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Melania Trump does things her way

During a Thursday afternoon event in the White House's East Room, first lady Melania Trump stood at the podium and closed her remarks by saying something she has not often said -- and certainly not said lately -- about her husband: "I am so proud to support him today, as he sees this commitment through."

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Kate Bennett (CNN's COVER/LINE)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — During a Thursday afternoon event in the White House's East Room, first lady Melania Trump stood at the podium and closed her remarks by saying something she has not often said -- and certainly not said lately -- about her husband: "I am so proud to support him today, as he sees this commitment through."

It was a perfectly conventional thing for a first lady to say. In this case, she was discussing President Donald Trump's decision to declare a public health emergency to stem the country's ongoing opioid crisis. But like so many other things in the Trump administration, for the first couple, convention is an anomaly and the line of support marked a rare public moment.

Melania Trump, in stark contrast to her seemingly ubiquitous husband, has emerged as the most mysterious woman in Washington. Since moving here with her son, Barron, 11, this summer, she has demonstrated none of the extrovert bravado that so defines the man she married.

In fact, of late it's been her quietly touted solo activities that have begun to define an otherwise private first lady.

'Mrs. Trump is independent'

Take, for example, the East Wing response to cries of hypocrisy when she outlined an early platform taking on school bullying.

The idea that Melania Trump would tackle bullying when her husband is seen by millions as one of the country's best examples of bad behavior sparked countless opinion pieces pointing out how he uses terms such as "wacky" and "liddle" for elected officials.

Asked by CNN if the first lady feels the need to reconcile that irony with what she's trying to accomplish, Trump's communications director Stephanie Grisham said flatly, "no."

"Mrs. Trump is independent and acts independently from her husband," Grisham told CNN at the time. "She does what she feels is right and knows that she has a real opportunity through her role as first lady to have a positive impact on the lives of children. Her only focus is to effect change within our next generation."

The statement is clearly meant to separate the first lady from the orbit of her husband, which is fundamentally different than first ladies of recent memory. But the idea that Trump is doing things her own way shouldn't come as a surprise, said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.

"A first lady gets to rewrite the position and the job description any way she wants to, and Melania has, from Day 1, really, been charting her own course," McBride said. "From the beginning, by saying she wasn't even going to move down to Washington right away, she has been very open and honest about doing things on her own time, in her own way."

McBride pointed to how the first lady has staffed her office with just nine members, as opposed to the 20 or so that predecessors Michelle Obama and Laura Bush each had.

"It's not the way it's been done in the past, but this is a first lady who said she was interested in quality and not quantity," she said.

But part of Melania Trump's unique path is born of necessity.

A former Obama White House official said Michelle Obama, who did pursue an agenda independent of her husband, would never have needed to distance herself so explicitly from him.

"There would never have been anything similar to that (statement from Grisham) because it wasn't an issue for the Obamas," the official told CNN. "Michelle Obama had her own agenda -- Let Girls Learn, Let's Move, Joining Forces -- but at no point did any of those conflict with the President's words, actions, or policies," the source said.

Spousal support

A recent CNN poll found Melania Trump is the most popular member of the first family. About 44% of respondents had a favorable view of her, compared with 41% for her husband. The President, however, seems comfortable with that.

At a private dinner for the White House Historical Association, Trump told the audience that America is enamored with the first lady.

"They love her out there ... they're loving Melania," he said, calling her the "star of the Trump family."

Still, there are high-profile times the couple appeared out of step.

In August, after a spate of national and international crises, from the Barcelona terror attacks to the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots, it became apparent that the first lady's voice of support and condolence, through her social media accounts, was far more timely and compassionate than that of her husband.

A White House official said the first lady does not check in with her husband before posting.

"She is her own person," the official told CNN. "She operates the account herself and pays close attention to which events warrant comment, and which do not."

The divide in approach again points to a first couple unlike those that came before.

"Mrs. Bush would always say, 'I'm not here for myself, I'm here for George and because of George,' and that was the prism and the filter she used for her platform," said McBride.

Literacy, the cause she championed, fit well into the President's overarching initiatives, so the melding was relatively seamless.

"The East Wing definitely has some independence, but not this kind of independence," said the Obama White House official, referring to the Trump's differing philosophies. "It hasn't before been as though there's a completely different view of the world from one side than the other."

The same could be said of how previous first ladies got in the trenches with their husbands when the heat was on. McBride pointed to Hurricane Katrina as an example of the Bushes having each other's back.

"There were things like that which were controversial for him, but that didn't stop her from being there, from her going down to New Orleans 26 times after the storm and working on behalf of the administration, even when the administration wasn't necessarily in good standing down there," McBride said.

McBride, who also worked in the Reagan administration as director of White House personnel, said Nancy Reagan would speak up quite frequently to West Wing staff when it came to President Ronald Reagan's policies and positions.

"She always had her antenna up, and in her mind she was doing what she felt best served the President," said McBride. "She did it because she 100% was trying to protect him and shape how he was remembered by history."

The Trump dynamic doesn't appear to operate in the same manner, at least not on the surface. The first lady rarely gets involved with her husband's scuffles, or his bruising responses to those who oppose him.

In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" shortly after the election, Melania Trump said she sometimes tries to help contain her husband, but it didn't appear to be a priority.

"I think he hears me. But he will do what he wants to do on the end. He's an adult. He knows the consequences. And I give him my opinion. And he could do whatever he likes with it," Trump told "60 Minutes."

In June, after the President tweeted harsh words at MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, Grisham was asked if the first lady had anything to say about the dispute.

"As the first lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder," was all the statement said.

Outside perceptions vs. reality

The observations about the first lady having her own independent methodology does not, however, seem to imply the couple doesn't get along. In fact, one observer who has spent time with them lately says she has seen the President be "very affectionate" with Melania at times, and that he is "deferential to her."

"I can appreciate how perceptions of the first couple on the outside are generally wrong," said McBride, who witnessed both the public and private sides of both the Bushes and the Reagans.

"For President Bush and the first lady, their lives were so completely intertwined, they didn't even have to speak a word, they could merely be in the same room to know what the other was thinking or feeling, so demonstrating that closeness just wasn't necessary -- and that could sometimes be perceived as a coldness or as trouble. But it wasn't," she said.

A current White House official said the first lady's primary objective right now has little to do with how her relationship with the President is perceived by White House observers.

"She wants to establish herself as a first lady who helps children, that's her mission while her husband is in office," the official told CNN.

Next week, the first lady will accompany her husband to Asia, where she is expected to attend ceremonies and dinners with him, standing by his side, as she is often seen doing. But CNN has learned Melania Trump also has a number of solo events on the itinerary, too. They are likely to showcase the burgeoning independence that's happening not because of, but perhaps in spite of, her husband's tumultuous presidency.

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