But before the first lady’s turn in the spotlight Tuesday night, she had been out of the public view for more than five weeks. Her last official outing was a Christmastime trip with the president to visit the troops in Iraq.
Two years into her time as first lady, such absences from public life no longer raise many questions. Last year, Trump had a 24-day stretch between appearances during which her office said she had undergone a procedure to treat a benign kidney condition. Similarly, she spent most of the month leading up to her husband’s 2018 State of the Union address out of sight.
Several historians and commentators who analyze first ladies have stopped expecting Trump to behave the way her predecessors have.
“It should absolutely not be surprising to anyone that she does things her own way, wants to be in control of her public life as best she can and does not feel pressure to adhere to others’ expectations of her or the role she temporarily occupies,” said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “It has adapted to her way of doing things and her timetable and interests.”
The president’s State of the Union address is often a showcase for the first lady. The guests who sat with her Tuesday in the box in the gallery above the House chamber served, in part, to highlight the themes the president touched on in his speech — as well as the first lady’s initiatives. This year’s invitees included 10-year-old Grace Eline, a cancer survivor, and 11-year-old Joshua Trump, who the White House said has been taunted at school because of his last name. Combating bullying and encouraging civility is one of the planks of the first lady’s “Be Best” initiative, which promotes the well-being of children.
Last year, the first lady’s appearance came amid news reports of allegations her husband had an affair with adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Her arrival that night at the Capitol in a separate motorcade from her husband’s added fuel to the speculation about strain on their marriage — something Melania Trump and her spokeswoman have emphatically swatted down. This year, the first couple also arrived separately, with the White House saying she arrived early to accommodate the guests who joined her in the gallery.
Lauren Wright, a Princeton University professor and the author of “On Behalf of the President,” said she sees Melania Trump — and the public’s interest in her — as an untapped resource in the administration. Her presence during tumultuous times, could be “a normalizing and stabilizing force,” Wright said, and her ability to make headlines with her fashion choices or small gestures could be used strategically.
“Any other administration dealing with the level of instability [of] this one would definitely try to mobilize the first lady,” Wright said. But it’s become clear that this administrations is different, she noted. “The most productive expectation is not to expect anything at all.”
Trump does have spates of busyness. The first lady hosted a slew of Christmas parties and attended other preholiday events, including a November forum with students at Liberty University and a “Toys for Tots” drive held by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
However, she more recently spent about half of the 35-day government shutdown at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, and she returned again this past weekend to the luxury Palm Beach estate.
Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said that while the government was partially shuttered and the East Wing staff shrank in half, to five people, the first lady held planning meetings for her “Be Best” initiative.
The public has gotten only a few glimpses of Trump this year. In late January, she posted a photo on social media of herself walking along the colonnade that borders the Rose Garden. “Our work in the East wing continues into 2019 with online safety, fighting opioid abuse & supporting the well-being of children everywhere!” she wrote, adding the hashtag #BeBest.
Last week, she posted again. “February is Black History Month,” Trump wrote. “Let us come together in celebration of our diversity to remember our past and look towards our future.”
Melania Trump’s relatively long absences, though, inevitably lead to social-media speculation. On Twitter, the #WheresMelania hashtag has periodically cropped up.
McBride said Trump’s norm-busting approach to the role of first lady might make it easier for those who follow her to do things their own way. After all, even though modern first ladies have used the platform for issues such as helping to establish AIDS relief for Africa and expanding federal health care for children, it still comes with dated tropes like cookie-recipe contests.
“Any future occupant benefits from the departure of the expectations placed on the role over time,” McBride said. “However, it’s still important for any occupant to remember what Lady Bird Johnson said: ‘I have a podium and I intend to use it.’ ”