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Seen but rarely heard: How Melania Trump is approaching the public role of first lady

Melania Trump at an event in the White House garden in September. The first lady has spoken relatively little during her first year but instead has presented a series of vivid images for photojournalists and social-media audiences. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara.

WASHINGTON - In her first months as first lady, Melania Trump was rarely seen in public. Soon after her husband's inauguration, she returned to their Trump Tower penthouse in New York for nearly six months, tending to her young son, Barron, while slowly hiring a small staff to help her run her White House office.

For a while, it appeared that she would be as publicly disengaged from her husband's administration as she had been from his campaign, when she gave few speeches and rarely traveled to his events. There was grumbling around Washington: Could the White House function well without the president's spouse on site? Would she make any use of the platform that comes with her title?

Trump answered those questions after she moved to Washington over the summer. While still largely avoiding public speaking, she has spent her first year communicating her support for her husband with her silent presence and a stream of curated images and short statements posted on social media.

In September, she was photographed picking kale with children in the White House garden - but did not use the event to discuss health or nutrition as Michelle Obama often did.

She visited a child-care center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, donating crayons and coloring books in a show of support for military families - but made no public statement to go along with the photo op.

She traveled twice to Texas to survey hurricane damage and made brief remarks on the second trip - but communicated more with her much-photographed presence volunteering at relief centers and in a public service announcement seeking donations to underwrite such efforts.

Trump has not yet added a policy director to her relatively small staff of 10, though she plans to do so soon. She has put her initial focus on images, say the academics who have been following her closely.

"She is a ceremonial first lady," said Myra Gutin, a communication professor at Rider University and author of "The President's Partner," a study of modern first ladies. "They had the Easter Egg Roll, a Hanukkah party, Christmas parties; she had the congressional spouses over to the White House. That's all pro forma. . . . The advocacy for a project or policy initiative, I still really don't see."

Unlike her recent predecessors, Trump has not yet launched any formal initiatives or programs to advance her interests. Laura Bush, a former librarian, hosted the first National Book Festival during her first year in the White House - an event she said could highlight the key role of literacy in supporting a democracy. Michelle Obama planted the White House garden in her first year, a precursor to her "Let's Move!" program to reduce the childhood obesity rate. Betty Ford helped lobby state legislatures to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Nancy Reagan didn't fully move into advocacy until her second year as first lady, when she launched her "Just Say No" campaign to complement federal government's anti-drug policies.

The first lady's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said Trump's approach suits her. "She is very focused on her own role and her own time as first lady. . . . Mrs. Trump has actually spoken publicly on several occasions both domestically and internationally, and she looks forward to more speaking roles when appropriate."

Grisham has said that Trump hopes to use her time at the White House to help children, and she is frequently photographed with young people. One of her first solo outings as first lady was a surprise visit to a New York hospital where she read a Dr. Seuss book to sick children. There have also been visits to child-care centers, and one to a West Virginia drug recovery center for infants, intended to bring attention to the opioid epidemic.

Trump's most extensive public remarks thus far came at a luncheon she hosted for the spouses of world leaders during a United Nations General Assembly in September. In a seven-minute speech, she condemned bullying and roughly outlined an interest in boosting the well-being of children.

The first lady, with her husband, President Trump, at the White House. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

"No child should ever feel hungry, stalked, frightened, terrorized, bullied, isolated or afraid, with nowhere to turn," Trump said. She added: "We must teach each child the values of empathy . . . kindness, mindfulness, integrity and leadership, which can only be taught by example." But she did not outline any specific policy suggestions at the time.

The relatively quiet first lady is very different from her husband when it comes to their public communication styles, said Jennifer Golbeck, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and an expert in social media. If he is the Twitter president, she is the Instagram first lady.

Trump's professional background as a model comes through in the photos said Goldbeck, who analyzed the first lady's postings on Twitter and Instagram over the past year.

"She's very comfortable in front of a camera," Goldbeck said. Her use of social media is "very formal. She's trying as much as she's comfortable to give a personal glimpse of herself, but it is clearly hyper-controlled. . . . There are a lot of [photos of] her impeccably dressed with perfect hair - that's what I get from the imagery."

Trump's approach to her image was signaled with the release of her official portrait in April, said Gutin, who called the portrait "really very lovely but different from some of the others [issued by first ladies] - which show more flaws."

Phillip Bloch, the stylist who is a longtime associate of the Trump family, said "I think she is very concerned about appearance. I'm not saying that in a negative way. Like a Jackie Kennedy, like an Audrey Hepburn, you never see her with a hair out of place."

In one of her more recent Instagram posts, Trump seemed to be trying to lighten her image - offering a wide-eyed smoochy face with a photo filter that superimposed a Santa hat and dancing golden reindeer. It quickly became one of her most-liked photos.

Yet these wordless images leave themselves open to interpretation - and sometimes, mockery. The unveiling of the White House Christmas decorations was staged as if for a photo shoot, with the first lady welcomed by pirouetting ballet dancers before she adjourned for a holiday crafting session with schoolchildren. Critics highlighted pictures where the first lady was not smiling - to create their own narrative about her.

"The Theme for the White House Christmas Decorations Is Fear!" read the headline of a satirical Elle.com column that featured photos of a stony-faced Melania Trump walking through a dimly lit hallway lined by white branches. The Daily Beast, New Yorker and Vanity Fair featured similar articles. (Fox News host Laura Ingraham took aim at such coverage as a "double standard that has become so obvious, so routine, and apparently so acceptable where conservative women are concerned.")

On the whole, Trump's reserved approach seems to be working.

First ladies are typically more popular than their husbands, and a Gallup poll released in December showed that her favorable rating is 54 percent, up 17 points since January. The same poll showed that her husband is viewed unfavorably by 56 percent of Americans.

Melania Trump is slightly less popular than Michelle Obama, who was viewed favorably by 61 percent of Americans in the fall of her husband's first year in office, and Laura Bush, who had an approval rating of 77 percent during the same period of her husband's presidency.

"Perhaps Melania Trump's approval rating is higher than her husband's precisely because she withholds so much," Johanna Blakley, managing director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Blakely compared the first lady's personal social-media feed @MelaniaTrump, which has not been updated since the election, to her @FLOTUS accounts on Twitter and Instagram and found a stark difference.

Before becoming first lady, Trump shared "personal preferences and observations that feel quite intimate" - enough so that a stranger could feel comfortable picking out a gift for her, Blakely said in an email. "That is what's so powerful about these social platforms: They can make you feel as if you really know someone."

Her new account is full of photos of her performing her duties as first lady, at White House events or traveling with the president. When she joined children in the White House garden, she wore typical gardening attire - a red plaid top, jeans and gardening gloves - and went through the garden helping to pick vegetables. Trump's office later posted four photos with the hashtags #HealthyLiving #HealthyEating.

Paolo Zampolli, a New York businessman and longtime friend of the Trumps who has visited them in the White House, said Melania Trump is still adjusting to the public component of her life as first lady. She has time to refine her approach.

"Addressing the world is definitely something new that became part of her life, and I think she is getting accustomed to doing it everyday and more comfortable," he said. "At the end of the day, she is someone who didn't grow up onstage as a politician, and addressing the world is not like calling home."

Story by Krissah Thompson. Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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