But the spousal shoutouts stopped there.
As her own husband prepares to deliver his fourth joint address to Congress next week, Melania Trump‘s “Be Best” — the name of her anti-cyberbullying campaign — is still waiting to make a cameo. In past years, the only recognition she received was a hand wave to the House gallery.
For three years in a row, Trump has declined to mention his wife’s initiative in his annual remarks to lawmakers, a review of transcripts shows. Some associates suggest the omission is deliberate; perhaps the president’s aides want to protect him from getting mocked during the widely viewed address — last year’s State of the Union drew 46 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings — given his own propensity for vitriolic tweets and borderline online harassment.
“I think his speechwriters know that Donald Trump talking about an anti-bullying initiative is ironic at best, and you don’t want people laughing during the middle of a State of the Union address,” mused a former Obama speechwriter.
The lack of attention Trump has paid to his spouse in the annual high-profile speech also raises questions about existing relations between his inner circle and the East Wing. While his predecessors often indulged the American public’s fascination with first ladies, Trump has demonstrated a preference for keeping the spotlight on himself — particularly in high-stakes moments like the State of the Union, where his penchant for unpredictability kept lawmakers in previous years guessing whether Trump the fighter or Trump the peacemaker would show up on Capitol Hill.
“A major tool in the White House’s arsenal is the first lady’s popularity and image, and Melania Trump has been severely underutilized by this administration,” said Lauren Wright, a lecturer on the presidency and political affairs at Princeton University. “If anything, they don’t think about the East Wing as a strategically valuable part of the White House, which it has been in past administrations.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
One person close to the first lady suggested Melania Trump herself may have urged her husband to focus on unifying themes in each of his speeches, knowing the stately occasion demands both a serious tone and serious substance from the commander in chief. “She is a very private person, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she told him to leave her and her work out of it and focus on more pressing matters,” this person said.
White House officials familiar with the planning for next Tuesday’s State of the Union said it is unlikely that Trump will deviate from the formula that has worked for him in past years to mention the first lady’s “Be Best” platform.
The president earned high marks for his speeches in 2018 and 2019 after trading in his usually bombastic speaking style for teleprompter-guided addresses. Melania Trump, who has been known behind the scenes to offer her unvarnished thoughts on everything from the administration’s policy proposals to the effectiveness of Trump’s counterattacks, is expected to be involved as the president’s aides draft this year’s address, according to two Trump aides.
In previous years, the first lady has also worked closely with White House officials to develop the cohort of distinguished guests who join her in the gallery during the president’s remarks. Her appearance at last year’s State of the Union — where she was joined by famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin, recovering opioid addict Ashley Evans and Auschwitz survivor Joshua Kaufman, among others — ended a five-week hiatus from the public eye.
In 2018, Melania Trump and her husband arrived separately at the Capitol for his first formal State of the Union, which came less than a month after allegations of the president’s extramarital affair with adult-film star Stormy Daniels resurfaced.
To be sure, Trump has given significant attention to his wife’s initiatives in other settings. The duo hosted a White House summit on the opioid epidemic in March 2018, shortly before the first lady unveiled her three-pillar platform, which includes youth opioids awareness. Trump mentioned the opioid crisis in his 2019 State of the Union, but did not discuss his wife’s efforts on the issue, which Wright attributed to a “clear disconnect and lack of coordination between the West Wing and the East Wing.”
At his wife’s urging last fall, Trump also invited anti-tobacco activists and e-cigarette lobbyists to the West Wing for a roundtable on vaping, which Melania Trump has described as “an on-ramp to nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.” Soon after the meeting, however, the president abandoned plans for a sweeping crackdown on flavored vaping products — opting instead for softer restrictions after his campaign advisers suggested an outright ban could do damage to his standing in key battleground states.
Trump has paid similar attention to the pet issues his daughter Ivanka, a senior White House adviser, has kept in her portfolio, including paid family leave and child care affordability. He mentioned both during his State of the Union speeches in 2018 and 2019 — though he did not discuss the first daughter’s involvement with either — and participated in a summit on child care and paid leave at the White House last December.
Trump’s avoidance of his wife’s platform in his yearly address to Congress marks a departure from modern presidential tradition in a speech he has typically kept fairly traditional. Clinton not only mentioned his wife’s initiatives in his 1994 State of the Union, but also singled her out when he addressed the House chamber in 1997, 1998 and 1999 for her work on early childhood learning, affordable child care, the preservation of historic U.S. sites and the promotion of arts and humanities. In 1996, two years before his sex scandal would consume Washington, Clinton used his State of the Union to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary.
“Before I go on, I’d like to just take a moment to thank my own family and to thank the person who has taught me more than anyone else over 25 years about the importance of families and children, a wonderful wife, a magnificent mother and a great first lady. Thank you, Hillary,” he said from the pulpit.
Over the course of their two terms in office, Bush and Obama each mentioned their wives twice in State of the Union speeches. (Bush also mentioned Laura in his joint address to Congress in 2005.) When Obama delivered his first speech to the House and Senate in 2009, aides said he decided against mentioning Michelle’s initiatives because it didn’t feel right in the political climate at the time.
“We didn’t do it in the first joint session address because he had only been in office for a month and the economy was in full meltdown,” recalled the former Obama speechwriter. “We were losing 800,000 jobs that month, so it was solely focused on calming the country down.”
“After that,” the official continued, “we knew he would want to highlight the first lady’s programs, so we try and put them in there where it would fit narratively and thematically. There was one year when the president was like, ‘Whatever you guys decide, just put Michelle’s stuff in there.‘”
Wright said past White Houses recognized that the first lady — with her highly visible spot in the gallery and her role as hostess to the first family’s guests — would likely receive media attention linked to the State of the Union, and therefore worked to shape it in a positive way.
“With regard to the first lady, past White Houses have said, ‘We know she’s going to get attention anyways, so we may as well use that to get the message we want and talk about what she’s doing,’” she said.