It’s been almost one year since first lady Melania Trump launched her official “Be Best” platform, a three-pillared program set to tackle the relatively vast topics of children’s well-being, online behavior and how the opioid crisis affects kids and families.
Not only is it a comparatively large and complex set of issues for a presidential spouse to undertake, Trump is doing so with a skeleton crew of East Wing staff members.
Yet Trump, who this week embarked on her first solo domestic overnight trip to promote her initiative, has gone about building on her initiatives as she has with most other things during her tenure – at her own pace, when she so chooses. She’s carried on without concern for its compatibility (or not) with President Donald Trump’s agenda, or concern for how those who came before her accomplished their tasks.
And for much of her efforts, she’s struggled to win headlines or command the media attention that followed her predecessors. It’s something that frustrates Trump, as she stated Tuesday in Las Vegas, where the first lady spoke and took questions at a town hall about opioids hosted by Eric Bolling.
“I challenge the press to devote as much time to the lives lost (by drugs) – and the potential lives that could be saved – by dedicating the same amount of coverage that you do to idle gossip or trivial stories,” she said.
But will we ever see her do pushups with Jimmy Fallon or sing carpool karaoke with James Corden, like Michelle Obama? Probably not.
It’s expected that she will continue to plug away at her passion projects, making appearances and brief remarks as she goes.
On Monday, the first lady was welcomed to Microsoft’s Seattle executive campus to see the company’s latest technological developments designed to help children stay safe online while they play games like Fortnite. She watched a demonstration on how parents can control virtually every aspect of their child’s Internet use.
“I feel that sometimes children know more than their parents. Parents need to watch what children do to make it safe,” said Trump in a discussion with Microsoft President Brad Smith.
Smith told Seattle Times business reporter Paul Roberts after the first lady’s visit that the social media behavior of the President, while concerning, is less important to the company’s overall dedication to the principles Melania Trump is promoting with “Be Best.”
“We’ve always said that we’ll partner where we can, we’ll stand apart where we should,” said Smith.
Melania Trump has, at times, faced challenges when seeking corporate partnerships, as certain companies have expressed discomfort with appearing to support the administration. But Microsoft was undeterred by the politics.
“(Microsoft is) fundamentally focused on working with people who are carrying an important message forward, and the first lady is doing precisely that with this ‘Be Best’ campaign. We have had days when we disagree with this administration just as we’ve had days where we disagreed with other administrations,” Smith told the Seattle Times. “But today was a day where we could stand together to underscore an important message.”
Theirs would be a mutually beneficial relationship, since one of the reasons Trump established “Be Best” wasn’t necessarily to make her own policy platforms, but to use her initiative as a vehicle for entities that are already established.
“I am looking forward to using ‘Be Best’ to promote any digital programs that make online safety and digital civility a priority in today’s technology-driven world,” Trump said in a statement after her visit.
Whether the future of “Be Best” includes actual formation or full-throated backing of related political issues, Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said Trump is keeping the door open.
“She believes we have a real opportunity to help the next generation as they grow into adults,” Grisham told CNN. “When appropriate, we may look into opportunities to support legislation or policy on state or federal levels.”
The launch of Trump’s “Be Best” campaign has been a series of fits and starts.
Last May, one week after Trump unveiled the platform in a Rose Garden ceremony, she entered the hospital for a kidney procedure that kept her out of the public eye for weeks – veering the national conversation from “Be Best” to Trump’s well-being. In January 2018, she hired her first policy director, Regan Thompson, who shortly thereafter became one of the few turnovers in her hiring. She departed in August, just shy of seven months in the position.
Little explanation was given as to why Thompson’s tenure was so brief – Grisham provided a statement that simply said: “She is no longer with our office and we wish her our best.”
In December, Trump replaced Thompson with Art Harding as policy director.
“Be Best” has faced other challenges, too – self-inflicted, perhaps – in the overall rollout and messaging. Trump opted to take on the issue of cyberbullying as one sub-section of the online behavior pillar, to which the public and critics have cried hypocrisy, considering her husband, the President, is perhaps the most ubiquitous name-caller in recent Twitter memory.
Since then, Melania Trump has tried to refocus on an overall understanding of the need for children to recognize the right way to act online. It’s a giant hill to climb, mostly because “Be Best” doesn’t yet have the name or topic recognition at this point that, say, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign enjoyed relatively early in its inception.
Also, it’s perhaps easier for a wary public to latch onto the narrative that the first lady purposefully picked cyberbullying because President Donald Trump is so adept at coming up with derogatory nicknames for his enemies, a soap operatic storyline with juicier punchlines. There remains, however, a head-down, work-focused attitude among not just the first lady, but her team.
