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 her chief of staff Stephanie Grisham, who helped craft the keynote address, which struck a humble and grateful tone, in stark contrast to her husband’s often boastful deliveries.
“There are no words to describe how honoured, humbled and fortunate I am to serve our nation as your first lady,” she said to an audience 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 Melania Trump’s 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 relations 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, before 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,” she 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 public empathy.
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“One of the roles the women in [Trump’s] inner circle play in public is to soften the message,” says Nina Burleigh, author of The Trump Women: Part of the Deal.
In her Rose Garden speech, the Melania Trump delivered, offering a comforting tone. “The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us,” she said, calling the illness by its official name, in contrast to the president, who consistently calls it the “China virus.”
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,” she said.
“He wants nothing more than for this country to prosper. And he doesn’t waste time playing politics.”
Unlike previous first ladies
Tuesday night she stepped out on her own, walking to the podium in a tailored olive-green two-piece suit belted at the waist, unaccompanied by the president, who watched with the audience in the Rose Garden.
Melania Trump has been unlike any previous first lady. 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.
She also heads up 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.
She has been criticized for her low-key public activity and for being out of touch.
“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.”
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.
Actress Mia Farrow quipped 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?”
And 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 Tuesday.
“I’m passionate about this beautiful house, the grounds and all they represent.”
Eventually, the pandemic did bring out more of the first lady. She tweeted encouragement for children to keep busy doing 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.
The dozens of guests sitting close together in the Rose Garden Tuesday evening were not wearing masks.
Rarely responds to critics
The first lady bats away 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 for 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 the president in this campaign.
Polls show her approval rating bests her husband’s, 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, [feeling] this is exactly how it’s supposed to be,” says Burleigh. “And a quiet, beautiful personage next to the president is an admirable woman.”
It’s a strategy, says Burleigh.
“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.”
Power struggle at White House
But observers say there is a power struggle in the White House between Melania Trump and the president’s daughter Ivanka.
“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 Jong-Fast.
A former friend of Melania Trump’s details alleged turf wars, and says Melania called Ivanka and her allies “snakes,” writes author Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in the forthcoming Melania & Me, a book to be published next week.
It’s expected Ivanka Trump will introduce her father to the convention on Thursday night.
But Melania Trump has her own distinct power, as a non-conformist in the White House, says CNN’s 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 she notes there are no set campaign events yet on Melania Trump’s schedule.