Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night was a triumph of redemption after her disastrous remarks at the 2016 convention, where she was accused of plagiarizing former First Lady Michelle Obama.
This time, her speech was “every word her own,” said chief of staff Stephanie Grisham, who helped craft the keynote speech, which struck a humble and grateful tone in stark contrast to her husband’s typically boastful deliveries.
“There are no words to describe how honoured, humbled and fortunate I am to serve our nation as your first lady,” the first lady said warmly to an audience — including President Trump — sitting in the White House Rose Garden.
“I don’t know if I can fully explain how many people I take home with me in my heart.”
But her appearance Tuesday night had a higher calling, critical to her husband’s success in November.
She needed to reach out to American women, who voted for Trump in 2016 but who threaten to abandon him now over race and the pandemic.
“Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of, part of our history,” she said, addressing head-on the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed more than 178,000 Americans.
“My deepest sympathy goes out to all of you who have lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering,” the first lady said. “I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know you are not alone.”
The president’s campaign team quietly acknowledges and polls support that he has alienated some suburban women, turned off by his handling of the pandemic, and his absence of empathy.
In her Rose Garden speech, the first lady delivered; offering a comforting tone. “The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us,” she said, notably calling the illness COVID-19, unlike the President who consistently calls it the “China virus.”
“One of the roles the women in his [Trump’s] inner circle play, in public, is to soften the message,” says Nina Burleigh author of “The Trump Women: Part of the Deal.”
But post speech commentators noted Melania Trump lost some goodwill by describing her husband as an honest broker.
“We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve from our president.”
“He wants nothing more than for this country to prosper. And he doesn’t waste time playing politics,” she said.
Unlike previous first ladies
Tuesday night she stepped out on her own, walking to the podium in an olive green, tailored, two-piece suit belted at the waist, unaccompanied by the president who watched with an audience in the garden.
Melania Trump has been unlike any first lady ever. She eschews public speaking, does few interviews and famously swatted her husband’s hand away when he tried to hold hers on an official trip to Israel in 2017.
Trump also created Be Best, an initiative aimed at helping children reach their potential, raise awareness of the opioid crisis and discouraging online bullying.
In her next four years as First Lady, she said boldly, she’d continue this work.
“Helping children is not a political goal, it is our moral imperative,” she said.
But in recent months, with millions of Americans out of work during the pandemic, she spent time redesigning the Rose Garden, adding more roses, upgrading lighting, irrigation, and stone paths. The project was completed just last week, in time for the convention staging.
“I also look forward to continuing my work to restore the people’s house, which is a lasting symbol of pride for our nation,” she said.
“I’m passionate about this beautiful house, the grounds and all they represent.”
In early March, just as the pandemic picked up steam, Trump tweeted a picture of herself in a hard hat looking over plans for a new tennis pavilion on the White House grounds, prompting a flurry of criticism.
The photo prompted actress Mia Farrow to quip in her own tweet, “29 people were killed by a tornado in Tennessee, the world is shuddering as a pandemic expands and what is a tennis pavilion?”
Trump was sometimes mocked for the word puzzles she encouraged children to play to keep them occupied during the pandemic.
“The virus was here in America, and she was slow to really pick up on that and engage,” says Kate Bennet who covers the First Lady for CNN, and authored a recent book Free Melania: The Unauthorized Biography.
“We didn’t hear from her for quite some time,” Bennet said. “A lot of Americans go to the first lady to be a voice of compassion.”
Eventually, the pandemic did bring out more of the first lady. She tweeted encouragement for word puzzles and recorded stiff public service announcements from the White House.
In early April, with 2,000 deaths a day in the U.S., she donned a mask and encouraged Americans to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“She’s a professional model and her face is her medium. So for her to put the mask on was a real message. And I think she should be credited for doing that,” says Burleigh.
But Melania Trump hasn’t repeated her earlier call to wear masks, while her husband deliberately avoided wearing one until last month. “I’ve never been against masks but I do believe they have a time and a place,” Donald Trump said in July.
The dozens of guests sitting close together in the Rose Garden Tuesday evening were not wearing masks.
“She’s behaving exactly as I would expect her to be. Which is pretty much toeing the line of the administration,” says Burleigh.
Rarely responds to critics
The First Lady bats off criticism about her choices and priorities, especially after commentators pointed out the irony of her campaign against cyberbullying.
“It’s like almost beyond satire, the idea of having her focus on cyberbullying when her husband is the number one cyberbully,” says Molly Jong-Fast, editor at large of the Daily Beast and co-host of the podcast The New Abnormal, who has criticized the first lady as “not smart,” and failing to “use her platform for good.”
Trump rarely responds to her critics directly, but in one tweet this spring she said, “I encourage everyone who chooses to be negative & question my work at the @WhiteHouse to take time and contribute something good & productive in their own communities. #BeBest.”
The first lady, though, is popular and an asset to President Trump in this campaign.
“She’s very beautiful, very elegant. She has very nice clothing. She has a lot of the things that the American culture adores,” says Jong-Fast.
“But there’s nothing there. There’s nothing behind that beauty.”
Polls show her approval rating bests her husbands’ and a Gallup poll late in 2019 suggested she was the second most admired woman in the United States, behind Michelle Obama.
“In this country, there are pockets of America where the wife votes with the husband this is exactly how it’s supposed to be. And a quiet beautiful personage next to the president is an admirable woman,” says Burleigh.
It’s a strategy, says Burleigh, who cautions those who suggest Melania Trump is trapped, a hostage in the White House.
“I think as he [Trump] gets older, more unsteady on his feet figuratively and literally, she has more power in that relationship as younger women do who are married to older men,” she says.
Power struggle at White House
“He depends on her stepping up when he needs it. I think she has power. And I think she uses it when she wants it.”
But observers say there is a power struggle in the White House between Melania and the President’s daughter Ivanka, sometimes referred to as “The First First Lady.”
“Melania hasn’t taken a role yet, and there really isn’t a role for her because Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka are so involved,” says Molly Jong-Fast.
A book to be published next week by a former friend of Melania Trump details alleged turf wars where Melania called Ivanka and her allies, “snakes,” writes author Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in Melania & Me.”
It’s expected Ivanka will introduce her father to the convention on Thursday night.
But Melania has her own distinct power, as a non-conformist in the White House, says CNN correspondent Kate Bennet.
“She is not a political spouse or a seasoned Washington insider. So to expect or anticipate that all a sudden she is going to become this standard-bearer of what a first lady can and should do, I think we need to readjust our paradigm,” says Bennet.
“From what I’m hearing from sources, she does intend to campaign, to have more active participation as we ramp up to the election,” says Bennet, but adds there are no set campaign events yet on her schedule.