Watch CNN’s special report, “Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump,” premiering Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
The ubiquitous President Donald Trump is ramping up his re-election bid, but a certain degree of mystery still surrounds the life and nature of his wife, first lady Melania Trump.
Prone to privacy, and with nearly half the staff size of her two most recent predecessors, Trump has gone about the role of being the country’s first spouse in a markedly different way than other modern first ladies.
There are little to no media interviews – the most recent via Fox News was last December – and few of her speeches, which are often no more than five minutes in length, ever rise to the surface of a news cycle consumed with the plethora of daily coverage of her husband.
That’s not to say Trump has not attempted to break through. She has traveled to several states and foreign countries, hoping to impact a younger generation by teaching them to be emotionally sound and to practice kindness.
Her “Be Best” initiative, focused on helping children’s well-being, as well as their conduct on social media and the impact of country’s opioid crisis on kids and families, hit its one-year anniversary in May. Trump marked it with a Rose Garden ceremony and an announcement that she would be expanding the platform, though details on that expansion have yet to be outlined with specifics.
There was the reveal, however, that she would at some point this year take another solo trip abroad, slated to be her second after an October 2018 visit to five countries in Africa.
While the policy component of her tenure remains sparse, Trump does take a hearty role in many of the traditional components of being first lady, overseeing events such as the Easter Egg Roll or the annual holiday decorations, planning and practicing proper protocol for the overseas trips. She also remains a steady, quiet presence alongside the President for dignitary visits and announcements.
Yet, in the absence of a familiarity and accessibility some Americans felt more with previous first ladies, such as Michelle Obama or even Laura Bush, there’s a narrative that Trump is a reluctant first lady.
“I still feel that she’s one of the most unconventional first ladies we’ve ever had,” said New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni in the CNN special report, “Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump,” set to air Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.
“Many of the recent ones have not really seemed to want the job. You know, their husbands ran for President against their wishes, they went along with it to be supportive. But Melania is the apotheosis of that. And, I feel, and what I think has been consistent through the campaign, through the entire administration so far, is this sort of distance that she keeps from the role,” said Bruni.
Her husband, however, often heaps praise on his first lady. On Friday, while discussing his new Air Force One paint plans, the President favorably compared Melania Trump to Jackie Kennedy.
“You know, the baby blue doesn’t fit with us. And people get used to something but that was Jackie O, and that’s good, but we have our own Jackie O today, it’s called Melania,” Trump said.
Small but fierce staff
The first lady’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, Stephanie Grisham, has a decidedly different opinion, which she shared while providing rare access to the East Wing of the White House.
Grisham’s office is adjacent to office of Melania Trump, and she says she is “literally the first line of defense” when it comes to defending her boss. She cites the strong bond the first lady has created with her small team, at 12 members a skeleton crew of an East Wing staff when compared to those of Obama and Bush, both of whom had at least 20 or more working for them in various official capacities.
Grisham told CNN it was by Trump’s design that her team feel trusted and supported, and there was not a hire that the first lady did not personally oversee. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the West Wing, with it’s frequent staff turnovers and rumors of infighting among aides.
“Working in the East Wing, being so small, we are tight knit,” Grisham said. “We have to be. We’re very close.”
The first lady is actively involved in the day-to-day business of the East Wing and White House activities, Grisham said, adding that Trump is a “fun” and engaged boss. The first lady often takes the time to put staff at ease by listening to them and she knows about their families and their lives outside of the White House.
But there are those who say that the lack of a more robust staff, while lending itself to better personal interaction, could signal a disinterest in her role.
“I think (a small East Wing staff) puts you at a tremendous disadvantage and also sends a message about how much you’re willing to do and how much you want to do,” said Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
‘My own voice’
If messaging is a concern of Trump’s, she clearly doesn’t focus on it.
While previous first ladies have practiced the art of going along with their husbands, personally, politically, publicly, Melania Trump has chosen a different route.
“I have my own voice and my opinions,” Trump said at her one and only on-camera, on-the-record news conference last October in Egypt. “It’s very important to me that I express how I feel.”
After all, the first real stand the first lady took in her tenure was to break the mold by not moving to Washington for six months after the inauguration, citing the need to remain in New York while her son finished the school year. That move should have been a signal to the other notes of independence to come, including traveling solo when she feels like it, not commenting during scandals about infidelities or improprieties. She also has occasionally spoken out when her take doesn’t necessarily jibe with that of the President’s – be it about cyberbullying, which television news channel she prefers or how she feels about NBA superstar LeBron James.
“There is clearly an independent streak in her which I think surprises people just because in so many other ways, she seems like an old-fashioned wife,” Bruni said.
Of course, she is married to Trump, and her opinions, and lack of clarification, have stirred controversy.
In 2011, she went on ABC’s “The View,” and said, like her husband, that she felt Barack Obama needed to show his birth certificate, expressing suspicion over where he was born.
Trump has never commented on or clarified those remarks.
She also said in Africa that while she was glad female accusers claiming abuse are heard, she said they need “hard evidence,” before they come forward, a staid take amid the #MeToo movement’s commitment to believing women.
She has also suffered backlash simply by proximity to Trump. Many critics think that she can’t preach anti-bullying while she is married to a man who regularly uses social media to name-call and grandstand.
“I don’t always agree (with) what he tweets, and I tell him that,” said Trump in Egypt, a refrain she has said several times before.
It is a note of insight into the first lady that perhaps peels back some of the mystery.
Here is a first lady who is saying that of the many disparate components of her job (a job that has no official description), is not to control the President, nor blindly agree with him on all fronts.
Rather, she is vocalizing that there are parts of his behavior that bother her, too.
“Melania Trump is never beholden to the Washington ways of broadcasting everything you’re thinking and doing,” Kellyanne Conway told CNN in an interview for “Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump.”
The first lady is also, unlike the President, and unlike those in her role before her, hardly concerned with how she is viewed by an American public in one of the most divisive political climates in history.
“I don’t think Melania’s after popularity,” Bruni said. “Because you’re only after popularity and poll numbers if you’re going to try to turn them into something, if they’re currency.”
This weekend marks four years since Melania Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower alongside Trump when he announced his presidential bid.
She was then, as she is now, expressionless, calm, refined and difficult to read.
“I get the feeling that she cares less about what people think than any of her predecessors,” Bruni said.