Melania Trump closes 2018 with fewer personal woes, but a difficult public perception
Posted December 24, 2018 8:18 a.m. EST
(CNN) — As the second year of Melania Trump's tenure as first lady comes to a close, and she turns the corner to the latter half of her husband's term, one thing is certain, Trump has come into her own.
She began her first year as a glimmer of a first lady, living in New York City, hours from the White House, rarely appearing in public, and cobbling together a nascent staff, but by the start of 2018, she had moved in, built her team to a dozen members and set her sights on a series of firsts: first State Dinner, first formal policy initiative, first solo trip abroad. As the year began to take shape, it felt finally as though the first lady was going to actually be a first lady.
And then the rug came out from under her. Twelve days into the new year, the story of Stormy Daniels broke, and Trump was thrust into a scandalous, salacious and tabloid-style drama, and where before she could close out the world and retreat, now she was the most well-known woman in the world; hiding was not an option.
As such, 2018 would become the year Melania Trump had to figure out how to handle her duties in public as the first lady, while balancing a marriage under the microscope, in the not-so-private.
Though she started the year emotionally and, at times, physically distanced from President Donald Trump, Trump was buoyed by public sympathy, a large swath of the country felt genuinely sorry for her after the Daniels story unfurled. She moved forward, eventually, displaying a fiery independent streak, piecing together her wing of the White House, and constructing what would ultimately become a platform for helping children.
She learned how to communicate via statements and tweets and non-verbal cues, without the need for approval from the West Wing, whether her philosophies conjoined with her husband's or not, and they often didn't.
Donald Trump is a prolific name-caller; Melania Trump decided to tackle online bullying.
Donald Trump's administration enforced a zero-tolerance policy of separating illegal immigrant families; Melania Trump flew to the border, twice, to see for herself how she could affect a change in process.
Donald Trump slammed LeBron James' intellect in a tweet; Melania Trump, via her spokeswoman, praised James for his charity work.
Donald Trump insisted on picking the channels to be viewed on Air Force One; Melania Trump, again via her spokeswoman, watches "any channel she wants, by the way."
For most of 2018, as the odd division between the first couple just became another quirk of the Trump presidency we all got used to, the first lady reaped the benefit of her solo act. Her popularity in polling was far and away the highest of any Trump family member, any Trump administration member, really. Her decisions and actions were sometimes emboldened and had positive results, but some events dramatically missed the mark (that jacket, for example).
However, the last several weeks of 2018 have seen a different side of Trump, especially as she has found more solid footing, growing into her role. She has embraced a more forward-facing partnership with the President, and not just physically -- there is markedly more "natural" hand-holding and affection between the couple of late -- but intellectually and politically. It is a move that has given Trump more of a voice, and more of a public persona, and chipped away at the mystery of who she really is. But as the year draws to a close, the first lady might be closer to her husband, but it appears to be at a cost to her popularity.
A study in stoicism
If the country wondered what Melania Trump was feeling after the news broke her husband had allegedly been unfaithful with adult film star Stormy Daniels, a claim he has repeatedly denied -- just months after she had given birth to the couple's only child -- they needed only to read her silence and her independence.
On January 30, two weeks after Daniels became a household name, Trump skipped out on an otherwise mundane tradition: instead of arriving with the President in his motorcade from the White House to the US Capitol for his State of the Union address, she took a separate car, leaving her husband to ride alone. It was a shocking split with the norm, and a flash of the independent streak the country had begun to witness from the first lady -- she was, quite understandably, unwilling to feign the smile and hand-holding endured by political spouses before her when scandal had wreaked havoc.
Instead, she would attempt to sidestep it altogether, her spokeswoman telling CNN at the time Trump took the separate motorcade in order to have more time with her special State of the Union guests.
By the time the first lady was introduced prior to the President's address, all eyes were on her as she emerged into the gallery, dressed in a white pantsuit, similar in style to the ones favored by Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. And noticeable, as well, for the signal of suffragettes, who wore white. It would be the first time in 2018, though certainly not the last, that some would wonder if the first lady of the United States was "trolling" the President of the United States.
She had, just days prior, canceled her trip to Davos, Switzerland, at the last minute where she had planned to accompany Trump to the World Economic Forum. Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's director of communications, cited scheduling and logistics issues, but it was clear to many Trump was still reeling from news cycles overwhelmed with Stormy Daniels stories, and the implications of alleged payoffs and private maneuvering.
