Melania? Ivanka? Trump’s White House as a “family business”?

Read few comments.

Questions:

1. Melania Trump was not very visible during the campaign, what do you expect from her in the role of the First Lady.

2. More broadly, Trump son in law Jared Kushner is moving to Trump, it seems Ivanka Trump may play some role (some even say a role of the First Lady). Is Trump’s White House going to be at least partly a “family business”?

Answers:

Myra Gutin, Professor of Communication, Rider v University, Author of the book – The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century

1. Mrs. Trump was only seen rarely during the campaign. She has said that she will not move to the White House until June when her young son Barron  finishes school. When and if she moves to the White House, I would expect her to play a limited, very traditional role as first lady. I’m assuming that she would be involved with ceremonial activities (primarily entertaining). She might undertake an initiative. During a campaign speech she indicated that she might like to tackle cyber bullying. She had some push back on this because of her husband’s use of Twitter, though she made clear that she had told him to limit his use of social media. We’ll have to wait and see how Mrs. Trump evolves as first lady.

2. It does seem as if the Trump White House is going to be at least partially, a family business. Jared Kushner has been named as a senior advisor to the president. Ivanka Trump might engage in the ceremonial activities that the first lady traditionally assumes. She has also indicated that she might advocate for a cause or project.

Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University

1. First ladies love to say that there are no rules for first ladies, that the job is what you make it – but that’s only partially true. There are clear “dos” and “don’t”s for First ladies, and there are actual things – such as White House social occasions — that need to get done but someone, and it is usually the First Lady. I think we are going to see Melania grow into the rule. The first six months, while she is in New York, will be quite unusual. There have been Presidents without wives before (Thomas Jefferson was a widower, James Buchanan a bachelor, Grover Cleveland a bachelor who got married while President) — but not in a very long time. There will be many articles and much gossip about how absence – and a little about her presence. If (and you never predict with the Trumps), she moves into the White House after the school year, my guess is she will emerge as a more conventional First Lady — she has already expressed an interest in anti-bullying as an issue, which fits into traditional First Lady roles. If she (and he) are smart, they will build her up as an elegant, popular face of Trumpworld. First Ladies can sometimes be sources of support for controversial husbands — if handled well; if mishandled there can be competition and jealousy within the First Couple (as happened when Rosalynn Carter became more popular than her husband and Betty Ford became more popular than hers).

2. Donald Trump enters the White House with a very different model in mind. Politics is a solitary business where you trot out the spouse and kids for photo-ops – then suddenly, you become president and the kids and spouse get much more scrutinized, much more involved. Trump has run a family business for years — in that way, he may be more like the Kennedys were, using Ivanka and Jared in particular, both as advisers — and also to build that kind of non-partisan popularity that can be a source of political power because it is a safe, non-controversial source of popularity.

Betty Winfield, Professor Emerita of Journalism, University of Missouri

1. As for Melania Trump,  she has not been vocally very visible, perhaps because as a immigrant she is not confident to speak publicly or state opinions.  Actually, she is not the first First Lady who was foreign born; Louisa Johnson Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, was born English and although she was reported to be charming was a little “too foreign” for many Americans almost two hundred years ago.

Since Melania Trump has already said she would remain in NYC until summer, at least until their son has finished the school year, I don’t expect much.  Later, she will probably be compelled to have a signature “cause,” a bit of “good works” of some kind, as have all first ladies for the past 100 years.

So, we really don’t know yet what she will be like or do with her prominent political status or her”pillow power.”

2. Ivanka Trump as the first daughter also will not be the first daughter to fill in as first lady.  Jefferson as a widow relied on his daughter to help host dinners and other events.  The mores then were that women did not go to a dinner without another woman present as hostess.  Other widowed presidents or presidents whose wives were ill also relied on their daughters to fill in:  Woodrow Wilson did so when his first wife, Ellen, was ill and then dying.

If a first lady isn’t so inclined socially or doesn’t enjoy the public role the Vice-President’s wife fills in.  That happened during the Kennedy years when Jackie was pregnant or repulsed by so much attention:  Lady Bird Johnson filled in.  That certainly may happen with Melania Trump if Ivanka cannot represent the First Lady, then the Vice-President’s wife will fill in.

Yes, indeed, it does seem like a “family business.”

Diana Carlin, Professor Emerita of Communication, Saint Louis University

1. She is unlikely to be publicly visible except for special White House events such as state dinners and major social events. Since she is staying in New York at least until her son completes the school year, we won’t see much of her for the first half of this year. She has not given much indication of what her priorities will be other than a statement she made in a speech that she wants to address cyberbullying. With a son at a vulnerable age and bullying a major issue in US schools today, this is a natural for her. She will give few speeches, unlike a Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush because she is not comfortable in that role and she received criticism for the two major speeches she did give during the campaign. Her stepdaughter Ivanka will fulfill the role when she is not in Washington, and this arrangement has a long precedent in US history. Several of the early first ladies were either not interested or had health problems and relied on daughters or other relatives to serve as White House hostess. Jackie Kennedy had young children and was pregnant during her tenure so she relied on Kennedy women and Lady Bird Johnson as surrogates. Bess Truman spent a great deal of her time in Independence, Missouri, and her daughter, Margaret, filled in for her.

