Under Donald Trump, one tradition-bound White House office could be in for a small revolution. During the opening days of his administration, the Office of the First Lady could be nearly empty.
Melania Trump, the incoming president’s wife, will remain in New York to allow her young son, Barron, to finish out the school year. And although Trump’s daughter Ivanka will move to Washington, the family’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks said flatly that “Ivanka will not have a role in the East Wing.”
While the role of first lady has largely been shaped by each presidential spouse, there are some set duties assigned to the unsalaried position. She is expected to act as a hostess, and has a substantial paid staff (up to two dozen) to assist in planning massive lunches and dinners, supporting whatever cause she adopts and representing the country on goodwill tours.
As Trump moves into the White House alone, he seems content not to foist the role fully on his spouse. While Michelle Obama’s staff are packing up and moving out of the East Wing, there have been no announcements from the Trump transition team about who will serve on the first lady’s staff or handle the traditional White House events, some of which begin as soon as a new administration takes office.
“They are way, way behind,” said a former East Wing staff member who has talked with members of Trump’s team and spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. “The governors’ dinner is at the end of February. It’s like a state dinner. It’s very formal and takes a lot of planning.” As of press time, neither an East Wing chief of staff nor a social secretary had been appointed.
During the process of planning the inauguration, Melania Trump has relied on her friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, an event planner whose star rose in New York when she began planning the celebrity-packed Costume Institute gala. Wolkoff, who did not respond to an interview request, is unfamiliar with White House processes and Washington protocols but could be tapped for a senior East Wing position, said the person who had been consulted by the Trump transition.
Ann Stock, who served as social secretary under President Clinton, was appointed six days before the inauguration and came into an office with no computer but a long list of events to plan. After the governors’ dinner, there are receptions associated with the State of the Union address, an Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn attended by as many as 30,000 people, and of course, state dinners.
As social secretary “you work very, very closely with the first lady,” Stock said. “Mrs. Trump is going to be in New York, but technology makes it a lot easier. She can totally be engaged. One of the challenges of the first two months is going from campaigning to the transition to actually governing.” Whomever she eventually chooses as social secretary will rely heavily on the florists, calligraphers and chefs who stay on from administration to administration.
During Trump’s campaign, Melania, who is 24 years his junior, gave few speeches — while his daughter Ivanka and adult sons Eric and Donald Jr. were active surrogates. Ivanka introduced her father when he declared his candidacy and again at the Republican National Convention.
Questions remain about the roles the two women will play going forward: Will Melania Trump take on the traditional hostess role and fly to Washington to welcome foreign heads of state alongside her husband? Will Ivanka Trump, who was invited by her father to sit in on a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, carve out a role as policy partner? Who will have more influence over Trump? Hicks did not respond to several email requests regarding plans for the East Wing.
Melania, who worked as a model before marrying Trump, has shown little overt interest in engaging with the East Wing or the scrutiny that comes along with the first lady position. She is only the nation’s second foreign-born first lady, and she speaks five languages — Slovenian, English, French, Serbian and German.
Her fluency in those languages could help with the global outreach expected of a president’s spouse. Since her husband’s election, she has not embraced being a public figure, though she did say during the campaign that she intends to take on cyberbullying as an issue.
“The single most important role that a presidential spouse plays is as the emotional ballast and adviser,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian with the National First Ladies’ Library. “Sometimes she is the one person who has the courage and the tenacity to defy a president in private. Melania Trump may still be present behind the scenes as the confidante to her husband. If Ivanka Trump is more comfortable assuming a public role, the public will assume she’s representing her father. But it’s nuanced because a child is not going to be able to speak to a parent the same way a spouse will speak to their spouse.”
Still, Ivanka’s involvement could stretch the White House in new directions. In a statement on her Facebook page, the 35-year-old Ivanka said she will take a formal leave of absence from the Trump Organization and her fashion brand to settle her three children into new schools in Washington.
After hearing from advocates on issues she’s interested in — access to education for women and girls and fairness for women in business — Ivanka said, she will “determine the most impactful and appropriate ways” to serve the country. That could be either the nonpartisan cheerleader role that Michelle Obama filled, or it could veer into policy, as Hillary Clinton did with health care.
“There’s a lot of flexibility in how [the first lady’s office] is run and what shape that it takes,” said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush and has provided advice to the Trump transition team when called upon. If needed, it could accommodate support staff for a first daughter, she said.
Ivanka’s friend and adviser Dina Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, will join the Trump administration’s West Wing as an assistant to the president and senior counselor for economic initiatives focused on growing small businesses and the economic empowerment of women. Powell’s position could be a linchpin for establishing Ivanka’s public role.
Life in the White House has historically been a family affair, but Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner’s deep involvement would push the idea into new territory. It is unheard of in recent years to have adult children (or a son-in-law) working full time in the White House, in their 30s and 40s, who have the career and life experience to be involved in their father’s administration.
Some people have suggested that instead of a first lady, this White House might have a “first family.”
“The thing that has been consistent across contemporary politics is the first lady really is still a pretty symbolic role where it’s just an extension of the president,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “When we think of expanding from a first lady to a first family, it becomes a little bit fuzzy. His children are the heirs to his fortune and his businesses, so although Donald Trump technically has no conflict of interest, his children do.”
Ivanka, who grew up in the shadow of her father’s celebrity, has worked to create her own brand, which is focused on an idealized picture of life for professional working women. She is releasing a book in May called “Women Who Work.”
While Melania has not posted to social media since Election Day, Ivanka’s social media feed is full of cheerful family photos with her husband and children. Ivanka is also more familiar with Washington than other members of her family. As a college student, she studied at Georgetown University for two years and more recently headed up her father’s redevelopment of the Old Post Office Pavilion into a luxury hotel complex.
If Ivanka plays an active role in the administration, she would not be the first to do so. Other first daughters have played small roles in their father’s administrations, including Maureen Reagan, who led foreign delegations for her father, including to the United Nations Decade for Women conference in Nairobi in 1985. She was also the co-chair of the Republican National Committee and lived in the White House for a time. Susan Ford also traveled with her father on occasion.
Whether Ivanka will become the most powerful first daughter in history, as some have suggested, remains to be seen, said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
“It seems to break all the old patterns and molds on one hand. But on the other it follows all the old patriarchal structures,” Mandel said. “I don’t know that it portends any change for the long run.”