Melania Trump came armed with surefire applause lines when she stepped up to address a largely female audience that had gathered to celebrate other women.
The first lady showcased the record number of women serving in Congress. She said women’s unemployment had hit its lowest level in 65 years, though it has since ticked up slightly. And she highlighted the more than 2 million women who have joined the workforce since November 2016, when her husband was elected president.
“This is something to celebrate,” Mrs. Trump declared at Thursday’s State Department event, where many of her lines easily could have fit into a campaign stump speech.
But as President Donald Trump shows his eagerness for the coming 2020 re-election battle, less clear is Mrs. Trump’s fervour for joining the effort. She largely avoided the campaign trail in 2016, citing her desire to be home for the couple’s young son, Barron, now 12. And spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham predicted that once again, Mrs. Trump “is going to want to be home for her son, no matter his age.”
People in Trump’s political orbit, for their part, are skeptical that one of the most private first ladies in modern history would want to take on a big public role in her husband’s bid to win another four years in office.
Even if Mrs. Trump sticks largely to her official role, though, there’s plenty she can do to try to help her husband make a political connection with women, a voting bloc with whom Trump is particularly vulnerable.
Beyond the State Department appearance, Mrs. Trump showed growing ease with her role in the past week as she also made a three-state swing to promote the three pillars of her “Be Best” children’s initiative and accompanied her husband to Alabama to survey tornado damage.
In Oklahoma, she chatted with second-graders about the burdens of homework and watched older students in a science class measure the density of different colored liquids. In Washington state, she watched as Microsoft Corp. executives demonstrated features to help protect children online. In Las Vegas, she delivered a pointed jab at the news media, prodding the press to spend as much time highlighting the opioid epidemic as it devotes to “idle gossip or trivial stories.”
And in the tornado zone, the stiletto-friendly first lady wore sneakers as she played empathetic backup to her husband. She participated in a briefing, joined the president as he greeted relief workers, engaged with victims with him and on her own, and signed autographs.
Recent first ladies have all taken prominent roles in re-election campaigns. Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush all campaigned separately from their husbands at re-election time.
Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, said they can help their husbands politically by reaching out to female audiences and showing up at smaller venues than where the president campaigns.
“Typically, the president and the first lady are the family superstars,” said Jellison, adding that it was hard to find a more reclusive first lady in recent history than Mrs. Trump.
Trump continues to suffer from low approval ratings among women, which could prove challenging as he faces a Democratic primary field with a historic number of female candidates vying to run against him in 2020. In Gallup’s latest tracking poll, Trump had a 36 per cent approval rating among women, which is about where it’s held throughout his presidency.
Still, polls broadly show Republican women are overwhelmingly likely to support him — as they do the first lady. Her appeal to other female demographics remains an open question.
In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in November 2018, about two-thirds of Republican registered voters, or 65 per cent, said they had a favourable opinion of Mrs. Trump, while just 3 per cent said they viewed her unfavourably. But just 35 per cent of registered voters overall said they had a favourable opinion of her, and 20 per cent said they had an unfavourable view.
The same survey showed that 63 per cent of registered voters said they had a favourable opinion of Mrs. Obama, and 24 per cent said they had an unfavourable one. But that may at least be partially due to the fact that Mrs. Trump has kept a much lower profile than her predecessor.
Mrs. Trump limited her role in the 2016 campaign to just a handful of appearances and interviews. Her most memorable moment came during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when her high-profile speech was quickly overshadowed by accusations that she had stolen passages from a speech given by Mrs. Obama. A speechwriter later took responsibility and apologized.
With her husband out campaigning, Mrs. Trump wanted their son, who was 9 when his dad became a candidate, to have one parent at home at their Trump Tower penthouse in New York. Barron turns 13 later this month, and he will be 14 by the time the re-election effort is in full swing.
Grisham said that it was too early for campaign scheduling and that the first lady was focused on her family, her duties as first lady and the nearly year-old “Be Best” childhood initiative, which focuses on well-being, cyberbullying and opioid abuse.
Campaigning aside, Mrs. Trump, 48, remains one of her husband’s closest advisers. She’s also independent and protective of her husband and carefully picks the moments when she strikes out politically. Last fall, she told a TV interviewer that she had told the president about staffers they couldn’t trust and that some of those people no longer worked for him as a result.
And in an extraordinary intervention into West Wing operations by a first lady, she engineered the dismissal of deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel following a disagreement over the use of assets for the first lady’s weeklong trip to Africa last October.
Critics have noted that Mrs. Trump’s husband routinely mocks people on Twitter. But, much like her spouse, she has been dismissive of the media.
As she set out on the “Be Best” tour, Mrs. Trump ignored a reporter’s shouted question about whether she accepted an apology from Michael Cohen, the president’s former longtime personal lawyer. He recently testified to Congress that he regretted lying to the first lady about his role in arranging to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels and one-time Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom have said they had sex with Trump before he became president. Trump has denied the relationships.
Mrs. Trump has never commented publicly about the allegations. By ignoring the question, she signalled she wasn’t about to start now.
AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson and Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
Darlene Superville And Catherine Lucey, The Associated Press