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.”
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.
Trumps display affection during speech
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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