Melania Trump is forging her own path as first lady, in spite of her husband

WASHINGTON — First lady Melania Trump on Monday is expected to unveil new initiatives focused on children at an event in the White House Rose Garden.

Trump’s rare appearance before the press to announce what is likely to be a modest set of proposals is a reminder of the unique challenges she has faced as first lady, filling an arcane role fraught with gender stereotypes and a lack of definition, compounded by her husband’s extreme divisiveness and outsized penchant for chaos.

The first lady famously pledged early in her husband’s presidency to make combating cyberbullying a priority, and has devoted some speeches and White House events to the subject over the past year. Predictably, her efforts have faced mockery at every turn — any mention of cyberbullying conjures her husband’s frequent Twitter tirades and ad hominem attacks.

“I am well aware that people are skeptical of me discussing this topic,” she said in March. “I have been criticized for my commitment to tackling this issue, and I know that will continue. But it will not stop me for doing what I know is right.”

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In the meantime, she has turned her attention toward other projects, such as the nation’s opioid crisis ― especially its effect on children and families.

It’s unusual for a first lady not to have clearly defined initiatives at this point of her husband’s presidency, according to Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, and First in Line, an upcoming book about vice presidents.

Yet overall, Trump “has been, in her way, the best version of the first lady that she can,” given that she is dealing with “an impossible situation,” Brower said. And in distancing herself from her husband, she may be further reinventing the role of first lady and subverting public expectations of her, even in otherwise traditional tasks.

Trump has mostly adhered to ceremonial duties, such as hosting the first White House state visit of her husband’s presidency last month, with the Trumps’ French counterparts, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron.

She has also responded to tragedies as a “consoler in chief,” Brower noted, such as visiting with hurricane survivors and representing her husband’s administration at former first lady Barbara Bush’s funeral last month.

These settings provide opportunities for Trump to “really be empathetic and sympathize with people, in the way that her husband can’t,” Brower said.

She also seems to contrast herself with her husband in the way she avoids publicly engaging in attacks, personal or political. As many political observers have noted, she notably has not responded to her husband’s many personal scandals, including his alleged extramarital affairs with porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. A rare exception was during his campaign, after the October 2016 release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, when Trump defended her husband bragging about sexual assault as “boy talk.”

“I think she has been very smart to try to stay above the fray,” Brower said. “She’s learning the best thing to do is just focus on these bipartisan, non-controversial issues, do the state dinner, go about her business as best you can.”

Like previous first ladies, Trump has been subject to scrutiny and speculation over her fashion and personal life. Her marriage to the president in particular has sparked fascination and mystery, and her body language during their interactions is closely analyzed.

Brower attributed it to the way Trump remains a “cipher,” unlike some of her predecessors, who were more accessible to the press.

Curiously, Trump has drawn sympathy from unlikely places, particularly in pop culture depictions and social media memes.

In recurring segments on late-night host Stephen Colbert’s show, actress Laura Benanti portrays Trump as both desperate and defiant.

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Over the weekend, “Saturday Night Live” showcased the Stormy Daniels scandal, showing the first lady, played by Cecily Strong, as gleeful about the possibility of testifying against the president in his legal debacles.

In real life, Trump’s “silence” on Daniels and “refusal to stand by her husband” shows how much she has defied expectations as first lady, according to Brower.

“I think that, in a way, that’s a feminist thing to do, to not do what’s expected of her,” Brower said. And, like many women who are judged by their appearance, “people underestimate her,” she added.

“She has rejected a lot of what is expected of her, and doesn’t seem to care about what we as a country expect of her,” Brower said. “I just don’t see that with her, and I think that’s kind of refreshing.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.