“The rollout of ‘Be Best’ over this past year has been just as Mrs. Trump designed, with the first year focused on educating ourselves and building relationships,” Grisham told CNN. “Like previous administrations, we have partnered with appropriate agencies in some of the work we do, and we are very appreciative of all the support they have given Mrs. Trump.”
Small but mighty staff
Michelle Obama and Laura Bush each had more than 20 staff members when they left the White House. But Trump operates her East Wing with just 12, all relative newcomers to national and global politics, and just one wholly assigned to policy.
Some could see the disparity as doing a disservice to the fully functioning potential of her platform. A bigger staff devoted solely to “Be Best” – from marketing to more events, to building a national campaign around her chosen issues – would likely do a more comprehensive job clearing the oblique language and fuzzy priorities of the initiative, just by having more manpower.
But, that’s not how Trump prefers to operate.
“As with all things that she does, the first lady is being very deliberate in her hiring, focusing on quality over quantity,” Grisham told CNN.
On Tuesday, at a Las Vegas town hall about the opioid crisis, Trump revealed her typical work day.
“My days are very busy, I wake up very early,” said Trump. “I make sure my son goes off to school.”
She said she then goes to her East Wing office to meet with her “team of 12.”
“I’m very detail oriented,” Trump said, adding she works closely with the 100 White House residence staff, as well as the team at the White House Historical Association, to oversee any changes that the White House might need in terms of updating.
In fact, the first lady revealed she has just finished updating the White House bowling alley.
“I just renovated it,” she said. “It really looks beautiful. We have fun sometimes, and I’m looking forward to using it more now.”
The most emotionally challenging part of her “Be Best” platform is most certainly the opioid crisis and its effect on families, particularly infants.
“After they are born, these innocent babies endure nausea, pain, anxiety, sleeplessness and trouble eating – the same as adults who undergo detox,” said Trump in her Las Vegas speech on Tuesday, the only formal remarks she made during her national tour.
Early in her tenure, Trump zeroed in on the particularly difficult sub-category of drug addiction in Neo-natal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. During Tuesday’s town hall on the drug crisis, Trump revealed to the audience that she frequently talks about drugs with her 12-year-old son, Barron.
“I do, yes. I teach him, I try to explain how drugs are dangerous and how they will mess up your head, mess up your body and nothing positive comes of it,” she said.
She added she thinks children should start hearing about drugs sooner rather than later, picking an age that is appropriate to begin.
“I think 8. Nowadays, the children are so smart and the life is so fast and they have access to everything,” she said. “We need to teach them at very early age how bad drugs are.”
At the same time, Trump voiced the need to remove the stigma of drug addiction, yet another component to the opioid-focused part of “Be Best.”
Fighting for attention
Trump’s most effective outreach comes in the human moments she gives to an administration that critics say lacks compassion.
Holding infants, asking questions of doctors, hugging nurses, encouraging young mothers to succeed in their sobriety, those continue to be the silent and under-the-radar, yet most genuine, forms of Trump’s personal touch.
But like Michelle Obama, Trump is actually a frequent and fervent hugger. And there have been countless examples of Trump folding her 5-foot-11-inch frame into a tiny chair and pulling up to a kindergarten crafts table to help ill children make Valentine’s Day cards or remind a second-grader bemoaning her homework that, yes, it’s a drag, but you need to study. She did just that on Monday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a public charter school known for promoting kindness and respectful communication in its studies.
Trump does not have the same name or face recognition as her predecessor – most of the children in the classrooms she visits glance up with brief interest when Trump walks in, but rarely if ever do they bound of their seats and run to her, as was often the reaction when Obama visited schools.
“I am very proud of what we achieved so far, for the well-being of children,” Trump told the crowd Tuesday inside the Las Vegas theater venue where the town hall was held – and which in the evenings converts to the concert stage for singer Barry Manilow.
“I want to shine a light on the successful programs and give them the voice and support them and partner with them,” she said. Her voice is certainly the engine “Be Best” needs, not necessarily with more frequency and more chutzpah, but to at least compete with a President who is a practiced rhetorician and a country still hungry to know more about its enigmatic first lady.
When Bolling asked Trump a random question about her cooking habits, the first lady, perhaps a little uncomfortable, paused before she revealed which meal would be best for a Trump family dinner.
“Maybe, spaghetti?” she answered, to which the audience erupted in applause, strong approval for pasta, apparently, with just as much enthusiasm as anything else Trump had discussed in her speech about her platform’s commitment to stopping opioid addiction.