The timing of the statement, about the care she is taking to prevent the spread of the virus while her infectious husband returned to the White House, was its own kind of statement. It seemed to be her way of answering an outcry of concern over the safety of the residence staff. This first lady with what can at times seem like an antagonistic relationship with the press, who rarely gives interviews or deviates from her prepared remarks at public appearances, was following her own playbook.
“It’s extraordinary in history, and it’s a direct contradiction to the way in which he is behaving,” says Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University and author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.” Gutin says she cannot think of any other first lady who’s released a separate statement from her own office so diametrically opposed to the president’s messaging — and with an election less than 30 days away.
“She very well may be responding to criticism of running a lax ship there at the White House based on her husband’s activities, and she wants to say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” says Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies. “The criticism isn’t just from the press, but the general public. I mean, my social media feed is all about the Trumps and their inner circle acting like modern-day Typhoid Marys.”
A coronavirus quarantine was an excuse for the first lady to lay low, as seems to be her preference, and shrug off appearances for a campaign that is faltering among women and could benefit from her relatively higher popularity than the president’s. And yet, here she was, calling attention to her contrast with her husband, even as they were literally stuck together under the same roof. (He has since left quarantine to work in the Oval Office and resume campaigning).
“My guess is that she’s looking out for her own reputation and trying to distance herself from her husband’s apparently cavalier attitude toward safety precautions,” says Jellison.
Before the pandemic, “distancing” in Washington simply meant rhetorically backing away from some politically toxic figure or behavior. During the covid-19 pandemic, the first lady has made efforts to signal that she takes public-health guidelines seriously even if her husband doesn’t.
This could be seen as distancing, in the traditional sense: the first lady creating some daylight between herself and the president for the sake of her own reputation. Just as easily, it could be an example of Melania Trump using her public persona to project that there is someone sensible in the Trump White House as her husband seeks a second term.
“The health of Residence staff members and their families are a paramount concern to the First Family,” the statement from her office read. It talked about the mask mandate the first lady implemented for residence staff in April and how her office had hired a “well-being” consultant to help maintain the mental