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The rocky history of Melania Trump’s FLOTUS PR strategy

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Avoidable mistake, or purposeful provocation? Either way, it hurt her public image.
  • Heather Timmons
By Heather Timmons

White House correspondent

Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, will be the new White House press secretary.

It’s an unusual choice to represent the nerve center of the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military, given the First Lady’s rocky relationship with the press and her falling approval ratings during Grishman’s tenure.

Grisham has worked with president Donald Trump since early in his political career. She was the media handler at Trump’s first rally in Phoenix, Arizona, and then traveled with the reporters who covered his campaign.

“I think he’s one of the kinder people I’ve ever worked for,” Grisham said of the president back then. After a brief stint as the deputy to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, she has served as the First Lady’s spokeswoman.

During that time, however, America’s sympathy for Melania Trump dropped from #FreeMelania levels of support to less than 50% favorable  (even falling on Fox) after she appeared insensitive to migrant families on the border, launched a tone-deaf anti-bullying gambit, and took a costly Africa trip.

It’s hard to say how much Grisham is actually responsible for the privacy-loving First Lady’s public relations woes. Before she became First Lady, Melania Trump rarely gave interviews, and her social media feed projected a Rapunzel-like narrative, “locked in a tower of her own volition.” Even now, she seems to have little understanding of the oversight role the US media is supposed to play in a taxpayer-funded government.

But a press advisor’s job is to manage their boss’s image, something that Grisham has struggled to do successfully. A chiding op-ed Grisham wrote for CNN when the First Lady’s poll numbers dropped late last year shows the White House press corps is in for another combative relationship.

Here’s a look back at Grisham and Melania Trump’s rocky public relations past.

Scary Christmas

The Slovenian-born First Lady, who landed in the US permanently via an “Einstein Visa,seemed confused and dejected at Trump’s inauguration, sparking sympathy from a country still reeling from the election.

She didn’t move into the White House until June 2017, and it wasn’t until that first Christmas that she seemed to embrace her new role. Her first White House Christmas decorations were downright apocalyptic, as Quartz and others noted. The White House’s own photos, presumably staged by the First Lady’s press shop, showed her looking more like a “wicked queen” than a “fairy-tale prisoner,” the New Yorker said.

Some of this criticism was fueled by Grisham’s own tweet (since deleted) of a foreboding-looking photo of the decor:

Melania’s White House Christmas decorations, 2017.

The Michael Kors lewk, though

Despite the Christmas chill, positive comparisons between the First Lady and her husband continued through early 2018, especially when the topic was her appearance.

“Where he is impulsive, she is meticulous; where he is combative, she is compassionate,” CNN wrote of the president and his wife when French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, visited the White House in April 2018. They were talking in part about the First Lady’s attire, including a white hat with Michael Kors blazer and skirt, and her “instincts” that led her to decide on a cream and gold color scheme for the State Dinner.

Her white hat, some suggested, channeled Beyonce’s in the Formation video:

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
Melania Trump’s hat during Emmanuel Macron’s state visit made headlines.

Be Best

The First Lady introduced her “Be Best” initiative in the Rose Garden in May 2018. She said it was meant to encourage kindness, compassion and respect in children. “Let us teach our children the difference between right and wrong, and encourage them to be best in their individual paths in life,” she said at the time, carefully reading from prepared remarks.

It was ironic, as Quartz’s Annabelle Timset wrote, coming as it did as her husband “repeatedly engaged in social media bullying, made inappropriate comments to and about young girls, and exhibited behavior that was less than inclusive, and definitely disrespectful, toward immigrants and Americans of different faiths and backgrounds.”

And the name was perplexing. Was it a clumsy homage to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Be Better” campaign? A rebuke to her husband? The message was either deliberately confusing, or completely tone deaf.

The “I Don’t Care, Do You?” Coat

Public approval of Melania Trump tanked in June 2018 after her first visit to a Texas immigration detention center, during which she wore a jacket with the words, “I don’t care, do you?” scrawled in large text on the back. Her visit came after a national outcry over the Trump administration’s policy of separating hundreds of kids from their parents on the border.

The tone deaf fashion statement seemed like something her public relations staff could have prevented. “It was a surprising choice for the First Lady, and an even more surprising slip for her staff, who should have caught the gaffe,” Quartz wrote at the time.  Grisham sprang into damage control, asking the media to focus on her “actions and efforts to help kids,” and not jacket.

In an interview months later, the First Lady refuted Grisham’s defense, telling ABC that she wore the coat on purpose to stick it to the “people, and the left wing media” who had been critical of her, earning her some more critics.

Colonialism and a costly Cairo trip

In October 2018, the First Lady went on a trip to Africa that yielded some questionable photo-ops, including one in which she wore a pith helmet. It was an offensive choice, as Quartz’s Jenni Avins wrote:

The headgear was standard-issue for 19th century British officers in India and Africa, making it a potent symbol of colonial rule. They’ve long since been abandoned, making them nearly cartoonish in their connotations today (or actually cartoonish: when TinTin went to Congo in 1931, he wore a pith helmet).

She also made a pit stop in Cairo. Despite the fact that she didn’t even stay overnight, the hotel bills came to $95,000. It was part of a pattern of expensive overseas trips that included $174,000 in Toronto.

Later, during the government shutdown, she took a $35,000 flight to Florida for a vacation as thousands of government workers were going without pay.

Happy Birthday?

The official White House birthday photo of her this year is another FLOTUS public relations puzzle, showing an uncomfortable-looking First Lady surrounded by hordes of photographers who were focused instead on her husband:

 

Brand ambassadors

In an ill-timed addition to the “Be Best” campaign, the office of the First Lady announced this week it was working to “better the lives of children everywhere” by adding about 20 “ambassadors” to serve various government agencies. Coming just days after fresh reports that asylum-seeking kids were being held in subhuman conditions thanks to her husband’s policies, Democratic Congress members, activists, and plenty of other people skewered the announcement as being astoundingly out of touch.

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