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Melania Trump a no-show during midterm campaign push

First lady Melan...

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 5:54 PM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 5:54 PM

First lady Melania Trump has decided not to hit the campaign trail alongside her husband, President Donald Trump, as he spends the last days before Tuesday's midterm elections crisscrossing the country.

It's not unusual that this particular first lady has opted out of rallies and appearances with candidates and incumbents -- she was not a regular presence during campaign events during the presidential campaign either. But it is worth noting that other Trump family members and Cabinet officials are acting as surrogates for the President as heated election battles are waged across the country.

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"Due to her schedule as a mother and as first lady, especially with the upcoming holidays and international travel, there are no plans for her to campaign," Trump's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told CNN.

The first lady is scheduled to join the President when he travels to Paris on November 11.

Ivanka Trump spent Thursday in Nevada, barnstorming for Sen. Dean Heller; on Friday, she is in Iowa to campaign for Gov. Kim Reynolds. Earlier this week, Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, traveled to a campaign event in West Virginia, where the couple posed for selfies and ginned up excitement for Patrick Morrisey, the Republican challenging Sen. Joe Manchin. Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle are expected to hit at least a dozen more events around the country before Election Day. And Eric Trump, along with his wife, Lara, is a regular presence in Trump rally world, often introducing the President and speaking before he takes the podium, as they did last week in Houston.

Not a priority

For the first lady, however, making time to campaign for Republicans, even while her husband does a whopping 11 rallies in a week, isn't a priority. Her last major campaign appearance and speech was nearly two years ago, days before the November 2016 presidential election, when she made remarks in Pennsylvania.

"Every time my husband learned of a factory closing in Ohio or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, I could see him get very upset," she said at the time.

Trump also talked about being an immigrant, wanting to help children fight bullying and the need for more compassionate dialogue. All of these are issues that remain relevant parts of the national conversation on the eve of midterms.

"The first lady has the highest approval rating of anyone in the administration," says Doug Heye, a CNN political commentator, GOP consultant and communications operative. "There is practically no Republican candidate that would not want her to campaign, or benefit from her, especially since she can help smooth out some of the administration's rougher edges."

The first lady has a favorable rating 13 points higher than that of her husband, according to the most recent CNN poll, with Melania Trump at 54% and the President at 41%.

"First ladies are typically more relatable than their husbands," says Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies."

"People often say they feel like they could sit down and have a cup of coffee with them," she said.

While that familiarity might apply more to Laura or Barbara Bush, or Michelle Obama, Brower stresses even mild interaction with the public at a political appearance can be very helpful.

"First ladies usually campaign for their husbands and report back the concerns they hear from voters," she said.

Trump remains a top adviser to her husband and is a more influential confidante than the couple's public interaction, and salacious headlines about their marriage, might imply. In a rare exchange with reporters last month in Egypt, Trump said she regularly discusses important political issues with the President.

"Well, I don't always agree (with) what he thinks and I tell him that. I give him my honest opinion and honest advice," she said, admitting that "sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't."

Brower said often first ladies can be a secret weapons for their spouses.

"They can be a gut check for their husbands, who are often surrounded by advisers who are reluctant to disagree with them," she said.

Asked whether Trump, although not physically present at campaign events, stays in the loop on her husband's midterm push agenda and if she weighs in on his rally appearances, Grisham responded, "Yes."

However, the role Melania Trump won't compromise, even for the President of the United States, appears to be that of mother to the first couple's 12-year-old son. During the presidential campaign, Trump cited being a constant presence at home for Barron Trump as the No. 1 reason she would not be a regular at events, unlike previous first ladies.

"I tend to think it's helpful to be open and honest with people and having the President's wife and children on the campaign trail usually helps soften the President's image. It brings out their humanity," says Brower. "But it's also clear that Melania Trump is a very private person with a young son who didn't want this life, so why should she be compelled to campaign?"

Potential impact?

First ladies can have an effect on the trail.

One would be hard-pressed to forget then-first lady Michelle Obama's speech on Hillary Clinton's behalf at the July 2016 Democratic National Convention, despite Clinton's 2016 loss.

Her "when they go low, we go high" line is still part of the political vernacular, and became Clinton's unofficial campaign slogan. In 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama's campaign aides anointed Michelle Obama "The Closer." That's not to imply Clinton didn't do her fair share of campaign events when she was first lady; prior to the midterm elections in 1998, Clinton visited about 20 states. In 2006, Laura Bush did 20 events and raised millions for the Republican Party.

In staying off the campaign trail, Melania Trump again reformulates the traditional definition of is usually expected of a first lady.

"Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush were each tireless campaigners," Brower said, noting the differences between other modern first ladies and Trump.

"Rosalynn would number her husband's jokes so that he wouldn't repeat any to the same group, she typed thank-you notes to people her husband met on the campaign trail, and she even started taking memory classes to remember faces and names when he ran for governor of Georgia," she said.

Trump is more comparable to Jacqueline Kennedy, Brower said, who felt as though she was more of a hinderance than help during John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. Kennedy was criticized for being too rich, too beautiful or "too comically breathy," Brower said. "Of course, that turned around when she became first lady, when women all over the world tried to dress like her and get their hair done like hers."

Trump, it appears, is comfortable with being more seen than heard in her own iteration of presidential spouse. While she has a public presence and is pushing a platform -- "Be Best," which is centered around the well-being of children -- Trump rarely gives speeches that last longer than three or four minutes in length and don't stray into controversial territory.

She also remains highly wary of the press, giving only two on-camera interviews in the past year. She is not a regular on the cover of magazines or on the talk show circuit, as was Michelle Obama, and she has not found a comfortable and consistent footing in the Washington social spotlight.

Quiet presence

Trump prefers to be a frequent participant in White House events, showcasing her hostess side, greeting the wives of visiting dignitaries, welcoming children to events about bullying and pushing her anti-opioid message. She has participated in more than a dozen events over the past month, including several on her first solo international trip as first lady to Africa in October, and has accompanied her husband on his visit to hurricane-ravaged Florida; most recently, she went with the President to Pittsburgh, the site of last week's horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

With the holidays approaching, aides say Trump will likely throw herself not into election analysis but into the planning and execution of dozens of events the White House hosts during the season. Grisham confirmed this is one of the reasons the first lady is not making the rounds of campaigning.

"This is one of the busiest times of the year for the East Wing," Grisham said.

Trump did delve into the realm of politics recently, revealing in an interview with ABC News during her trip to Africa in October that she agreed with her husband's stance on immigration and that while she thought women "need to be heard," she believes they also need to have "hard evidence" before making accusations of sexual misconduct.

Like the President, she said she supports men just as much as women. Trump also made her first comment on the reports of her husband's past alleged infidelities, saying the issue is "not a concern" of hers.

The lack of campaign events, and the fervent commitment to her life as a mother (and as a wife able to essentially wave off salacious stories about her spouse) will likely only serve to continue to fill the vacuum of questions about who this first lady is, at her core, and fuel armchair assessments and speculation.

"I think it's helpful and important to have some sense of who the first lady is and what she stands for," Brower said. "Because Melania has been such a reluctant presence on the campaign trail, we may never know what's truly in her heart."

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