On January 22, days before they were to depart together, the couple's 13th wedding anniversary went unnoticed by either spouse on social media -- questions as to how they spent the day or evening in celebration went unanswered by both the East Wing and the West Wing communications offices.
Perhaps most telling of the start of the year was how Trump marked the last year gone by. A year to the day after she had become first lady, Trump posted on her social media accounts a throwback photo of herself, not with the President on Inauguration Day, but with an anonymous military escort, her arm looped through his, her smile pinned on.
"This has been a year filled with many wonderful moments. I've enjoyed the people I've been lucky enough to meet throughout our great country & the world!" she captioned the image, without a mention of her husband.
Tragedies would bind the first couple back together, or at least back to events with one another -- the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, for example, where both visited with victims and first-responders. Melania Trump has long-been noted as being the more compassionate member of the first couple, and with her, the President adds to his persona a much-needed softness.
Dealing with accusations against her husband
Trump, however, didn't make a public speaking engagement until the end of February, spending a few minutes at a podium at the White House addressing governors' spouses at a luncheon; it would be six weeks from the day the Stormy Daniels story broke that the public would hear her voice.
Yet if January had been stormy, March would bring another torrent of sordid headlines, now belonging to Karen McDougal, whose accusations of an adulterous affair with Donald Trump were far more personal and detailed. McDougal recounted her story to Anderson Cooper, dropping in how she had toured Melania's own home, and saying she and Trump had told one another they loved each other, and how emotionally tied she had been to Melania's husband.
"What can you say except I'm sorry?" she told Cooper in a lengthy televised interview, apologizing to Melania Trump for the alleged affair, which the President has denied. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't want it done to me."
Trump answered by not answering -- going radio silent, refusing to appear beside her husband before the two departed for a scheduled trip to Mar-a-Lago for spring break. Eschewing at the last moment the traditional walk across the South Lawn to Marine One, the presidential helicopter that typically ferries them to their plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Trump called once again for a separate motorcade, arriving on her own and boarding Air Force One ahead of her husband and out of sight of the press.
It was the day after McDougal's interview aired.
In April, Melania Trump found herself with two choices: stay under the radar and continue with her now notorious privacy spate, or emerge, boldly, to carry on with her duties.
She chose the latter.
In April, the Trumps welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, to Washington, for the Trump administration's first official State Visit. It came, of course, with the first State Dinner, something Trump had been planning for weeks prior, overseeing every detail of the evening, from the chair covers (cream) to the menu (rack of lamb).
It was, "a smaller, more elegant event," Grisham told CNN at the time, with approximately 100 guests and everything Melania Trump wanted for her first major White House hosting gig. "[The first lady] has a background in design, which played a major role in the décor throughout the State floor. ... She has been very focused on the experience of the guests, and wants to ensure they are able to truly enjoy and remember the occasion."
The details were executed with perfection, from the silver sequined Chanel Haute Couture gown she wore in homage to French fashion, to the gifted photo album of the two-days of events Trump had made for the Macrons upon their departure, accompanied by a Tiffany & Co. silver bowl to commemorate the occasion.
It was, after all, her moment; one she had claimed upon the Macrons arrival, not with a welcome speech or a hug and a handshake but rather a white hat, a big, wide-brimmed chapeau by her personal couturier, made to match her white Michael Kors suit. With the hat, Trump would tell the world the day was going to be hers and not her husband's -- and every headline followed her lead, mentioning Trump's choice of attention-stealing headwear, a signal she was perhaps done playing the role of backstage spouse.
Melania Trump's popularity peaked in early May of this year at 57% following the State Dinner, according to a CNN poll, a public coming-out of sorts for the extremely private first lady. It was also on the heels of Trump's solo trip to Houston, Texas, to attend the funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush, where she posed, smiling, for a photograph with living former presidents and first ladies, many of whom have icy relationships with her husband.
Spring also signaled the launch of Be Best, the official platform of Trump's tenure. The initiative, which she announced, at her insistence, in the Rose Garden of the White House, would focus on children in three ways, including their overall well-being, their activities on social media, and their interaction with the country's ongoing opioid crisis. It was a lot to include for one platform, and while critics had things to say about her ambitious plans, Trump attempted to forge ahead, having already addressed the swipes she would take for trying to tackle cyberbullying while her husband had fast-become the most public Twitter bully in the land.
