Melania Trump finds her footing after low-key summer

Story highlights

  • Melania Trump had a low-key summer
  • She is expected to emerge more in the fall

Washington (CNN)During a black-tie dinner honoring the White House Historical Association on Thursday night, 90 guests dined by candlelight on late-summer squash velouté and potato-crusted Dover sole.

President Donald Trump stood at a podium, heaping praise on his wife.
"I'm going turn it over to the star of the Trump family," said Trump, ending his brief remarks. "They, they love her out there. We walked all over Florida, we walked all over Texas, and they're loving Melania."
    Trump was of course referring to the visits he and Melania Trump made to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and to Florida earlier Thursday to survey damage from Hurricane Irma.
    Melania Trump's time as first lady has been punctuated by her quiet nature and wardrobe choices that get the town talking. But after a low-key summer, it looks like the first lady's fall will usher in a new phase of public life -- one in which she emerges more and likely formally adopts an East Wing agenda.
    Trump's aftermath-viewing wardrobe made headlines each time she stepped out of the White House and onto the South Lawn, and again from Air Force One to the tarmac -- from her footwear to her perfect ponytails, the first lady came under the harsh visual scrutiny she often does.
    In lieu of remarks, her appearance is all the world has to go on, which can make where one stands on the topic of four-inch heels a heated political discussion.
    The Thursday dinner came toward the end of a comparatively busy couple of weeks for Melania Trump, who had kept a low-profile over the summer. In July and August, she spent her time at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, or quietly prepping the White House after officially moving in mid-June.
    There was a visit to Poland in July, where she gave introductory remarks for her husband's speech in Warsaw; then jetted with him to the G20 summit in Germany for a handful of spousal events. She wowed the fashion world on her final night there, wearing a white, fringed Michael Kors dress while sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a closing dinner. Again, her fashion was speaking for her.
    Then it was off to Paris in mid-July to celebrate Bastille Day, where again, Trump was a silent observer, sightseeing with French first lady Brigitte Macron and watching the parade along the Champs-Élysées. A quick pop on an open mic caught her greeting children at a Paris hospital in their native tongue. It was a fleeting moment, though she stayed a bit to play and interact with the kids, smiling warmly.
    For most of the past few months, the American public has only had those tiny clues to figure out their first lady, whose schedule of official speaking engagements has been light since her husband took office in January.
    "She is a woman of few words," Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush's chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration, said of Melania Trump. "But when she says something, it really is gentle and meaningful, and soothing -- it has a natural empathy to it."
    McBride says Trump's quiet nature reminds her of Mrs. Bush in that "when she she did say something, it mattered."
    "We haven't had a first lady this shy and reserved since Bess Truman," said Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies."
    "Bess avoided Washington as much as possible and preferred their modest home in Independence, Missouri. She hated talking to the press and she said she was just 'the President's wife and the mother of his daughter,' Brower said.
    Trump likely understands the importance of her role, but the time it's taken for her to get to know the public, and vice versa, displays an independent streak.
    "I've been told that she's very self-assured and doesn't feel like she needs to change her reserved personality to be more relatable," said Brower. "She doesn't seem to care about pleasing people. I think the poll numbers show that many people actually like the self confidence that she exudes."

    Summertime

    Yet summertime at the White House was unnaturally slow this year, given that a much-needed overhaul of the West Wing and parts of the East Wing took place for two weeks in August, forcing the first family to stay away in Bedminster.
    The Executive Residence staff never really stops, however, even when the family is gone, according to Stephen Rochon, its former director and chief usher under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
    "Whenever the first families left on summer vacations, or any times during the year, is when the residence staff did many of renovations on the public and private floors of the mansion, such as painting, decorating, changing out furniture, etc," Rochon said.
    The smaller footprint of Trump's entertaining schedule, with the exception of dignitary visits, coupled with the renovations, meant an even less visible first lady.
    "The summer has been slow," said McBride, "but from a historical perspective it's not out of character."
    "The first lady has had a very busy summer moving her family into the White House, preparing her son for a new school and making the preparations necessary in undertaking her role as first lady," Melania Trump's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN. "She has been using the summer months to educate herself more fully about the issues involved in the initiatives she plans to undertake."
    Grisham added the first lady's sojourn at Bedminster also included work, saying, "Mrs. Trump attended meetings that the President hosted, in order to understand certain initiatives that she wishes to support in her own way."

