A few days before her husband was elected president, Melania Trump made a surprising declaration: Cyberbullying, she told a crowd in Pennsylvania, would be “one of the main focuses of my work“ if she became first lady. “Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough,” she said. “It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied, or attacked … it is absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet.” Outside Trumpworld, the declaration was greeted with widespread jeers, given her husband’s Twitter habit and his history of mocking the disabled, bullying children, and attacking women who had accused him of sexual assault.
By the time Melania moved into the White House, five months after her husband took office, cyberbullying seemed to have fallen off her agenda. Politico reported in June that the topic had been “cast aside,” and the first lady rarely spoke in public anyway. But in the past month, the initiative has certainly seemed to be back on the table. At a luncheon for governors’ spouses in February, Melania Trump extolled the importance of “encouraging positive habits on social media and technology.” And last week, she convened her first public meeting on the topic, a gathering at the White House with executives from tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and Twitter. “I’m well aware that people are skeptical of me discussing this topic,” she said in her introductory remarks. “But it will not stop me from doing what I know is right.”
So, is the East Wing currently working on a cyberbullying campaign or not? “We really want people to stay away from saying it’s a cyberbullying campaign,” said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director. Melania Trump hasn’t announced her actual platform yet, Grisham said, and when she does, it will be about children’s issues more broadly—“everything they’re facing as a group.” Like what? I asked. Grisham rattled off a list: nutrition problems, drug abuse, opioid abuse, prescription pills, social media, and “online behavior” including cyberbullying but also online safety. “There are a lot of things going into it,” she said, accurately. The theme is “the overall well-being of children and teaching themselves how to grow up happy and healthy and become morally responsible adults.” When I asked if any plans came out of the tech roundtable last week, Grisham demurred.
How notable is the murkiness of a first lady’s activism at this stage of her tenure? First ladies since Rosalynn Carter have adopted their own public passion projects, usually something perceived as “nonpolitical,” though they often include policy angles. These platforms can take time to assemble. Michelle Obama announced her “Let’s Move” initiative combating childhood obesity more than a year into her husband’s time in office, for example. But she planted a garden at the White House just months into her residence there and focused on childhood obesity in her remarks at the first “harvest party” promoting it. By contrast, Melania Trump’s 14 months and counting is indeed an unusually long time to go without announcing any kind of concrete, focused project or initiative.
First ladies’ platforms tend to land with more oomph when the first lady is perceived as having real influence over her husband. Michelle Obama, for example, regularly met with West Wing staffers and members of Congress in her efforts to pass a child-nutrition bill, said Kate Anderson Brower, the author of a book called First Women. “When the first lady really cares about something and has a real partnership with her husband and is a force to be reckoned with, members of his administration will want to work with her,” she said. “If he’s dismissive of her, they’re not going to go out of their way to get something done.” It also helps if their messages are similarly in sync. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign complemented her husband’s “War on Drugs.” George H.W. Bush sold himself as the “education president” while his wife promoted family literacy.
The first lady’s office hired a policy director in January. Is cyberbullying one of the issues she will be tackling? The new policy director is still getting up to speed, Grisham said. Anyway, the office is currently more focused on the upcoming Easter egg roll and a state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron planned for later in April. Melania retains about half the staff members that other recent first ladies have employed, which means they are stretched thin even with her demonstrated lack of interest in public appearances. (Brower speculated about another reason it might be taking Melania so long to announce her platform: Perhaps she and her staff are at odds. “I think she wants to do cyberbullying, but her team is telling her that doesn’t work,” she theorized.)
For now, the only thing that’s clear is that Melania Trump has no immediate plans to announce a specific agenda for her office. If anything, recent allegations that her husband slept with a porn star and a Playboy model during their marriage make it seem less likely that she would be inclined to engage in the kind of public efforts generally tied to a role that, by most accounts, she never wanted anyway. Then again, if one were indeed married to Donald Trump and were in the mood for such a thing, what could be more deliciously passive-aggressive than to launch a national anti-cyberbullying campaign from the White House itself?