"I am well aware that people are skeptical of me discussing this topic," said Trump at an event in the spring. "I have been criticized for my commitment to tackling this issue and I know that will continue. But it will not stop me from doing what I know is right."
Yet the launch of Be Best was practically inextricably hampered by what would come next for Trump in an already difficult year.
A health scare
In May, she would also be hospitalized at Walter Reed Military Medical Center for a kidney procedure, one that would keep her out of the public eye for several weeks, and lead people to wonder if her health was stable.
Her office, as had become customary, was tight-lipped, releasing only a few details, and guarding with intensity her schedule. Trump spent almost one week in the hospital following what the White House said was an "embolization procedure to treat a benign kidney condition."
It wasn't until weeks after the procedure, as rumors peaked that the first lady had a more serious condition, or that she was hospitalized with something other than what her office had said, that President Trump let fly the true severity of her hospital stay.
"She had a big operation," Trump said to the media on his way to the G7 Summit, indicating the first lady had wanted to join him, but that doctors wouldn't allow her to travel for 30 days. "That was a close to a four-hour operation. And she's doing great."
A forceful fall
If the kidney procedure defined her spring, as the scandals had her winter, it would be a summer of independence and recovery before her footing regained itself with more ferocity in the fall.
October would see Trump's first international, solo trip, to Africa. Tackling a schedule that included visiting four countries in five days, Trump partnered with USAID to bring awareness to children in the region, and to the programs the United States had in place to assist several African nations.
Trump was well-received, for the most part. She had a sartorial fail in Kenya, wearing a white pith helmet while on safari, an unintentional signal of that region's colonial era, a dark spot in Kenya's collective history. She was attacked in the media. And while fashionable to the point of looking straight out of a Vogue photo shoot in her head-to-toe cream pantsuit with Chanel hat, all worn to see the pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt, she was ridiculed for looking very much like a costume.
"You know what? We just completed an amazing trip. We went to Ghana. We went to Malawi. We went to Kenya. Now here we are in Egypt. I want to talk about my trip and not what I wear," Trump snapped to the press during an impromptu question and answer session, her first on-the-record since becoming first lady. "That's very important, what I do, what we're doing with USAID, my initiatives, and I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear," she said.
The bristle was all the more intense considering another fashion gaffe just months prior, when she wore a $35 Zara jacket with the words "I really don't care, do u?" emblazoned on the back, while getting on and off her government jet while going to visit immigrant families in Texas in the midst of the border crisis, when the news was filled with stories of children being separated from their parents.
The border issue was something Trump would later say she was "blindsided" by, and something she told her husband he needed to do something about in order to end it. But the jacket usurped the intended good she had wanted to do by visiting the border for herself, the first Trump family member to have done so -- it would become the calling card for her critics, a moment of sheer tone-deafness that Trump later chalked up to sending a message to the meddling media.
The fallout from the jacket, while intense, wasn't all that was on Trump's mind, however, as she pushed forward with Be Best, visiting children's hospitals and schools, holding discussions on everything from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome to practicing kindness on social media. Forging ahead with trying to define a legacy separate from her husband's bluster, and her own inherent need for privacy.
As the year drew to a close, Trump's strength -- and influence -- was growing.
After a nasty dust-up between members of her East Wing staff and Mira Ricardel, a senior national security adviser to President Trump, occurred in the wake of the Africa trip over details surrounding travel space and the withholding of assets, the first lady didn't bite her tongue.
After trying to signal to her husband that she felt Ricardel was working against her staff, to no avail, Trump took matters into her own, very public hands.
"It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that (Ricardel) no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," Grisham released in a statement in November, when the feud had reached an untenable place.
While not unusual that a first lady would be weighing in on West Wing staffing issues -- something Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton both did, behind closed doors, during their tenures -- it was historic for a first lady to so openly call for the dismissal of a member of the President's administration. Within days, Ricardel was fired from the White House.
Those who know her, and who work for her, say one of Trump's great strengths is her loyalty, and her commitment to doing what she feels is best for her team. But the outward optics of her weighing in, and getting results, signaled this first lady was not completely devoid of influence over her husband; in fact, she wielded a great deal of influence.
