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Melania Trump, a most private first lady, finds her voice in a stay-at-home pandemic

President Trump first lady Melania Trump walk outside the West Wing. (Michael Reynolds/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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There Melania Trump was on Instagram, wearing a surgical mask and stressing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that covering your face could slow the spread of the coronavirus.

There she was, tweeting again, to praise grocery store workers, power plant employees, and “those delivering mail & packages to all us at home & keeping the shelves stocked.”

There she was in a public service announcement thanking “American senior citizens” for following CDC guidelines to stay at home.

For much of her tenure as perhaps the most press-shy first lady in modern American history, Trump has seemed uncomfortable with the speaking engagements and public appearances that have long been the tradition in her unpaid and unelected position. She rarely campaigned for her husband in 2016, often talks to children rather than adults at her Be Best initiative events, and almost never gives media interviews.

Yet the past month, with the pandemic requiring her messaging to come from a more controlled, stay-at-home environment, her Twitter and Instagram feed have become all coronavirus all the time. And for the first time in nearly 3½ years, the first lady seems to have found her voice.

It is a voice that sometimes directly contradicts her husband, who said “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem” when talking about favoring reopening the economy. He also opposed a bailout of the U.S. Postal Service and refuses to be seen in a face mask.

“I just don’t want to wear one,” President Trump said in a briefing the same day as Melania Trump’s mask photos posted. His briefings usually feature administration officials and health experts standing shoulder to shoulder and using the same microphone.

“Between the two of them, she certainly is the person who is more sensitive to social graces,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies. “I think she’s an intelligent person and that she’s focused on getting a fact-based message out there consistently is probably a very good sign.”

Lisa M. Burns, a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University, said this is the longest series of consistent posts she’s seen from this first lady, and she’s “pretty impressed” at how apolitical the content has been: “It’s really interesting to me that she’s choosing to not retweet her husband, but she’s mainly retweeting the CDC.”

Melania Trump’s audience is distinct from her husband’s. She has more traction with women, and her approval ratings are not necessarily tied to his. According to a Gallup poll released at the end of 2019, Trump is the second-most-admired woman in the United States, ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton but behind Michelle Obama, who received double Trump’s percentage of the write-in vote.

The steady hand of Trump’s recent social media messaging, though, has for the most part gotten lost in the sheer volume of information coming from the president. Unlike his press briefings, her public service announcements are not appearing on television. She has only appeared in public once in recent weeks, at a tree planting ceremony for Earth Day on Wednesday at which she gave no remarks. Contradicting the constant health reminders on her Twitter and Instagram feeds, she did not wear a mask and did not practice social distancing.

Her spokeswoman and new chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham — President Trump’s former press secretary — moved back to the East Wing this month after some personnel shuffling in the West Wing. Grisham painted a picture of active engagement on the first lady’s part.

“Mrs. Trump receives regular briefings on covid-19 from medical experts and individuals on the task force,” Grisham said. The mask photo and an accompanying PSA that urged the public to “wear cloth face coverings in a public setting where social distancing measures can be difficult to maintain,” were done in cooperation with the CDC and the White House coronavirus task force. At the beginning of the pandemic, Melania Trump had attended briefings in person, including in the Oval Office — and still does in-person briefings sometimes, with proper social distancing, a White House official said. Otherwise, she’s getting her information by phone.

Perspective | Wearing a face mask is humbling and generous. That’s not how Trump defines leadership.

“In a time when social distancing is vital, she is reaching out to connect with the American people through videos and social media,” said Grisham. “She knows how important it is that the public receives critical information and follows suggested health guidelines.”

Since April 2, Trump also has been having phone conversations with the spouses of administration-friendly world leaders, including Akie Abe of Japan, Brigitte Macron of France, and Carrie Symonds, fiance to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was recently released from the hospital after suffering bad symptoms of covid-19. Johnson had called the stopping of public gatherings “quite draconian.” Symonds is pregnant and also has had symptoms of covid-19. Trump wished them “a speedy and full recovery.”

Summaries from her conversations with spouses, provided by her office, have included both condolences and discussions of policy. With Laura Mattarella, the daughter of Italian President Sergio Mattarella, she “gave her heartfelt condolences for the many Italians who have lost their lives to the coronavirus” and also discussed a $100 million aid package. With Sophie Grégoire Trudeau of Canada, who contracted covid-19 and recovered, the conversation included the border-crossing ban, discussion of the two countries’ $1.7 billion daily trade, and “multilateral repatriation efforts” for citizens stuck on cruise ships.

It’s a shift since her last public appearance on March 10, when she spoke for six minutes at the National PTA Legislative Conference and didn’t mention the coronavirus. In the days before that event, critics had compared her to Marie Antoinette for tweeting photos of herself in a hard hat overseeing construction of a tennis pavilion at the White House as covid-19 was spreading.

The next day, Trump first mentioned coronavirus on her Twitter feed. According to sources cited by the New York Times, the first lady was staying silent while waiting for official guidance from the CDC.

“It would be abnormal if she wasn’t concerned,” said Paolo Zampolli, the businessman and United Nations ambassador often credited for introducing Donald and Melania Trump.

These days, the first lady’s staff is working from home, and if they do come in for meetings, everyone stays six feet apart.

