In Washington this week, President Donald Trump had his hands full, trying to climb out of the seemingly endless swirl of negativism that has come on the heels of an ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Meanwhile, his wife, the first lady of the United States, spent Thursday and Friday climbing through Big Sky country, enjoying a nature walk with kids in Jackson Hole, and Moose, Wyoming, even, according to a member of her communications team, spotting a bald eagle roosting in a tree alongside a bucolic riverbank.
As President Trump back home takes it from all sides – a barrage of accusations and innuendos about misuse of presidential power, and fires back at Democrats, doubling down on his defense of goading the leaders of Ukraine and China to look into his political opponent, Melania Trump quite literally floated away from it all, downstream, in a raft on Wyoming’s Snake River, the still-warm October sun shining on her very first trip to Grand Teton territory.
“The trip (to Wyoming) had been in the planning stages for a couple of months,” her spokeswoman, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN.
Trump was in Wyoming to talk up the well-being component of her three-pronged Be Best platform of helping children, and push the National Parks’ “Every Kid Outdoors” program; she made no remarks to an audience on her two-day trip. The lack of a speech, while not out of character for this notoriously press-shy first lady, only served to amplify the persistent silence she has practiced since the President’s most recent and perhaps most significant public battle wages in Washington.
Grisham says that Melania Trump’s lack of public engagement on the topic of impeachment is not escapism, however, but a response to the futility of weighing in. “Mrs. Trump, her husband, their family, and this administration have been under attack since the day they took office,” says Grisham, who maintains the first lady is focused only on her role, and on being a wife and mother.
Other first ladies have been poignant protectors against scandals affecting their husband in private, trying to maintain normalcy while inside White House walls, staff is spinning for control of a polarizing situation. According to Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” Pat Nixon, Richard Nixon’s wife, was so privately engrossed in the Watergate investigation she was ultimately forced to focus on other things for the sake of her emotional well-being.
“Pat Nixon was completely in the bunker during Watergate, which dragged on for two years. She stopped reading the newspapers at the height of the barrage and blamed others, in this case Republicans, for trying to bring her husband down,” Brower said. “At one point the West Wing staff cut off her newspapers in an effort to shield her from the headlines. But she knew exactly what was going on and she defended her husband until the end.”
While it is difficult for many to read into the oftentimes unsmiling, stoic visage of the current first lady, for Pat Nixon, carrying on without revealing her emotions was something of a challenge.
“In the White House, she tried hard not to cancel events, but she became more and more anxious and upset,” Brower said.
She adds of Nixon, “her son-in-law David Eisenhower said in a 1973 interview, ‘She (Pat) is a shoulder to everyone—but whose shoulder does she lean on?’”
“Of course she’s been paying attention,” Grisham told CNN of how engaged the current first lady has been about the crisis affecting her husband. “She is always aware of what is happening in the news.”
Trump may keep spirits up behind the scenes, and engage in offering opinions to her husband (“Mrs. Trump advises her husband on many topics all the time,” Grisham said), but it’s hard to predict when and if she might say something, out loud, on the record. She was quiet throughout the Stormy Daniels scandal, and didn’t weigh in on the Russia investigation specifically. But she did fire back at the anonymous op-ed writer in The New York Times, who in September 2018 claimed to be part of the administration’s internal “resistance” to Trump and his leadership. The first lady told CNN at the time, “To the writer of the op-ed – you are not protecting this country, you are sabotaging it with your cowardly actions.”
In that instance, Trump was more like Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, actively acting as spokeswoman for her husband President Bill Clinton, as his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky devolved into investigation and, ultimately, impeachment.
“Hillary Clinton is a first lady who was there to fight it out to the end,” Brower said. “Publicly she talked about a ‘vast right wing conspiracy.’ She even went to Capitol Hill and told the Democratic caucus that she was upset about what her husband had done in his personal life, but that they needed to get behind him so that he could accomplish Democratic policies.”
Clinton said, “Impeachment is not the answer. Too much is at stake here for us to be distracted from what really matters.” Brower says some members of the caucus left that room with tears in their eyes. “I can’t imagine Melania Trump ever doing this,” she adds.
What Trump does like to do is her own thing. Completely and totally, whether it dovetails with her husband’s agenda or not. Who can ignore the fact part of Be Best is centered on stopping cyberbullying, while the President is likely the most high-profile and prolific cyberbully Twitter has encountered? And as midterm elections approached last year, some with dangerously close margins for Republicans, Trump surrogates and family members crisscrossed the country, stumping for the party – but not Melania Trump, who did not make a single campaign appearance.
In the annals of history when looking back on the Trump administration, will it be unusual that while Trump literally shouted his way through the onslaught of critics, privately concerned and consumed about the possibility of actual impeachment, his wife showed the country how to enjoy the great outdoors from a river raft? Probably not. Almost three years into her tenure, comments and interviews and statements from the first lady, or via her spokeswoman, can be fiery and impactful, but they can also be seldom. The impeachment inquiry will likely see Trump once again quiet, moving on with her schedule, her plans, and her own agenda.
“There is no reason for the first lady to waste her time commenting on what is just more harassment and nonsense by the opposition,” said Grisham of why her boss has remained silent.
“Melania is not like Hillary or Pat,” Brower said. “She didn’t feel compelled to publicly defend (Trump) at other dire points in his administration, when she could have made a difference in how he was perceived, so why should she stick her neck out now?”