Melania Trump seemed like a rebellious first lady but she's turning out to be a retro one

By Krissah Thompson for Washington Post

Melania Trump to follow the lead of her first lady predecessors rather than be the rebellious first lady we expected. Photo / Getty Images
Melania Trump to follow the lead of her first lady predecessors rather than be the rebellious first lady we expected. Photo / Getty Images

Melania Trump's first act as first lady suggested she might play the rebel.

When she announced that she would not move to the White House right away - and instead remained in her New York penthouse with her young son while her husband began rolling out controversial executive orders in Washington - she flouted the most basic of all first lady traditions.

Now, after weeks of shirking the spotlight, Trump has begun to emerge from her cocoon, taking tentative steps to establish herself in her new role. In her first public events and statements, Trump has hewed surprisingly close to the historical expectations of first ladies, reported the Washington Post.

Rather than rebellious, she is shaping up to be retro.

"As people get to know her, [they will see] she has been so focused on tradition and family and children," said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman.

Earlier this month, Trump released her official portrait, a signal that she would be ramping up her official duties.

The portrait echoed in style and aesthetic the official photographs of two of her Republican predecessors. She stood in front of an ornate window in the White House, as did Nancy Reagan, and wore a black blazer and folded her arms as did Laura Bush.

Two days later, Trump hosted Jordan's Queen Rania for the most conventional of first lady activities - a tour of an all-girls public charter school that included a stop in a visual arts class. "Beautiful," Trump said softly, while looking at a painting by one of the students. Last week, she took Peng Liyuan, the wife of the visiting Chinese president, to tour a middle school in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Her conventional approach is in line with her personality and style, said an associate who has known the family for years and spoke on the condition of anonymity, lacking authorization by the Trumps to speak the press.


First lady Melania Trump, right, and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, left, applaud while listening to an orchestra perform while touring the Bak Middle School. Photo / AP
First lady Melania Trump, right, and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, left, applaud while listening to an orchestra perform while touring the Bak Middle School. Photo / AP

"She is steeped in Eastern European history," the associate said. "You can't grow up in her region without being that way, and Mrs. Trump has a high appreciation for the thread of history and its passing from generation to generation, administration to administration and empire to empire."

Trump's ceremonial role as the nation's hostess will take center stage Monday when she hosts her largest event yet at the White House. The annual Easter Egg Roll, which had grown into a carnivallike celebration of healthy eating and exercise under Michelle Obama, will shrink in the Trump era.

"This year being our first, we've chosen to focus on the historic aspect of the Easter Egg Roll," Grisham said. She said the first lady was concerned that the event had grown too large - 35,000 attendees last year - creating long waits for some activities.

The scaled-back event - the White House won't say how many are expected, but noted that 18,000 souvenir eggs will be given to children - will recall an era when the biggest star in attendance was the Easter Bunny, who first appeared in 1969 when a member of Pat Nixon's staff wore the furry costume. During the Obama years, the Easter Egg Roll drew performances by Justin Bieber and Idina Menzel, clinics by sports pros and presentations by celebrity chefs.

This year the only announced performers are little-known bands Bro4 and Martin Family Circus.

This pivot away from pop culture is a safe tack for the new first lady, who has been acquainting herself with the way things have historically been done at the White House.

While she has spent relatively little time in Washington, she has borrowed books from the White House Historical Association's archives, which describe the antiques and traditions of the executive mansion, said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush and sits on the association's board.

"She is very interested in past practice and in precedent, and that gives you context for where you can do things your way and you make your mark," McBride said. "She has a respect and reverence for the White House and its traditions and the opportunities that she has to follow in the footsteps of her predecessors even without residing there."

Even still, Trump's moves to follow her predecessors have all been tentative and excruciatingly slow to some onlookers.

"She is embracing the ceremonial aspects of the role but we have not seen any advocacy," said Myra Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University and author who has studied first ladies.

In her first public events and statements, Melania Trump has hewed surprisingly close to the historical expectations of first ladies. Photo / AP
In her first public events and statements, Melania Trump has hewed surprisingly close to the historical expectations of first ladies. Photo / AP

Trump said during the campaign that she would like to lead an initiative to combat cyberbullying, but has not yet taken any public steps in that direction. She has a small staff in place at the White House, and associates say she is building a rapport with them while moving cautiously to establish herself.

She is keen to avoid any big mistakes particularly after the embarrassment she suffered following a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention that she later acknowledged contained lines plagiarized from Michelle Obama.

"She is going to try to take time to do things right," Grisham said, explaining the pace of the first lady's activity. "The fact that it takes time to do it right doesn't faze her at all."

Initially, the first lady relied heavily on her friend and senior adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a fashion industry event planner who helped organize President Trump's inauguration but had no experience in the White House or in politics.

Trump has since added several experienced Republicans to her team, including a chief of staff, social secretary and director of the White House Visitors Office - all key to planning events at the executive mansion.

As the first lady's team works to put the Easter Egg Roll together, they are getting to know Trump, who has popped into Washington to host a luncheon celebrating International Women's Day, held a reception for senators with her husband and helped hand out awards celebrating women at the State Department.

The public glare still seems challenging for the first lady, who is said to cherish her privacy.

At the awards ceremony, Trump read from a teleprompter and seemed uncomfortable behind the microphone, but warmly embraced the awardees, looking visibly relaxed when her speech was over.

Trump also seemed especially at ease during the visit with Queen Rania, a woman who also had to adjust to life as a high-profile spouse.

The Jordanian queen, now 46, once described in an interview with Oprah Winfrey the steep learning curve she faced upon her coronation. "You grow into the role," she said. "You take it by your stride."

During their visit to the Excel Academy Charter School in Southeast Washington, the two women had a roundtable with school officials, parents and students.

As cameras broadcast their meeting to the world, Queen Rania asked question after question. Trump sat silently at the center of the table, watching her.

- Washington Post

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