Melania Trump finds her way in her first 100 days

Story highlights

  • The Trump administration marks its first 100 days on Saturday
  • Melania Trump has begun to build staff and develop a platform

Washington (CNN)First lady Melania Trump spent part of her Friday crafting at the Children's National Health System in Washington, working with the children as they colored a floral coloring sheet with a pink marker and bonding with one girl who was celebrating a birthday.

"My birthday was this Wednesday," she told the girl. The table of crafters continued to talk about birthdays, including President Donald Trump's, which is in June.
"He's 70," the first lady said when asked how old her husband is.
    She asked the children their favorite books and singers, and after several minutes of crafting, she thanked them for spending time together. One young patient presented her with a picture.
    "That's so nice," she said. "Beautiful! I love it."
    Friday's visit was another sign of a reluctant first lady becoming more comfortable in her new role, 100 days in to the Trump administration.

    Out of the spotlight

    The first lady's first 100 days have been largely characterized by her absence from Washington and the spotlight; she made the unprecedented, independent decision to stay home at Trump Tower in New York with son, Barron, 11, through the conclusion of the school year.
    It's still unclear when precisely she will make her move to the White House, but there are signs that the wheels are in motion: Official White House interior decorator Tham Kannalikham continues to make the house a home for the Trumps, according to the White House.
    The role of first lady comes with no instruction manual, and each of her predecessors have made their own mark, some more political, some more private. Trump, who was born in Slovenia, has faced a learning curve in her new position.
    "The fact that she did not grow up in the US has made it more difficult for her because it is a position with no definition, no job description and she didn't grow up watching first ladies as part of American culture," said Kate Andersen Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies" and a CNN contributor.
    "We've seen that most people do not want the first lady to be involved in policy, so she is carving out a more private, less political role than we've ever seen," Andersen Brower said.
    Trump has eased her way into the role, performing the traditional first lady duty of America's official hostess; initially traveling to Washington rarely, but more frequently in recent weeks. She's participated in key events, hosting the 179th annual White House Easter Egg Roll and welcoming governors and spouses at the formal Governors Ball.
    And she was by her husband's side throughout the inaugural festivities; she watched as he gave an address to a joint session of Congress; she joined him to award a Purple Heart at Walter Reed; and she spoke in front of Senate and Cabinet spouses on Wednesday, as well as other major moments.
    She continues to define her platform and build her East Wing staff. Friday's children's hospital visit was another sign of how she's embracing the role.

    Key events

    One of her team's first tests was the Governors Ball, a black-tie social event held in the State Dining Room. She chose "spring renewal" as the theme.
    "I am proud to invite all the governors to the White House for this important annual event," she said in a statement. "Tonight, we come together as one Nation, leaving political labels and partisan interests behind."
    She's also hosted the spouses of world leaders, including Japanese first lady Akie Abe, Israel's Sara Netanyahu, China's Madame Peng Liyuan, Queen Rania of Jordan and Argentine first lady Juliana Awada.
    And she planned this year's Easter egg roll, which welcomed more than 20,000 guests to White House grounds. Trump studied egg rolls past and designed an event that would both return to tradition, with activities such as cookie decorating and thank you cards for the troops, and highlight her own family's interests, including a DC United demonstration for soccer fan, Barron.
    The Trumps host their first Easter Egg Roll
    The Trumps host their first Easter Egg Roll


      The Trumps host their first Easter Egg Roll


    The Trumps host their first Easter Egg Roll 01:58
    It received widely positive reviews: "All seemed to go off without a hitch," said The Washington Post. The New York Times: "The mood was cheery despite the clouds and an occasional downpour, and the Trumps played warm hosts." USA Today: "Soggy but solid."
    The White House also hosted its annual spring garden tour last weekend.
    "@POTUS & I are pleased to welcome visitor's @WhiteHouse #Spring garden tour. We hope everyone enjoys exploring the beautiful grounds!" she tweeted.

    Defining a platform

    Melania Trump's role as first lady came with a built-in megaphone.
    "First ladies have this automatic, powerful platform, even though their position is not codified," Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, told CNN. "They really get to pick and choose what they want to work on."
    "For Laura Bush, education, for Mrs. Obama, it started out with concern about her own children. So it's something that they care about ..." McBride said. "From that, you utilize the convening authority that you have as first lady to pull the best experts together. Having the platform of the White House brings attention to the issue. Once you use your own background and interest as a platform to build your initiatives, then you can roll out the things you feel most passionately about."
    During the campaign, Trump said she would seek to champion combating cyberbullying as first lady. However, it's not a topic she's actively embraced in her first 100 days. More recently, she has identified women's empowerment and access to education for women and girls as a key platform for her East Wing.
    "I hope she will seize on her unparalleled opportunity to spotlight issues in need of a champion," said Anne MacDonald, a former staffer in Laura Bush's East Wing.
    Trump gave formal, on-camera remarks for the first time as first lady late last month at the 2017 Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Awards. She called for women's empowerment and celebration of diversity in a speech that was widely praised.
    "As leaders of our shared global economy, we must continue to work towards gender empowerment and respect for people from all backgrounds and ethnicities, remembering always that we are all ultimately members of one race, the human race," the first lady said. "Each one of us is uniquely different."
    Melania Trump makes rare public appearance
    Melania Trump makes rare public appearance


