WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, AFP) - A reception honouring military families at the White House took on an unusually high profile Monday (June 4) night.
The gathering, which honoured the relatives of slain service members, marked the return to public life of first lady Melania Trump after more than three weeks during which she did not hold or attend any official events. On May 14, she was hospitalised for five days following a procedure to treat what the White House called a benign kidney condition.
Melania Trump had last been seen on May 10 standing alongside her husband at Joint Base Andrews as the couple greeted three Americans who had been released from prison in North Korea. Four days later, the White House said in a statement that she had undergone a successful embolisation procedure.
On Monday, members of several of the Gold Star families who were invited into what the White House said was a closed reception were excited to hear from President Donald Trump and lay eyes on Melania Trump.
According to one attendee, Trump joked about the rumours that have circulated during his wife’s long absence and teased that they aren’t breaking up. “Isn’t that right, honey?” he asked as Melania Trump laughed from the front row. She made no official remarks during the event.
The president also said: “Melania had a little problem a couple weeks ago, but she wouldn’t miss this for anything.” About 40 families participated in the candlelight ceremony in which the names of the fallen were read aloud. The event lasted more than two hours.
Several of the invitees commented on Melania Trump as they left.“She looked beautiful,” said Diana Pike of Phoenix, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. “She was dressed in black – and I don’t know how she walks in those heels.”
Lori Donahue of Gillette, Wyoming, said she was touched by the first lady’s presence: “It meant a lot that this was her first since her surgery.” Donahue’s son, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Vrooman, was killed in Iraq.
In a statement from her office after the event, Melania Trump did not mention her time away from the White House’s public schedule.“It was a privilege to welcome Gold Star Families to the White House today to recognize our Nation’s fallen heroes and their families,” the first lady said in the statement.
“To all those who have lost loved ones in service to our country, our nation grieves with you. It is a solemn reminder that we, the American people, are able to live as freely as we do because of the selfless sacrifices of our men and women in uniform.”
Whether the first lady’s appearance at the reception will quell talk of her time away from the spotlight remains to be seen. She did not travel with her husband to Camp David last weekend, though other family members accompanied him, and she has missed several events in recent weeks.
On May 22, Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, accompanied the South Korean president’s wife, Kim Jung Sook, on a tour of a historic home near the White House. Melania Trump herself had addressed the conjecture, tweeting on May 30 that “the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I’m doing.”
“Rest assured, I’m here at the @WhiteHouse w my family, feeling great, & working hard on behalf of children & the American people!” she wrote.
The tweet sparked a conspiracy theory that Trump himself may have written Melania's message, given that "working overtime" is a favourite idiom of the president when he tweets about the press.
Comedian Sarah Silverman retweeted the first lady's post, adding: "Who is this? where's Melania?"
WELL-LIKED FIRST LADY
Political strategist Stephanie Cutter, who was an adviser to former first lady Michelle Obama and served as her campaign chief of staff, interprets the intense interest in Trump as concern by Americans for a popular and well-liked first lady.
“She holds a certain position in this country, and while we need to respect her privacy on personal issues, there needs to be some level of transparency,” Cutter said. “I can’t imagine a previous first lady disappearing for 24 days without some level of concern.”
And though she has publicly resurfaced, Trump is still avoiding the full glare of the media spotlight. She is not planning to accompany her husband when he leaves Friday to attend the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, a contrast to last year’s meeting of world leaders in Sicily, which she attended.
She made a fashionable splash on that trip, wearing a silver Dolce & Gabbana evening dress and a US$51,500 floral coat by the same designers to a spousal programme.
Making a fashion statement wasn’t the only business at hand for the first lady – it was at that meeting that she interacted with some of the women she would later entertain on official visits. Melania Trump attended spousal events with Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has twice visited the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, and Brigitte Macron, the first lady of France, who would become a guest of honour at the Trump’s first state dinner.
Melania Trump also will not travel with her husband to Singapore next week, where the president is slated to hold a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.
It is a noticeable shift from weeks prior to her kidney surgery, when she engaged in several high-profile events.
In April, she represented the Trumps at former first lady Barbara Bush's funeral, rolled out her "Be Best" awareness campaign to help children, and orchestrated an elaborate state dinner for the Macrons of France.
Spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham dismissed the media speculation about Melania as "nonsense." "Mrs Trump has always been a strong and independent woman who puts her family and certainly her health above all else, and that won't change over a rabid press corps," she told Fox News.
Imagination 'running wild'
Meanwhile, the rumour mill churns online.
Some have speculated she has moved back to New York or is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, while others offer she may be healing after some secret plastic surgery.
Such a weeks-long disappearance by a modern-day first lady is indeed rare, said Ohio University history professor Katherine Jellison, an expert on president's wives.
"I'm amazed Mrs Trump has been able to do it," she told AFP.
The first lady is not an elected position, and Melania Trump is under no obligation to keep the American people abreast of her health, activities or whereabouts.
Several 19th century first ladies spent long periods out of view. But over the past half century, it has become the expectation that people know the basic narrative of the first lady's activities.
Melania Trump, never one to obsess like her husband about media attention, has laid low before.
She went quiet in March as a media storm raged about revelations that her husband's lawyer paid porn star Stormy Daniels US$130,000 before the 2016 election to keep silent over her alleged affair with Trump years earlier.
White House silence, including about why Melania spent five days in hospital for a routine procedure, is only fuelling the speculation.
"Without greater detail about her 'benign' condition, the public imagination is running wild," Jellison said.
"For most of the 20th century and certainly in the 21st century, a first lady hasn't had the option of not being a public figure - regardless of unfortunate personal circumstances."