Trump had shown a glimmer of that side of her marriage during an interview she gave in October to ABC News, stealthily suggesting she was behind the departure of West Wing aides.
"I give him my honest advice and honest opinions, and then he does what he wants to do," Trump said.
Asked what her husband did when she suggested some staffers couldn't be trusted, the first lady replied, "Well, some people, they don't work there anymore."
It was during that same interview that Trump also revealed she doesn't just protect her husband, she often thinks like him, too.
On immigration, Trump said, "I believe in the policies that my husband put together, because I believe we need to be very vigilant who is coming to the country."
And she also revealed her personal struggles, perhaps not ginning up as much sympathy as she might have anticipated.
"I could say I'm the most bullied person on the world," Trump said.
"You're really the most bullied person in the world?" ABC News' Tom Llamas asked in return.
"One of them, if you really see what people saying about me," Trump said.
#MeToo and Melania
That apparent disconnect was an echo of her thoughts on another hot topic of the year: the #MeToo movement
During the thick of the debate over the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump said accusers needed to present evidence of their claims.
"If you accuse (someone) of something, show the evidence," Trump said during an impromptu news conference in Africa. "I support the women and they need to be heard. ... We need to support them and, you know, also men, not just women."
While it's not entirely unexpected, of course, that the political beliefs of the first lady match more closely with those of the President than perhaps originally thought, the bubble of "what ifs?" surrounding the mystery of Trump's possible antithetical beliefs to those of her husband popped.
"I do stand with women, but we need to show the evidence. You cannot just say to somebody, 'I was sexually assaulted,' or, 'You did that to me,' because sometimes the media goes too far, and the way they portray some stories it's, it's not correct, it's not right," she said during the same conference with reporters in Africa.
More recently, in a December interview on Fox News, Trump again drew fire for her remarks about the most difficult part of her job as first lady. Choosing to answer in a way that only focused on her personal turmoil, Trump lashed out in a way that felt very much like her husband, in both tone and tenor.
"I would say the opportunists who are using my name or my family name to advance themselves, from comedians to journalists to performers, book writers," she replied.
"Does it hurt?" asked Fox News' Sean Hannity, who conducted the interview during Trump's holiday visit to the crew aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. "It doesn't hurt. The problem is they're writing the history and it's not correct."
The fallout and the future
The public is responding to the newer, more vocal mood of the first lady, and they aren't loving her as much as they did the quieter version. In a December CNN poll, Trump's favorable rating stood at just 43%, down from 54% just two months prior, a stunning double-digit plummet.
As author and CNN contributor Kate Andersen Brower says, the more outspoken side Trump has displayed is clearly having an effect on her popularity.
"I think Trump supporters are passionate defenders of the first lady and I think that most people, Democrats included, want to like her," said Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies."
"The problem becomes when she weighs in on highly charged political issues like the Me Too movement or when she makes it clear that she's influencing her husband on personnel decisions. It's not a coincidence that the CNN poll showing her declining approval ratings came out after she got (Ricardel) fired. No other modern First Lady has done that so publicly."
Not that Trump is one to particularly care about poll numbers, or anything the public might speculate about, most of which rings hollow to the first lady if it isn't about her work with children. It has long been the message of Grisham that Trump is going forward, not backward, in spite of negative chatter, intent on doing her own thing, unrelated to perception or expected norms. (Similar, again, to the untraditional approach her husband has taken over in the West Wing.)
Another notable trait of the first lady is her nonchalant demeanor under the gaze of the prying eyes of a public who want to know more about her. It's a protective armor of sorts that has served her well in some scenarios, such as the Daniels and McDougal scandals, and kept her from exposing any personal weakness.
"Mrs. Trump is a strong and independent woman who has been navigating her role as first lady in her own way," said Grisham of her boss.
As the dawn of 2019 is upon her, Trump's focus is squarely on the positive points of becoming a first lady who is finding her voice and her mission, and not the failures and foibles of 2018. Her relationship with her husband appears stronger than ever. Asked recently if she loves him, Trump smiled her mysterious smile, and said, "Yes. We are fine. Yes."
And the scandals that started her year have somehow stayed in her rear-view mirror.
"I am a mother and a first lady, I have much more important things to think about and to do."