About 30 students applauded as they munched popcorn, but as usual there were moments when the first lady’s advocacy of kindness and opposition to bullying were in tension with her husband’s public posture.
“I’m very excited today to have you here to screen an amazing movie,” she told the students in her brief remarks.
“Horseface … a total con!” President Trump tweeted last week about Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who claims she had a sexual relationship with him.
The event was intended to celebrate National Bullying Prevention Month, and the screening with schoolchildren was a first for the first lady, though first families dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration have watched movies on the big screen in the White House. Trump’s predecessor, Michelle Obama, often hosted film screenings and invited celebrities to the White House for the viewings.
Joel Haber, a psychologist and anti-bullying lecturer, said the president’s name-calling makes it hard for his wife to be credible on the subject. “It’s difficult for her to talk about kindness,” he said, “when literally within her home there’s behavior that contradicts her message.”
Melania Trump has said that she doesn’t stand behind all of her husband’s social-media missives. “I don’t always agree what he tweets and I tell him that,” she told reporters in Cairo earlier this month, adding that she sometimes tells him to put down his phone.
Still, HuffPost labeled Trump the “queen of irony” for hosting the event, and noted that she had called herself “one of the most bullied people on earth” earlier this month because of the criticism she receives.
The first lady and her staff seem to know that choosing to fight online bullying invites controversy. Some people, she said, wouldn’t understand.
“I am well aware that people are skeptical of me talking about this topic,” she said last year at a roundtable discussion with tech executives.
Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, has said that she is “aware of the criticism, but it will not deter her from doing what she feels is right.”
But critics argue that her public campaign should be judged by whether it is working. Democratic strategist Jim Manley said that as long as her husband keeps up his steady stream of insults against political opponents, Melania Trump looks ineffective as an advocate for kindness.
“So much of what Trump says is beyond the pale,” Manley said. “And the fact that she doesn’t condemn it just undermines the whole effort.”
Each time Melania Trump has spoken on the subject, news reports and social-media observers have pointed out the disconnect, which often plays out in real time. As she spoke in August at a cyberbullying conference in Rockville, Md., her husband spent the morning calling special counsel Robert S. Mueller III “disgraced and discredited.” After the first lady’s speech, the president was again on Twitter, calling John Brennan “the worst CIA Director in our country’s history.”
As she was returning to the White House from a speech in Northern Virginia in June where she told high-schoolers that “kindness, compassion and positivity are very important traits in life,” the president was picking a Twitter fight with late-night host Jimmy Fallon. “Be a man Jimmy!” President Trump tweeted.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine a first lady, whose job typically involves some serious tongue-holding, directly rebuking her husband in full view of the American people. But Manley said that’s why the effort was troubled from the start. “She picked an initiative that goes to one of the most outrageous aspects of this presidency,” he said.
And Haber has a similar fear about the first lady’s message being undercut by her husband’s rhetoric. Donald Trump’s most pointed lines often get the biggest cheers from his supporters, Haber said.
“I’m afraid that we’re in a culture that now, we want to join the bullying group because that’s what’s rallying people’s sentiment,” Haber said. “They don’t want to be on the victim side of it.”