Melania Trump’s whirlwind week started with a flight on Sunday to Washington from Paris, where her husband had faced stinging criticism for missing a ceremony honoring the military in World War I. Over the next few days, as the president reportedly fumed and contemplated a rattling staff shake-up, the first lady had a tumultuous week of her own.
She seemed to publicly slight her predecessor, Michelle Obama, then made headlines when NBC reported that she was had clashed with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Finally, Trump initiated a personnel drama of her own when she engineered the ouster of the deputy national security adviser.
By Thursday, the first lady appeared serene and smiley at a panel discussion with teenagers about fighting bullying online.
Trump’s attendance at the conference marked a return to business as usual for the first lady, who has made combating online bullying part of her signature “Be Best” initiative for children.
“Today’s technology provides people with a digital shield to hide behind and being anonymous often takes the place of being caring and responsible, which can lead to children and adults feeling empowered to be unkind and at times, cruel,” Trump said at the “Creating a Culture of Responsibility Online” panel, which was part of a conference put on by the Family Online Safety Institute. “As I have said before, it is not news or surprising to me that critics and the media have chosen to ridicule me for speaking out on this issue, and that’s okay. I remain committed to tackling this topic because it will provide a better world for our children.”
But it capped a week in which she took a much more aggressive posture herself — and one that has reshaped the way many people will see her.
Previously, many people have viewed the guarded first lady as the “kinder, gentler Trump,” said Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University history professor. But a statement from her office declaring that deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel “no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House” could indicate that she’s willing to trade her “soft power” for the kind of blunter-edged style that the rest of Team Trump routinely employs, she said.
“To the extent things are working in the Trump White House, the preferred style is take-no-prisoners,” Jellison added. “It certainly is how her husband has his way.”
After the statement from Melania Trump’s office, Ricardel — who had tangled with several members of Trump’s small and loyal East Wing staff over the first lady’s trip to Africa last month — was out.
Trump has typically offered advice to her husband in private, hardly ever stepping into the West Wing or publicly weighing in on news of the day, a dynamic that might invite West Wing staffers to overlook her as a force. And she has underscored the limits of the counsel she does give to her husband. “I give him my honest advice and honest opinions,” she said in an ABC interview last month. “And then he does what he wants to do.”
But Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush, said the episode with Ricardel cemented the first lady’s privilege of having the last word with her husband. “If staff had not caught on that he is going to support his wife at the end of the day over them, here is a lesson,” she said.
While it was highly unusual for a first lady to so publicly oust a White House aide, the firing wasn’t her first. The Trumps last year pushed out chief usher Angella Reid, who was hired on the White House residence staff by the Obamas, and replaced her with Timothy Harleth, a senior manager at Washington’s Trump International Hotel. And this summer, the first lady’s policy director, Reagan Hedlund, was asked to leave her job, according to a person with knowledge of the move.
Trump’s headline-grabbing moves also came just as her predecessor, Michelle Obama, embarked on a media tour to promote her memoir, “Becoming.” The former first lady has been a near-constant presence in the media this week, appearing alongside Oprah Winfrey in Chicago on Tuesday night for a stop on her book tour, with Jenna Bush Hagar on NBC’s “Today Show” Wednesday, and on “The Ellen Show” on Thursday.
Later this week, Obama is slated to drop by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and appear at another sold-out book tour stop at the Capital One Arena in Washington.
Another media appearance, an interview with Robin Roberts that aired earlier this week, drew the current first lady into headlines about her predecessor. Roberts asked Obama whether Trump had ever reached out to her for help — as Obama had to Laura Bush’s team. Trump, Obama said, had never called.
That revelation prompted Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham to release a statement: “Mrs. Trump is a strong and independent woman who has been navigating her role as First Lady in her own way,” Grisham told reporters. “When she needs advice on any issue, she seeks it from her professional team within the White House.”
In the end, the week did seem to be about Melania Trump asserting her independence, said Jellison, who added that first ladies often feel permanently resigned to the passenger seat in their husband’s administrations.
“If a first lady typically has a sense of powerlessness, ramp that up a few notches and that’s Melania Trump’s world,” Jellison said. “This could be her moment to say, ‘I’m putting my foot down, and I’m going to try to control this corner of my world.’ ”