    Championing a cause

    Trump has yet to formally announce her platform as first lady, something Michelle Obama didn't do until November of her husband's first year as President. But aides say it's coming "soon."
    All clues indicate that she intends to focus on children, women and families, borne out of the few hints at rare public appearances.
    On Friday afternoon she accompanied the President on a visit to Maryland's Joint Base Andrews, breaking off on her own to pop by a gymnasium, where she spent time with children, coloring and passing out crayons, and then throwing a few paper airplanes as part of a flying experiment, testing STEM projects.
    Trump seems most comfortable around young people; she's done the most smiling when around children, whether visiting a hospital or school or hosting families at the White House, where she hoisted a baby in her arms at the congressional picnic in June.
    "Michelle Obama was visible early in her tenure in other ways, before establishing her platform," said McBride, noting the differences between Obama and Trump. "She was quick to build a relationship and connection with the American people with fashion and sense of style, and that's something that helped her become visible. Every first lady is different, and we knew early on that Melania wasn't going to be that way, especially since her first pronouncement was that she wouldn't be living in the White House until several months after Inauguration."
    By opening with the point that people wouldn't be seeing her much right away, Trump actually spared herself the difficult job of announcing plans too soon, and falling short of expectation.
    "She set the bar low for how and when she would engage," added McBride.
    Grisham said the moment of that engagement is almost at hand.
    "When the time is right, and the resources and support are available, Mrs. Trump will officially announce her initiatives," Grisham said. "The first lady is working diligently in an effort to be fully prepared, with the necessary infrastructure before she presents her causes to the world."
    As for critics who are waiting for her to step up to something, Grisham is quick to point out this isn't a woman who cares what people are saying about her.
    "Mrs. Trump will never fit into a mold and is not concerned about the comparisons often made of her," Grisham told CNN. "The first lady wishes to make a difference in our country and hopes that regardless of political affiliation, everyone will realize she is her own individual."

    Finding her voice

    By the time the first week of September was over, Trump had put Barron Trump, 11, into a new school, St. Andrew's in Potomac, Maryland, and it appeared she'd started to turn her sights to a more public life.
    Her words of support, often in the form of tweets, were a calming and constant occurrence during tumultuous times, from Charlottesville's race riots to the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain.
    Trump took to Twitter most times before her husband, something Grisham said wasn't an issue for her, or him.
    "Mrs. Trump is a independent woman and will always stay true to herself," she said. "She has her own thoughts and opinions and shares them honestly and openly on social media, and in the presence of others."
    McBride said Trump's personal story is something she could use to help unite the country, and she wishes she'd speak out about it more.
    "We have seen her be warm, especially with children," she said. "There's an instinctive deference when you're with the president, that does come inherently. But I'm awed by the American experiment and the American dream that a woman who has been a citizen for 10 years is now first lady."
    During the campaign, Trump said a thick skin was imperative to survive the rough and tumble world of politics, and she appears to have developed one, not bowing to pressure from fashion magazine editorials to swap out her spiky stilettos, or stick solely to American designers.
    "She does not concern herself with what the media and critics have to say about her appearance," said Grisham.
    Standing beside her husband in the Oval Office on September 1 as he thanked aid groups after Hurricane Harvey, Trump spoke publicly on camera for the first time in weeks.
    "It's great to be here with these amazing people," she said. "And I want to thank all of the volunteers, all across the country, that came to help, to Texas. Fantastic job, we're going tomorrow, to visit them and I just want to tell them to be strong and everything will be OK."
    Her husband apparently hadn't told her ahead of time that he wanted her to speak, and appeared impressed with her improvisation.
    "See, I didn't tell her I was going to do that, and she did a great job," the President said.
    Back in Texas the following day, in $50 Converse sneakers and a TEXAS-emblazoned baseball cap, Melania Trump comforted children in a shelter, and handed out supplies, looking on as her husband encouraged volunteers at a church and received updates from state representatives.
    In Florida this week, she did much of the same, only in white Converse and white cap, operating as silent, but strong, partner to her husband -- being the quiet calm to his bravado.
    The weekend before, Trump played hostess to Cabinet spouses during a working weekend at Camp David, and, the following day, she stood stoically once again at the side of the President for the 9/11 remembrance ceremonies.
    By Thursday night's dinner for the White House Historical Association, after Trump's introduction, the first lady appeared to relish the opportunity to speak publicly to her guests, talking about how touched she was by the people she had met in Texas and Florida.
    "I have seen the true spirit of this nation, an unwavering commitment to overcome," she said, according to a copy of her speech obtained by CNN.
    She nodded in her remarks to another quiet first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, who started the association in 1961.
    "She was comfortable and at home, elegant and graceful -- she glided through that dinner, all smiles," one dinner guest told CNN.
    Trump herself said that she's warming to the White House, in her remarks adding, "Our family's appreciation for this home grows each and every day."
    Trump's comfort at the lectern will be tested at least twice more this month. Next week, she heads to New York for the United Nations General Assembly where she will host a luncheon and make remarks, Grisham confirmed to CNN.
    And on September 23, she makes her first solo international trip. She's scheduled to go to Canada to co-host the kickoff of the Invictus Games, a charity started by Britain's Prince Harry, who will also be in attendance.