Melania Trump, once a reluctant campaigner, is hitting the trail
Posted February 7, 2020 9:17 a.m. EST
CNN — For a first lady who generally begs off rallies, fundraising shindigs and campaign events, Melania Trump appears poised to be a larger campaign presence for President Donald Trump's reelection.
The first lady is scheduled to headline at least two fundraisers this spring, both supporting the Trump Victory Fund, a joint PAC between the Trump 2020 campaign and the Republican National Committee. The fundraisers, first reported by Politico, are set to take place in March, with one in the Los Angeles area and one at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's private West Palm Beach club.
The first lady's office did not respond to CNN requests for comment and the Trump campaign would not confirm the fundraisers.
"First lady Melania Trump is a sought-after voice from the first family, who has the overwhelming approval and admiration of the American people," Kayleigh McEnany, national press secretary for the Trump campaign, told CNN.
A first lady of the United States using her position to raise funds during a presidential campaign is hardly news, unless that first lady is Melania Trump, who the country ostensibly didn't get to know on the trail during Trump's first run for the White House four years ago.
Citing the need to be home in New York City with her young son, who was 10 years old at the time, Trump shied away from the often grueling work of stumping for the campaign. So often did Trump turn down requests for appearances during the Trump 2016 campaign, one former aide tells CNN campaign advisers eventually stopped asking.
Instead, other Trump family surrogates, especially Trump's eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, became a female surrogate, humanizing Trump and speaking as one who knew the candidate best.
"First ladies can humanize their husbands, that's what Laura Bush and Michelle Obama did well," says Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies." "They can poke fun at their husbands and bring them down to earth, both behind closed doors and for voters."
That ability to humanize a president, especially one as gruff and brusque as Donald Trump, is something Melania Trump has developed in her three years as first lady, and a skill she will use as the campaign ramps up, according to a source familiar with the campaign's strategy.
Though still a relentlessly private first lady, more prone to going weeks between public events than her recent predecessors, Trump has become more adept at receiving audiences. That includes hosting the President's high-dollar donors, sweeping through members-only events at Mar-a-Lago, posing for selfies and shaking hands with strangers.
Though she has yet to appear at one of Trump's raucous rallies since last summer, it is notable the one she did choose, in June in Orlando, Florida, was the official kick-off of her husband's 2020 campaign. Wearing a look-a-me yellow jumpsuit with cape sleeves and a gold belt, Trump took the podium for a couple of minutes, introducing her husband, saying: "He truly loves this country and will continue to work on your behalf as long as he can. All of us will."
The cheering crowds and amped-up atmosphere on the surface could seem the opposite comfort zone for a first lady not routinely used to that kind of vibe, but Katherine Jellison, professor of history at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies, says that's just the kind of space Trump should own.
"Trump fans already like her and will respond positively," said Jellison. "She will probably be most effective in talking to voters who already also like her husband, and not those who are on the fence, or are skeptical about him as a candidate for reelection. I don't think she has crossover appeal for people who aren't already in the Trump camp."
That said, Trump could also have cache with wealthy Trump supporters, who prefer the intimacy of a smaller event, where the ticket prices can soar into the tens of thousands of dollars, but the desire to quench the curiosity factor of meeting Melania Trump face-to-face exceeds the pocketbook pinch.
"I think part of Donald Trump's appeal in 2016 was his lifestyle: the private planes, the penthouse and the model wife," said Brower. "There's clearly an aspirational factor at play where his voters think, 'He's rich and has a gorgeous wife. I can do the same thing.' "
Brower added Trump would excel at smaller events with young people and families.
"She shines when she's with children and she seems much less aloof," Brower said.
Certainly, 2020 poses a richer scenario for Trump to campaign in more ways than did 2016. Her younger son is older now, almost 14, and her parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, are often with their daughter and grandson, having both become American citizens in 2018.
Trump has even visited, by our count, just about every state in the country, either during the 2016 campaign season with Trump, or with him as President, or on her own during solo trips. One source familiar with the campaign said Trump may highlight hitting all 50 states as a calling card of her campaigning message.
First ladies as campaigners
Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama were all competent surrogates for their husband's campaigns, whether to raise money for the candidate or the party, or to rally voters.
Obama even earned the nickname, "The Closer," for her ability to seal the deal those on the fence.
"It's not easy to be funny on the fly, like Michelle Obama could be during late night TV interviews, or to have the kind of presence Jackie Kennedy had," Brower said. "To be fair, we don't hear enough from Melania Trump for me to judge at this point ... And, to be fair, Jackie Kennedy was awkward at first but she grew into the role of first lady and genuinely enjoyed it. I don't see that same joie de vivre from Melania, but it could surface."
(Brower's cautionary tale of first lady history includes Pat Nixon, who the media nicknamed "Plastic Pat" for her stiffness on the campaign trail.)
As first lady, Melania Trump is the de facto female face of the administration, but the campaign so far has predominantly utilized Lara Trump, the wife of Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., on the trail and at fundraising events thus far. Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser to the president and ubiquitous presence on the 2016 campaign, is expected to take on a larger role as the election nears, specifically targeting female voters and touting broadly her impact on the American workforce, according to an aide.
Melania Trump has the leeway, and the time, to be highly effective on her own as the most identifiable woman in Trump's world. Another tool Trump will have in her campaign trail arsenal with the base is just how aligned she is, politically and personally, to her husband.
The two talk consistently throughout the day on the phone, say White House aides, and she remains one of his most viable sounding boards -- and one of the few people in Trump's world who can and do openly tell him opinion, even if it is in opposition to his. That united front is a relatively new part of the Trump dynamic.
She started the term as a first lady who delayed her move into the White House and had to endure a barrage of salacious headlines about her marriage. In fact, this week's State of the Union address was the first time since Trump took office the two have shared the same vehicle on the ride from the White House to the US Capitol for the annual event.
Showcasing her relationship could be a motivator for 2020 that it wasn't necessarily for 2016.
"In 2016, it was a long-shot campaign, and expectations were low," Jellison said. "But now they are playing for history. We know Donald Trump doesn't like to lose, and I think the same may apply to Melania."