying is a perfect platform for [Melania] for a lot of reasons,” Hughes told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “Throughout Trump’s campaign and since she’s been first lady, Melania has demonstrated grace and dignity in the face of a lot of hostility--aimed at both her and her son.” (Hughes was scapegoated as The Other Woman after her affair in 1987 with then-presidential candidate Gary Hart ultimately sunk his campaign.)
Hughes, who voted for President Trump and has publicly defended Melania on multiple occasions, said Enough is Enough sent a letter to the White House extending support to the first lady several months ago.
“She has a unique opportunity to turn the tide so that children’s dignity is better protected in the digital age” said Hughes, who stressed that cyberbullying is not a partisan issue. “This is something that affects all of us, so she also has an opportunity to stand on an issue that brings people together. It’s a win-win for her.”
During the election campaign, Hughes praised Trump for vowing to crack down on child pornography and sex trafficking--and for signing her nonprofit’s “Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge” asking that he enforce existing federal laws if elected. (She noted that Hillary Clinton also supported the pledge).
Melania Trump’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, declined to confirm that Reynolds was meeting with Hughes’ and her team at Enough is Enough.
Asked whether the first lady was planning to move forward with her anti-cyberbullying campaign or if she would be dedicating herself to other initiatives, Grisham said in an email to The Daily Beast: “She and Barron are getting settled. We look forward to announcing her initiatives in the coming weeks.”
Hughes appears to be the only major name in anti-cyberbullying advocacy that has successfully connected with the White House.
The Daily Beast reached out to four other leading organizations, including one that worked with previous White House administrations, and none had heard from Melania or her staff.
“We have not reached out to them and they have not reached out to us, but we welcome any opportunity to help inform practice and prevention and intervention efforts based on the massive amount of research that our members have conducted,” said Susan Shearer, co-director of the Bullying Research Network, which worked with the Obama administration to establish the government website StopBullying.Gov.
The National PTA, which participated in a 2011 conference at the White House to galvanize anti-bullying efforts in schools, also said it had not heard from our current first lady.
Last summer, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) sent both presidential campaigns four recommendations to effectively combat the scourge of online harassment, including hosting an annual Online Safety Summit at the White House. They also called on the incoming administration to establish a $25 million fund over the course of five years for cyberbullying research and education.
Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI, said his organization had not heard back from Melania or her office, but that they are ready to work with her if the opportunity arises.
“We would be particularly happy to convene with her and other top thinkers and practitioners in this field,” said Balkam, whose organization hosts an annual conference for online safety researchers and organizations. “Our role for many years has been to bring these folks together and to interact with politicians and government regulators,” he said, adding that online bullying “seems personal” for Mrs. Trump.
The irony of Melania Trump tackling cyberbullying as first lady is not lost on Balkam. As the wife of a consummate bully who frequently insults his political enemies on Twitter, Melania’s pledge to stop online bullying was initially criticized as “hypocrisy” by Lady Gaga and others. But Balkam thinks that Melania could still be a compelling advocate despite her husband’s bullying tendencies.
“It seems that she’s dedicated to this issue as it affects children, though it would be deeply problematic if she broadened it to include political speech,” he said.
Other prominent anti-cyberbullying crusaders agree that the president’s schoolyard bullying tactics shouldn’t deter advocates from supporting the first lady’s efforts to eradicate online bullying.
“I try not to conflate the two issues, to be honest,” said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “In the limited words that Melania has expressed about this issue, the focus has been on children and adolescents as they’ve embraced technology. We’re going to keep embracing technology and exploiting it too, and we need people with powerful platforms to dominate the conversation if we’re going to induce progress.”