Inside Melania Trump's unprecedented campaign trail absence
Posted October 21, 2020 3:05 p.m. EDT
CNN — First lady Melania Trump -- in a historic break from precedent -- has yet to set foot on the campaign trail this year even as her husband, President Donald Trump, fights for votes, especially among suburban White women with whom she could hold appeal.
A source who knows the first lady told CNN Melania Trump is doing what she often does: whatever she feels like.
"It is who she is," says the friend and former administration official of Trump's staying off the trail while other surrogates and family members tackle packed schedules in battleground states.
"She does what she wants, when she wants ... She can be a contrarian," another former White House staffer said.
The campaign has sought her presence. But with the election less than two weeks away and no scheduled events, it's unlikely the first lady will engage in any significant way. This stands in stark contrasts to nearly all modern first ladies, many of who served a critical role in humanizing their husbands to women voters.
On Tuesday, citing an "abundance of caution" and a "lingering cough" after her bout with Covid-19, Trump backed out of a planned appearance with her husband to introduce him at a Pennsylvania rally.
It would have been the first lady's first large-scale, public campaign event since June 2019. The rally would have also marked the first time the public had seen the first lady since September 29 in Ohio, where she attended the first presidential debate.
Melania Trump has never been comfortable in the public eye and campaign travel is not something she enjoys, a source who has worked with the first lady said. Trump prefers to stay home and be present for her son, Barron.
A source familiar with the first lady's recuperation from Covid-19, which she was diagnosed with earlier this month, says Trump's voluntary downtime is due to her illness.
"I'm not sure why she's being criticized for taking care of herself and her son when they both tested positive for coronavirus," says a White House official.
Trump's unwillingness to campaign or attend fundraisers has been an at times frustrating concept for members of the Trump campaign to swallow, according to two campaign sources, as having a first lady speak to voters is historically the most compelling and effective mode of surrogacy.
"It is certainly not a question of 'Does the Trump campaign want Melania Trump to make appearances?' " a source familiar with campaign operations said. "She's wanted and needed. It's just that she doesn't do them."
Earlier this fall, when asked when the first lady would make campaign appearances, campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said: "The first lady is an incredible asset to the country, the President and the campaign. We're communicating with the first lady's team to determine the best ways she can be involved moving forward."
No events ever materialized.
CNN has reached out to Gidley for comment on any of the first lady's potential events.
The first lady's absence has been a point of discussion among some in campaign circles, however, the lack of participation is not particularly of concern for the President himself, according to someone familiar with how he has responded.
"He knows her well enough to know that when she doesn't want to do something, it's not like he or anyone else is going to change her mind," the source said.
The White House referred requests for comment to the Trump 2020 campaign.
In 2016, the pleas for Melania Trump's participation on the trail were just as consistent. Back then, she said her priority was caring for her then-10-year-old son. Trump was ostensibly given a pass as to why she did not make prolific speeches or headline fundraisers.
The occasional wave or brief greeting to throngs at a Trump rally became satisfactory for a campaign struggling to help voters understand who exactly their candidate was behind the scenes, something a spouse can deliver on during an election cycle.
"The answer to us asking her to make appearances was 'no' so many times, we eventually just stopped asking," says someone who worked in a senior position on the 2016 Trump campaign. 2020 doesn't appear to be all that different. "Anyone would take her, anytime. She's a rock star," says a source familiar with campaign strategy.
Hitting the trail?
On Tuesday, after Trump's abrupt cancellation, a source familiar with the first lady's schedule told CNN there was no "rain date" given. On Wednesday, Trump's chief of staff Stephanie Grisham told CNN that Trump does, in fact, have campaign dates on her calendar.
"She has plans to travel with the President and campaign solo next week," Grisham said.
Making appearances next week, as Grisham says, will mean the first lady is doing so with one week or less until Election Day.
It could be a tight window for effectiveness.
"A lot of Americans have already voted but, as we've seen, much of this is a turnout game," says Kate Andersen Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies." "So no, I don't think it would be too late for her to have some impact if she went out now. She might be able to energize those Trump voters who are not as enamored with him now as they once were."
Brower does note the historically unprecedented nature of Trump's invisibility on the campaign trail.
"The only modern example that comes to mind is Jackie Kennedy who was pregnant during the campaign. Because she had had difficult pregnancies in the past she did not campaign much in 1960. Though she did magazine photo shoots and interviews when she could," Brower said.
Trump has not done a solo magazine interview with an American publication during her tenure in the White House. Her last significant television interview occurred more than two years ago.
"Interviews are the same as campaigning," said the friend and former administration official. "She's picky about what she does and when or why she does it. It's not for lack of public interest or requests, it's that she doesn't want to engage."
When she does ultimately participate in a campaign event, the timing would follow the pattern she opted for in 2016, where she gave her longest speech to date, in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, just five days before the election and after a four-month hiatus from campaign appearances.
Her remarks included a message about communication: "We have to find a better way to talk to each other," she said.