      Melania Trump makes rare public appearance


    Melania Trump makes rare public appearance 02:07
    "Together, we must declare that the era of allowing brutality against women and children is over, while affirming that the time for empowering women around the world is now," she said. "For wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them."
    She highlighted International Women's Day with an invitation-only luncheon at the White House, where she spoke about equality, freedom and the responsibility women have to help each other achieve success.
    "As an immigrant myself, having grown up in a communist society, I know all too well the value and importance of freedom and equal opportunity -- ideals which this great nation was founded and has continued to strive towards throughout its history," Trump said, according to her prepared remarks obtained by CNN from Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, senior adviser and chief strategist to the first lady.
    Trump cited education as a way to prevent gender inequality and pledged her support to help bridge the divide for women.
    While she hasn't spoken publicly about cyberbullying at all, when model and actress Emily Ratajkowski spoke out against a journalist who disparaged Melania Trump, the first lady took to Twitter to thank Ratajkowski for her support.
    "Applause to all women around the world who speak up, stand up and support other women! @emrata #PowerOfEveryWoman #PowerOfTheFirstLady," Melania Trump wrote in a rare tweet from the @FLOTUS account.
    Trump has also subtly signaled other platform priorities -- she has now made three separate visits to children's hospitals, and earlier this month, she visited a local shelter for abused women and children in South Florida.

    Staffing up

    Melania Trump's East Wing is still coming together, her hiring pace lagging behind other first ladies during this time, perhaps because she is not yet living in the White House.
    "I am putting together a professional and highly experienced team which will take time to do properly," Trump said in a statement in early February.
    That staffing gap caused a delay in carrying out some duties, such as White House tours, which were not re-opened to the public until March 7.
    "She needed more staff earlier to help her shape her image," Andersen Brower said. "Michelle Obama had 24 staffers, and I believe Melania has four or five."
    Chief of staff Lindsay Reynolds was her first official hire, nearly two weeks after inauguration. Reynolds previously served in the George W. Bush White House and brought experience in fundraising, event management and logistics to the East Wing.
    Later that week, the office of the first lady named Laotian-American interior designer Tham Kannalikham as the official decorator of the Trump's private living quarters.
    The following week, Trump appointed Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, known as Rickie, as White House social secretary. The social secretary oversees the planning and execution of all White House social events, according to a White House statement, including state dinners, parties, official policy-related events, and the first lady's initiatives.
    Daniel Fisher took over as head of the White House visitors office along the way, a major role filled as she prepared for the egg roll.
    It wasn't until late March that the East Wing got an official spokesperson, snagging White House deputy press secretary Stephanie Grisham to serve as the first lady's communications director. Grisham was the director of traveling press during the 2016 campaign, and her relationships will be helpful as she integrates messaging between the East and West wings.
    Trump has also been working with longtime friend and former Vogue events director Wolkoff, who has been an acting senior adviser and chief strategist.
    "Mrs. Trump is honored to serve this country and is taking the role and responsibilities of first lady very seriously," Wolkoff said in a February statement. "The first lady is going to go about her role in a pragmatic and thoughtful way that is unique and authentic to her."
    But that pragmatism paved the way for a misstep at the beginning of her tenure.
    "In February when first lady of Japan Akie Abe accompanied her husband to Washington, the first lady was noticeably absent (she joined her later at Mar-a-Lago.) And that was embarrassing since it is the first lady's job to play hostess," Andersen Brower said, noting that Trump is now "becoming more aware of the position."
    Several weeks later when Queen Rania of Jordan visited, Trump was on hand, hosting the Queen for lunch at the White House and touring a local public charter school for girls. She visited a school in South Florida with Madame Peng and stopped by Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

    Madame Peng and I visited Bak Middle School of the Arts. Thank you to all talented students for a wonderful performances!

    A post shared by First Lady Melania Trump (@flotus) on

    McBride has been impressed by Trump's actions thus far.
    "She set a marker very early on, which from my perspective lowered the expectations for how quickly she was going to move on things," she said.
    "She was going to do this on her own time and stay true to herself. I have looked at her activities and her assuming this role through that lens, and I have to say I have been very impressed," McBride said, citing her visits with the spouses of heads of state.

    It was an honor to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History @NMAAHC

    A post shared by First Lady Melania Trump (@flotus) on

    "She's made conscious decisions of what to share with them, where she wanted to take them," she said. "To me, that exhibited a sense of diplomatic skill that, frankly, you would expect out of a person who speaks five languages and was born in another country."
    Trump is also still learning to work with the press. Some of the events she has attended have been closed to press, missing opportunities for positive coverage, such as her first visit to Children's National Health System in March and her speech to Senate spouses at the National Gallery of Art earlier this week. She posted on social media following both of those visits.
    Trump has not yet given any public interviews on her own in the first 100 days, although she appeared alongside her husband on "Fox & Friends" during the egg roll.