Still, Trump’s faced some criticism. For example, some observers have wondered whether she is violating social distancing guidelines because her hair and nails look so put-together.

“She was a successful model for many years,” said Zampolli. “Models know how to do their makeup because they have to do makeup four times a day. So I would assume she knows how to do her makeup, her hair, all of that.”

“The Daily Show” doctored her mask photo with “I really don’t care, do u?” as a callback to the famous jacket she wore on a trip to visit immigrant children detained at the Mexican border. When the first lady posted a word search puzzle as “a great way to bond with your loved ones while testing your #WhiteHouse knowledge,” Twitter users pointed out that the country desperately needed a different kind of test, for coronavirus; that they couldn’t do family time because of financial hardship; that their loved ones were hospitalized or dead.

First daughter Ivanka Trump, though, has been the focus of more ribbing from social media pundits for posting instructional drawings of shadow puppets from the 1860s as a suggested “Saturday night activity.” A few Twitter users responded with pictures of their hands in more vulgar gestures. Ivanka Trump also posted multiple times about social distancing, including her own photo in a homemade mask, and then took a nonessential trip into the coronavirus hot spot of New Jersey for Passover while many Jews were staying home.

The first lady’s influence behind the scenes is evident in Grisham’s own trajectory through the White House. Grisham served as the first lady’s communications director and kept that position even after being promoted to the West Wing to succeed Sarah Sanders as White House press secretary.

Grisham was replaced in early April as press secretary after reportedly clashing with President Trump’s new chief of staff, former congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina. But the first lady welcomed her back to the East Wing, saying in a news release that “she has been a mainstay and true leader in the administration from even before day one, and I know she will excel as chief of staff.” The first lady’s previous chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, resigned abruptly to “spend time with family,” according to the release. This week, the East Wing added two more staffers from the West Wing.

This internal upheaval in the first lady’s office has been happening as former first ladies have also been rallying the country together. On Saturday, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush appeared on the “One World: Together at Home” concert organized by Global Citizen and curated by Lady Gaga in support of the World Health Organization — which President Trump had begun to defund last Wednesday.

Obama and Bush presented an image of friendship and bipartisan unity on a national stage, while speaking in turns from their own homes.

Obama is also hosting a weekly “Mondays With Michelle Obama” reading series as part of PBS Kids Read-Along series that started this week and will run through May 11. Trump had posted a similar reading of “The Little Rabbit,” which she would have read to children at the White House Easter Egg Roll, which was canceled because of the pandemic.

“They’re filling a need. Maybe Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush just thought it was something they could do in a time of crisis and acted on their old first-lady instincts,” said Jellison.

Historically in times of crisis, first ladies have taken the role of being “a calming presence, to especially speak to other women that we’ll get through this,” Jellison said. “You know, ‘We’re a great nation. We’ll get through this. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.’ That kind of role.”

Laura Bush was called the “Comforter in Chief” for visiting injured victims and families of the dead after 9/11, and went on Oprah Winfrey’s show to talk to parents about how to explain the devastation to their kids. Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded a movement toward austerity in the White House and visited laborers’ camps during the Great Depression. During World War II, she went to see wounded soldiers in their hospital beds, made a point of supporting the first black combat troops, the Tuskegee Airmen, and then later visited Jewish refugee camps in Europe.

In a scathing column headlined “The Country Could Use a First Lady. But Melania Trump Has Gone AWOL,” liberal pundit Molly Jong-Fast of the Daily Beast argued that Trump is squandering the opportunity to be that kind of comforter. “This pandemic would have been an incredible opportunity for her. Think of the photo ops!” Jong-Fast wrote recently. “She could have been sewing masks, visiting children of doctors, nurses, victims of the virus. Melania could have been raising money for personal protective equipment for front line workers.” She could have put on a mask, Jong-Fast argued, and delivered meals to the homebound, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did.

Chastising her for not doing such things, though, Jellison argued, is not taking into account the nature of this crisis. “You can’t have her running down to a day-care center and comforting children in person,” said Jellison. “That would not be the appropriate thing to do in a crisis that entails social distancing.”

Burns said any such appearance would probably result in negative press. A photo op at a food bank would involve an entourage of Secret Service and news cameras and pull attention away from the charitable work. Throwing support behind some organizations and not others could be seen as political.

“I just think anything the first ladies do, they’re criticized. That’s just kind of a double-bind life they lead,” said Burns. “The smartest thing she can do is not generate controversy.”

Plus, Trump might simply be most comfortable away from the spotlight.

“She’s always been very, very reserved,” said Zampolli, the Trump friend. Zampolli said that even in her younger days as a Slovenian immigrant model in New York City, Trump never liked to go out and party. She preferred dinner with friends. “She came to New York to work,” he said. “She didn’t come to New York to be out and about.” Now, he said, she’s focused on her teenage son, Barron.

What she could do, Jellison said, was exactly what she’s doing: “As someone who isn’t that comfortable in the spotlight, she can get a consistent, fact-based message out to the people. She doesn’t have to be literally in the spotlight, wading through people to play that role. She can be the social media first lady Comforter in Chief. And maybe that is a role that fits her well with her more introverted personality.”