After Barack Obama won the 2008 US elections the incoming first lady, Michelle, was told by her husband’s advisers that she had no choice but to uproot her young family and move from Chicago to Washington. Not so Melania Trump.Married to the brashest of modern American presidents, and quickly becoming the brashest of American first ladies, she is taking a different path.
Three weeks into this new administration, Melania is in no apparent rush to move from New York (although an adviser has said that she plans to move after their 10-year-old son, Barron, finishes the school year).
In an unprecedented act for a sitting first lady, Melania has continued a litigious streak by refiling a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court against the owner of the Daily Mail, stating that her brand lost “significant value” because of an article that falsely alleged she had once worked for an escort service.
Her lawyer said this had come at a time when she had a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” as “one of the most photographed women in the world”. (In other words, she was about to become the first lady.) The brand she was apparently hoping to launch was to include “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewellery, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance”. It was an astonishingly honest admission of how she views the position, and how she had hoped to quickly capitalise on her newfound global celebrity.
But if Melania is the first first lady to attempt to make money out of the role, she is not the first to earn money while being the wife of the president. Laura Bush once said first ladies should not be paid for the job but mused: “The real question is, should they be able to work for a salary at the job that they already had?”
Before her husband was elected in 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt lamented: “By earning my own money, I had recently enjoyed a certain amount of financial independence and had been able to do things in which I was personally interested.” As first lady she was paid for lectures, radio broadcasts and for her wildly popular monthly column “My Day”, but gave most of her earnings to charity.
Bess Truman was labelled Payroll Bess when it was revealed she was a paid clerk for her husband when he served in the Senate. Harry Truman was worried about the backlash when he was nominated as FDR’s vice-president in 1944, but it soon blew over.
The current situation is much thornier for the Trumps. Melania was barely visible during the campaign (she is the only wife of a presidential nominee in modern history to be absent at the announcement of her husband’s running mate), and her most public remarks at the Republican National Convention were an embarrassment when it was revealedthey had included parts of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Her poll numbers are historically low for a first lady, and maybe she doesn’t care. But after the public backlash against Melania’s plans to sell makeup and clothes her lawyer, Charles Harder, said in a statement that “the first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so ... Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”
After seeing both Trump’s earlier wives contest the relatively modest settlements they received after the marriages ended in divorce, and bearing in mind the allegations made against Trump of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual assault, it is perhaps not surprising to see Melania seeking to make some money of her own.
But for many, maybe even most, trying to capitalise on being first lady is unseemly, at best. One former Obama staffer I spoke to who worked closely with Michelle’s office told me they found the possibility “jaw-dropping”, in a role that is supposed to be about public service and representing the US to the world. After they leave the White House, recent first ladies have been rewarded handsomely with multimillion-dollar book deals, but it is understood that those opportunities can wait.
Melania seems to be uninterested in the constraints that have historically accompanied the position. Since Abigail Adams in 1797, every first lady has moved into the White House immediately (with the exception of Anna Harrison, who was packing to move to Washington when she learned of her husband President William Henry Harrison’s death).
And so far she has announced the hiring of only three official east wing aides. Michelle Obama had a staff of 24, most of whom were in place early on. “I chose not to be on the campaign. I made that choice. I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me,” Melania told Harper’s Bazaar in January 2016. It is worth remembering that she didn’t ask for the job.
In an interview with the Washington Post last year, Donald Trump described his deliberations with his wife ahead of the announcement of his candidacy in June 2015. He said Melania had pleaded with him, saying: “We have such a great life. Why do you want to do this?” Last week Melania was conspicuously absent when the Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe, and his wife, Akie, visited the capital. The first lady usually acts as tour guide, but Melania was nowhere to be seen as the Japanese first lady made stops alone. Later in the day Melania joined the couple and her husband at Andrews air force base for a weekend visit to their Mar-a-Lago estate.
It was an unusual sight, watching a foreign first lady wander without a guide and the first daughter, Ivanka, take her place on a visit to Dover air force base for the return of the remains of a US service member killed in Yemen. “They say I’m shy,” Melania has said. “I am not shy.” Rather, she is emerging as a modern, independent-minded woman.