Melania's 100 Days: Slowly Growing Into First Lady Role

Melania's 100 Days: Slowly Growing Into First Lady Role
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Melania Trump has upped her public profile in the past month but that hasn’t stifled speculation that she is a reluctant first lady as she approaches the 100-day mark in that role.

In the past 30 days Trump, who turns 47 today, has been a more visible presence in her husband’s administration, meeting with her foreign equivalents and appearing at White House events. A video of her at the White House Easter Egg Roll, nudging President Trump to put his hand on his heart during the national anthem, went viral.

It’s a marked change from three months ago, when the president and first lady weren’t seen together in the early weeks of the new administration.

Thus far, her presence has been a quiet, but beautifully dressed, one. She has given very few speeches, as was the case on the campaign trail. One rare moment the public heard from her was on March 29 at the State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards. A lack of confidence with her English, which is not her native language, was obvious. She alternated between two teleprompters, speaking slowly and carefully, never breaking script. When she handed out awards to women who had displayed exceptional courage in fighting for gender equality – some had been beaten and burned – she was cool and composed but a bit distant.

Comparisons between first ladies may not be fair but they are inevitable. And as Trump finishes her first 100 days in the most public, yet non-defined, role in the country, questions linger as to what kind of first lady the Slovenia native will be.

Laura Bush’s love of reading shone through during her time in the White House. Michelle Obama called herself the mom-in-chief. If Melania Trump doesn’t carve out her own identity soon, she risks having one carved out for her.

“A lot of people have expectations, maybe unrealistic, about what a first lady should do. And she, at the moment, isn’t really living up to those,” said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who specializes in first ladies.

Jellison warned that the public may already being defining Trump as “the reluctant first lady.”

Trump famously didn’t move into the White House after her husband was inaugurated, saying she would do so after her son finished his current school year.

“She said she’d be more active after Barron’s school year is out. If that comes to pass and she doesn’t change to her ways, I think it might be time for her to be more questioned,” Jellison said.

The speculation about Trump’s future was stoked by a Vanity Fair article published last week that painted an unflattering picture of the inner Trump world.

The East Wing denied any unhappiness on the part of the first lady and has said repeatedly she will move to D.C. once the academic year ends. But there has been little talk from Trump herself, which would be the fastest, most efficient way to quiet the speculation.

There’s also the question of whether there will be a grand first lady rollout: Will she get the cover of Vogue, as other first ladies have? Will she go on the “Today” show? Or perhaps one of the late-night shows? It all remains to be seen.

As will what she will do with the public platform that comes with job title.

Trump has said she plans to focus on cyber bullying, but there have been no public signs of that being embraced – no staff hirings announced that would focus on the issue, no public forums on it, no partnerships with companies that could help address the problem.

Tina Tchen, who was chief of staff to Michelle Obama, said it can take up to a year to launch an initiative properly, and there’s a lot of background work to do before the public announcement.

“It’s hard work if you do these initiatives right. It’s a lot of work. It took about a year for each one of those to launch. Because you have to really understand the issue,” Tchen said. “It’s not easy to figure out which issues you really want to work on, which issues you can have an effect on and which ones will be value-added and where your time will be value-added, where you can make a difference.”

Trump was late in hiring her staff. She announced Chief of Staff Lindsay Reynolds on February 1 (12 days after inauguration) and Communications Director Stephanie Grisham came on board March 27. Most first ladies have their senior staff in place before they enter the White House.

“If she doesn’t have that staff who are in there doing the outside work, laying the groundwork – people should be thinking about that right now,” Tchen said of the first lady’s initiative building.

“We have roughly 10 staff working in the East Wing; this does not include the visitor’s office,” Grisham told RealClearPolitics. “The First Lady is being very thoughtful in building out her platform and initiatives; we’re not putting any timelines on it but in the meantime she continues to participate in many events and visits to places like schools, hospitals, and most recently HomeSafe down in Florida.” (The latter is a shelter for victims of domestic violence.)

Other first ladies have addressed smaller agenda items faster – Jackie Kennedy, whom Trump has been compared to, began her White House restoration project almost immediately, unveiling her plans in April 1961, just a few months after her husband was inaugurated. Michelle Obama broke ground on her White House garden in March 2009.

Meanwhile, the first lady has a busy week. She visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday, appeared Monday at a luncheon with ambassadors of countries on the United Nations Security Council, and she is scheduled to welcome children to the White House on Thursday for Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day.

Emily Goodin is the managing editor of RealClearPolitics.

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