WASHINGTON (AP) - Melania Trump closed out the National Republican Convention from the White House and it was the most that many Americans have seen of their first lady since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that has become a defining challenge of her husband's administration.
Mrs. Trump expressed her sympathy for families affected by COVID-19, an “invisible enemy” she said has challenged America but brought its citizens together.
In her prime-time address on Tuesday night, the first lady said she has “been moved in the way Americans have come together in such an unfamiliar and frightening situation.“
She said her husband “will not rest until he has done all he can” to stem the “invisible enemy” of the coronavirus outbreak.
Mrs. Trump also talked about “the beautiful side of humanity” she has observed in the wake of natural disasters around the country, noting that a common thread “is the unwavering resolve to help one another.”
The first lady spoke from the newly renovated Rose Garden, where her husband was front and center in the audience gathered to hear her remarks.
The seats in the audience were about 2 feet apart, not the minimum of 6 feet apart that doctors had recommended to avoid spread of the novel coronavirus. Most of those in the family and friends section were not wearing masks.
Mrs. Trump also spoke of her trip to Africa and how she learned of the horrifying history of slavery during a tour of Ghana.
“I experienced firsthand its warm people and dear traditions,” Mrs. Trump said. “While there, I visited the Cape Coast Castle and learned more about the beginning of a cruel and often deadly journey in the era of the slave trade. I was horrified when I listened to the guide tell me so many inhumane stories and I gained new perspective. This time in our history we must never forget so that we can assure that it never happens again.”
The first lady touched upon the civil unrest that has plagued the country since the death of George Floyd sparked national outrage back in May.
“Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country,” she said. “It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past. We must remember that today we are all one community, comprised of many races, religions and ethnicities. Our diverse and storied history is what makes our country strong and yet, we still have so much to learn from one another.”
“With that in mind, I’d like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause and look at things from all perspectives. I urge people to come together in a civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals,” Melania Trump said. “I also ask people to stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice and never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin. Instead of tearing things down, let’s reflect on our mistakes, be proud of our evolution and look to our way forward. Everyday let us remember that we are one nation under god and we need to cherish one another.”
Just like Donald Trump has upended norms of the presidency, Melania Trump has altered what it means to be a modern first lady, from continuing to live in New York City in the administration's opening months to forcing the ouster of a deputy national security adviser.
Not since Nancy Reagan has any first lady asserted herself so publicly in West Wing personnel matters.
The first lady arranged a splashy launch for “Be Best,” her signature initiative for children, but ended up on the defensive for making anti-cyberbullying one of its pillars when the president regularly uses Twitter to attack anyone he feels has betrayed him.
She rushed to the southern border to visit migrant children after the administration started separating them from the adults who brought them to the U.S. from Mexico, a rare instance where she publicly opposed the president's policy.
But en route to McAllen, Texas, the former fashion model donned a green hooded jacket with “I Really Don't Care, Do U?” emblazoned on the back. She didn't wear it around the children, but the baffling wardrobe choice quickly overshadowed the goodwill border visit.“It distracted from what she was trying to do,” said Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies at Rider University.
The first lady's spokesperson, Stephanie Grisham, said at the time that it was "just a jacket” with no hidden meaning. President Trump later contradicted that, tweeting that his wife had learned how dishonest the news media are “and she truly no longer cares!”
Melania Trump later said in a television interview that the jacket was "for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me.”
Her announcements during the pandemic of two costly though privately funded White House improvement projects — construction of a tennis pavilion and a Rose Garden renovation — opened her to charges of tone-deafness.
She tweeted that the naysayers should “contribute something good & productive in their own communities" instead of criticizing her.
She responded with silence to claims by porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal that they’d had affairs with Trump, to the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and to Trump's impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House for pushing Ukraine to investigate his political opponents. Trump denies the extramarital relationships and was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.
Mrs. Trump said months ago that she's ready for another four years.
Only the second foreign-born first lady in U.S. history, Mrs. Trump is a native of Slovenia, a former communist country in eastern Europe. She gave up studying architecture to pursue a career as a fashion model, arrived in New York in 1996 and met Donald Trump two years later.
She became his third wife in 2005 and gave birth to their now 14-year-old son, Barron, in 2006 — the year she became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The first lady spoke Tuesday night from the renovated Rose Garden, despite questions about using the White House for a political convention. The coronavirus forced her to scrap many of her plans for 2020, including headlining her first Trump fundraisers.
A low-profile presidential spouse, Mrs. Trump spent the first weeks of the pandemic out of public view before she began posting short videos filmed at the White House to social media underscoring federal government guidance about hand washing, social distancing and wearing face masks as ways to help slow transmission of the virus.
The pandemic marked another instance where the first lady parted with her husband by offering a more consistent message about masks than the president, who early on scoffed at the idea of wearing one himself even as he announced federal guidance for the public about doing so.
She posted a photo of herself wearing a mask and wore one in public before Trump did. Grisham said it was important for her to follow the guidelines and set a good example for children.
Tammy Vigil, a Boston University professor who wrote a book about Melania Trump and Michelle Obama, said people complain that Mrs. Trump is “sort of a do-nothing first lady when she's actually been doing some things and not getting much attention for them.”
“Her husband sucks all the air out of the room,” Vigil said.
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said people appreciate that Mrs. Trump is her own person. “I think people like the idea that she is a successful, independent woman who protects her son, cares deeply about children and wants to assist her husband, but she does so on her terms,” Gingrich said.
One challenge for the first lady Tuesday night was to avoid doing anything to take the focus away from her speech. She used her 2016 speech to introduce herself to voters, but the address was later found to have included passages similar to what Michelle Obama had said in her speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
A speechwriter for President Trump's company, the Trump Organization, later took the blame.