Melania’s current role as the wife of a very visible New York businessman prepared her for the social side of the White House and being around high-powered individuals. The fact she speaks multiple languages will be an asset when foreign dignitaries visit and on international trips. Her role will be a traditional one of wife and mother first, and she won’t be an advisor on political issues as the majority of wives going back to Abigail Adams have been. Every first lady defines the role in her own way, and Melania will as well.

2. There were news reports that the Office of the First Lady in the east wing of the White House would become the Office of the First Family, but that was recently denied. Regardless of office’s name, Ivanka will be a presence in the White House and the Trumps will be like other presidential families in the past that have made the presidency a family affair. The Kennedy family had Bobby as Attorney General and brother-in-law Sargent Shriver as head of the Peace Corps. President Eisenhower included his son John and his brother Milton among his advisors. The Trumps are in a family business and it is the model they know. The three older children were active in the campaign and both informally, and now formally with Jared Kushner’s appointment as a special advisor, there will be a family presence. As Trump noted in his news conference last week, his sons will take over the business and to avoid conflicts of interest, they will not discuss the business. That doesn’t eliminate discussing politics so long as it does not relate to the business.

Stacy Cordery, Professor of History, Iowa State University

1. Nowadays, Americans expect the spouses of presidential candidates to accompany them on the campaign trail, thus Melania Trump’s absence was notable. Political spouses help American voters see other, important but often hidden aspects of the presidential candidate. They can speak about the candidate in superlatives, or share examples of times when the candidate has been particularly altruistic or caring in a way that the candidate him or herself cannot do. Because Mrs. Trump has a career of her own and clearly is comfortable in the spotlight, it was unusual that the Republican Party made so little use of her. Mrs. Trump has said that she will put her family first, and that she and Barron will remain in New York at least until the end of this school year. So, for the first five or six months, she has told us not to expect anything from her in the role of First Lady. Nevertheless, I imagine that she will travel to Washington, D.C., to be with the president at important state dinners and at any occasion that may call for the two of them to present a united front. After Barron’s school year ends, I imagine that she and Barron will relocate to Washington, and that she will embrace the role of First Lady.

2. It does appear that the Trump presidency will be a “family business,” as you put it. Of course, most presidents actively seek out, listen to, and take advice from family members—they are the president’s trusted inner circle. What is different about Jared Kushner is that he will be given an official role, in the way that Robert Kennedy, Jr., served as Secretary of State for President John. F. Kennedy. Ivanka Trump is being called her father’s closest advisor, yet she seems not to be considered for an official role. If Ivanka is Trump’s closest advisor then she is, in fact, taking on one of the most important roles of the First Lady. No one is closer to the President than the First Lady: she knows him best. In solid, well-functioning marriages, she is his sounding board, his partner in dreaming up new ideas for the nation, and his severest critic. Is this the role Ivanka will take? We simply do not know enough about the inside of the marriage between Donald and Melania Trump. It is possible that Mrs. Trump will play that role from a distance—phone calls, texts, Skype, and frequent visits could bridge the distance to a degree. Much remains uncertain, and much remains unknown about the inner workings of the Trump family. What is clear is that President-Elect Trump is unafraid to walk his own path, regardless of tradition, history, and the American legal system.

Katherine Sibley, Professor, Director of American Studies Program, Saint Joseph’s University

1. Melania Trump is doing something unprecedented for a First Lady–she isn’t going to be in the White House for several months. No other First Lady had waited so long, even those with young children, like herself. This will, I think, definitely affect her role as First Lady; she will not have the platform of the White House for some months, so she will be less visible in promoting causes, as First Ladies usually do (think of Michelle Obama’s concerns for childhood obesity, veterans’ opportunities, etc.) Once she arrives she may advocate for children (she has mentioned cyberbullying as one concern.). But it seems unlikely she will attempt to influence policy, as First Ladies like Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama did.

2. Which takes me to your second question–I certainly agree that the family is going to be very involved, especially the couple you mention. Ivanka Trump and her husband are moving to Washington (they don’t seem to mind the prospect of moving their children in the middle of the year, apparently) and show every sign of being very involved. Jared Kushner will have an important post as advisor in the White House of course (similarly perhaps to Robert Kennedy for his brother John) and Ivanka will likely be doing some of the First Lady entertaining/public tasks until her step-mother arrives.

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