Melania Trump plots convention speech that hopes to avoid past missteps

First lady Melania Trump’s Rose Garden makeover is coming just in time.

Melania Trump posing for a picture

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The first lady is expected to give a high-profile Republican National Convention speech and the newly renovated space — to be a reflection of Trump’s favored décor palette: creams, soft pastels, and a hint of luxe — might just be where she delivers it from, one person with knowledge of convention discussions tells CNN, noting it is on a list of options.


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And some hope she will bring the same meticulous attention to detail that she put into redoing the iconic space — complete with a more than 200 page report — to the showy partisan event. The Rose Garden renovation is being paid for by private donations, not taxpayer funds.

The detail-oriented first lady wasn’t so careful in 2016, effectively botching her introduction to America by delivering an RNC speech including lines plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.

In 2016, Trump, according to campaign sources at the time, shunned the assistance of more seasoned speechwriters and worked with a staffer at the Trump Organization who had some experience helping ghostwrite her husband’s books.

This time the first lady is again, opting not to use a professional speechwriting team for her convention address, relying instead on her small circle of staff, according to a Republican strategist, speaking with anonymity to preserve working relations within the White House.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the first lady, but details are in the works,” the first lady’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham told CNN when asked for confirmation about planning for Trump’s RNC appearance, including her location and the status of her written remarks.

Anita McBride, former chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush, said the first lady should speak from the heart, if she can, about private moments that humanize the President.

“That was a turning point in 2004 for President Bush, when Mrs. Bush gave her speech at the convention and spoke about watching (Bush) experience the personal struggle over the decision to go to war, watching him walk the grounds in deep thought over this intensely complicated time in America,” she said. “In that moment, she made him more human, and gave people a different view, if they were willing to listen. Mrs. Trump could have that impact, too.”

McBride added that Melania Trump’s speech should also focus on the work she’s already done.

“Now she has the experience of having seen the impact she can have being first lady,” she said.

Laying low

Despite the planned high-profile convention speech, Melania Trump is not expected to be much of a surrogate for her husband this campaign cycle — even as he continues his ham-fisted approach at courting suburban White women with whom his wife might carry some appeal. Her disdain for barnstorming is something that has frustrated staff on the President’s reelection team, says one person who worked closely with the Trumps in 2016.

Yet with an election looming, the country in the throes of a pandemic and poll numbers indicating a tight presidential race, now, three months out from Election Day, would usually be considered an all-hands-on-deck time for an administration seeking to retain the White House, especially with a president capable at any moment of veering wildly off-topic.

But currently, Melania Trump is in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the Trumps have long kept a private home, adjacent to the members-only golf club. She trekked into Manhattan for several days last week, taking meetings and appointments, a source with knowledge of her travel told CNN, but for the most part, Trump has been out of sight. It has been almost three weeks since she’s been seen at a public event.

Traditionally, this would be the time when a first lady rolls up proverbial sleeves and steps in to tackle a few rallies, or greet high-dollar donors, or massage the sensibilities of moderate voters. But nothing we’ve seen from Trump indicates she is traditional.

“Mrs. Trump has shown us over and over that she does this role her way, with her timing, and generally on her terms,” said McBride. “For her not to be out there beating the bushes, drumming up votes, is not all that unusual, considering what we have learned about her as a first lady. But when she does want to be heard, she’s effective.”

No campaign plans

Short of the convention address, there is little else on Trump’s radar pertaining directly to assisting the reelection of her husband. She was not a big presence on the 2016 campaign trail, either — Trump made fewer than 10 solo appearances and less in the way of speeches.

This time around — an election cycle marred by the coronavirus pandemic which inhibits large crowds anyway — the first lady has no concrete plans to attend events, speak to fundraisers, nor attempt to garner voters in any tangible way, according to a source familiar with the first lady’s travel schedule. Her calendar for the next several weeks is open.

Some of that decision could be related to Covid-19 and an awareness about the optics of travel and the general discouragement of crowds by health officials. Still, one wonders if even in a Covid-free world, the first lady would be making the long, hard slog across the country that other more seasoned political spouses of incumbents have in the past.

Trump’s is a very different campaign playbook than her predecessors. Michelle Obama, who is slated to speak, virtually, Monday night at the Democratic Convention in support of Joe Biden, was known as such a powerful orator on behalf of her husband in 2008, her nickname was “the closer.”

Laura Bush was also crucial to George W. Bush’s reelection.

“In the last run-up during the 2004 campaign, Mrs. Bush had an entirely separate campaign operation,” said a former Bush administration official who worked closely with the former first lady and noted the differences between hers and Trump’s plan. “She had her own campaign press secretary, her own campaign advance team — on the whole, maybe some 20 staffers, some paid, some volunteer, to help coordinate her appearances and schedule solely for campaigning.”

The first lady’s influence

The reason most first ladies are a positive and influential force on the trail is typically because they put a visual to the relationship with their spouse. What the first lady does, and why, is for most modern women in the role of first lady a direct reflection of the closeness she has with the President.

For the Trumps, that idea feels more complicated, especially considering the independent approach Melania Trump has taken in the White House, oftentimes publicly sounding beliefs and values that are not in lockstep with those of the President.

“It was a common understanding for anyone who worked in the Bush White House that he was just better when Mrs. Bush was with him,” said the former Bush official. “We all knew that he was more relaxed when she was there, and that was because their relationship was in sync. And she was able to stir emotions with her presence and her speeches that he had trouble getting across.”

President Donald Trump also tends to appear more comfortable in public moments when he is accompanied by the first lady. There have been more exhibits of mutual camaraderie in this last half of Trump’s presidency than the first, which was marked by Melania Trump’s remaining in New York at the start of her tenure, and months of headlines concerning the President’s alleged marital infidelities.

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