Melania Trump stays out of sight -- but in flight -- during shutdown
Posted January 18, 2019 1:54 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2019 2:13 p.m. EST
CNN — It has been more than three weeks since the public last saw first lady Melania Trump, who after returning from a surprise Christmas trip to visit troops in Iraq with President Donald Trump on December 27, has all but disappeared from the radar.
Between midnight on December 22, when the longest government shutdown in American history began, and January 18, the first lady had just four public events: calling children from the White House on Christmas Eve; attending Christmas Eve religious services at Washington's National Cathedral; visiting service members at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq; and a quick troop visit at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the way back to Washington.
But the partial shutdown hasn't halted the first lady's travel. On Thursday night, just an hour after news broke that her husband nixed the use of military aircraft for a war zone trip led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Melania Trump jetted out of Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, aboard her own government plane, bound for Mar-a-Lago.
A White House official said the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend trip was long-planned and is being spent with her son.
That trip marked Melania Trump's fifth solo flight since the shutdown began. Per security protocols set in place by the government and the United States Secret Service, the first lady, along with the President and the vice president, must always fly via military aircraft, leaving the Trump private air fleet, or commercial flights, out of the question. Her Secret Service detail, which is accompanying her on the trip per safety protocol, is part of the 800,000 federal employees working without a paycheck.
Between December 27 and January 4, when Trump returned to Mar-a-Lago from Washington, the first lady spent quality time with her son Barron, East Wing spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told CNN.
The President, left alone back at the White House to focus on the shutdown, did not join in on the Florida sunshine.
Shrunken public schedule
Since the December Iraq trip, Melania Trump's public schedule has not included a single event, in large part due to shutdown restraints on her staff and the Secret Service.
The first lady did host Mar-a-Lago's annual black-tie New Year's Eve bash, without the President and, without his presence, the event at the private club was closed to press, unlike the previous year, when photographs of red carpet arrivals were permitted via the President's press pool.
This time, only a handful of pictures of Trump, smiling in a Stella McCartney black sequin dress, leaked out via guests' personal social media accounts.
Her return to Washington after the holidays saw little in the way of change for the first lady in terms of public schedule -- save for staff meetings.
With the shutdown stretching on, the White House appears like a ghost town -- the typically 80-100 household workers have been whittled down to about 29 who are deemed essential.
The core of the first lady's office has been allowed to continue to work, yet her staff was already tight at 12, less than half of the staff of her two most recent predecessors. The shutdown made that small number even tinier. Grisham and Lindsay Reynolds, the first lady's chief of staff, remain working.
"The first lady is in daily communication with her staff," Grisham said of how Trump has spent the shutdown in her East Wing office. "We've been using the time to plan for upcoming White House and initiative events."
White House social secretary Rickie Niceta, who oversees all events at the White House, remains on the job -- though with a skeleton crew working the kitchen and service positions, there isn't much in the way of events.
White House entertainment
Last week, the President took it upon himself to buy hundreds of fast food items -- keeping them wrapped in their original containers, save the French fries, which were placed in cups with the Presidential seal -- and serve them to the college championship football team, the Clemson Tigers.
The juxtaposition of the enormous State Dining Room dining table, adorned with candlelit gold candelabras, covered in Big Macs and Whoppers, made the whole event a mashup of posh White House entertaining and a down-home tailgate party.
The portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall above the table, where Trump stood, smiling over the greasy bounty, capsulated the surrealism.
When Trump tried to explain why he opted for burgers and pizza for the team, he said he did so because he assumed the football players wouldn't want healthier fare, prepared by his wife -- a joke, as Melania Trump would likely not have prepped a meal for the football team.
"So, I had a choice, do we have no food for you? Because we have a shutdown. Or do we give you some little quick salads that the first lady will make, along with the second lady? They'll make some salads," he said. "And I said, 'You guys aren't into salads.' "
Yet besides that mention, and another one from the President during remarks in New Orleans, the first lady has virtually ghosted.