Will Melania Trump Really Be an Absent First Lady?
A report that Melania Trump might never move into the White House adds to the perception she will not fulfill the traditional duties, or fit a familiar image, of first lady.
All eyes were on first lady Melania Trump at her husband’s inauguration ceremony, where she drew comparisons to Jackie O along with sympathy from many internet denizens, who parsed her facial expressions and made gifs of awkward interactions with her husband.
Two days after Donald Trump took office, Melania returned to New York with their son Barron—and became the first first lady to live separately from the White House since 1853. Shortly after the election, Trump said his wife would remain in New York through the end of the school year, visiting him only on weekends. But sources close to the first lady say she hasn’t yet decided if she’ll move to Washington.
“They will reevaluate toward the end of the school year if they will keep this arrangement or if Melania and Barron will move to Washington,” a source told US Weekly. “They could go either way right now. They will ultimately do what’s best for Barron.”
The US Weekly report may fuel perceptions that Melania Trump will be absent in her role as first lady, both literally and functionally removed from the White House.
She’s been silent and out of the public eye in the 11 days since her husband's swearing in, save for a single tweet from her official FLOTUS account about being “deeply honored” to serve as first lady.
Melania previously talked about tackling cyberbullying in the role, in the same way Michelle Obama tackled obesity, yet there’s no indication that she is taking steps to fulfill her first lady duties in a conventional way.
Her conspicuous absence from the White House seems to be an extension of her muted presence during her husband’s campaign. She was trotted out at the end of his stump speeches or for damage-control interviews, but otherwise was largely backstage.
On Wednesday, it was Ivanka Trump who accompanied her father to Dover Air Force Base to honor the remains of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, a commando who was killed during a special forces raid in Yemen on Sunday.
Some have argued that Melania’s decision to eschew tradition should be cheered as a sign of feminist progress. But if Melania doesn’t care about fulfilling a visible and active first lady role, Americans do.
“I think the American people want to see a first lady who is engaged, and they’re hungry for that void to be filled because once a disaster happens the first lady is traditionally responsible for consoling the country,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.
A recent Morning Consult Poll found that 51 percent of voters want Melania Trump to have an active role in her husband’s administration, compared to the 45 percent who want Ivanka to have some official role.
“She is relinquishing a lot of opportunities to positively shape Donald Trump’s image despite the fact that his popularity is plummeting, and that has been a standard role for first ladies to fill in the last three administrations,” said Lauren Wright, a political scientist and author of On Behalf of the President, noting that Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush all helped to move public opinion on policy and public opinion about their spouses.
Trump embarrassed his wife with his pussy-grabbing boast and subsequent allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. She couldn’t even choose a signature cause without people pointing out the irony of taking on cyberbullying as the wife of the country’s most prominent bully. And, of course, there was the plagiarism scandal surrounding a speech she gave, portions of which resembled a previous one of Michelle Obama’s. There is still debate among fashion designers about who will and who will not dress Melania.
“The media narrative that’s already developed has already set her up for a challenge, which is not ideal in any communication strategy,” said Wright. “You want to be able to control the narrative.”
Melania does not appear to be in any rush to do so. As far as we know, she has not yet filled positions on her staff like press secretary, communications director, or chief of staff.
Michelle Obama, by comparison, had a press secretary on the campaign and appointed a social secretary by November, after her husband was elected.
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a high-powered fashion operative in New York (she helped plan the Met Gala for years alongside Anna Wintour), will reportedly serve as senior advisor to Melania, who gushed about her “impressive work ethic” and “fantastic taste” in a recent interview with The New York Times.
At the time, Wolkoff was working behind-the-scenes to plan President Trump’s inaugural dinner. She did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
Update: The White House has announced that the first lady has appointed Lindsay Reynolds to be her chief of staff. "It has been an honor to take on the responsibility of the position of First Lady, with its long history as an important representative of the President, our family, and the traditions of our nation around the world," Melania Trump said in a statement. "I am putting together a professional and highly-experienced team which will take time to do properly." Reynolds, who was associate director of the White House Visitors Office under George W. Bush, will also serve as assistant to President Trump. Further, Wolkoff has told ABC News: "Mrs. Trump will be moving to D.C. and settling into the White House at the end of the school year, splitting her time between New York and D.C. in the meantime. Mrs. Trump is honored to serve this country and is taking the role and responsibilities of the First Lady very seriously."