• Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

Melania Trump Expresses Sympathy on Virus in R.N.C. Speech

“Her words.”

That was the message that aides to Melania Trump, the first lady, underscored ahead of her headlining speech Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention. Mrs. Trump’s address, delivered live from the newly renovated White House Rose Garden, would be “authentic,” written without the hidden hand of professional speechwriters.

“Every word” of the address, Mrs. Trump’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, said, “is from her.”

It was a necessary rebuttal to Mrs. Trump’s disastrous appearance at the R.N.C. four years ago in Cleveland, where she had discarded a speech prepared for her by two prominent conservative speechwriters and instead ended up borrowing word-for-word phrases and themes from Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention eight years earlier.

But for a first lady who for the past four years has chosen to be seen more than heard, sometimes letting her clothes (a jacket, most infamously) do the talking, a major speech where she shared her own thoughts about her husband’s presidency was more than just an opportunity for a do-over.

The typically private first lady used it as an opportunity to acknowledge the lives lost to the coronavirus, in the middle of a convention where most of the speakers were addressing the pandemic in the past tense and rarely mentioning the national toll. And she tried to reframe the Trump presidency in a more moderate and empathetic light.

Speaking directly to Americans who had lost a loved one to the virus, Mrs. Trump told them, “you are not alone.” She acknowledged that “the invisible enemy swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us.”

The tone of her remarks stood in contrast to her husband’s insistence on defending his own handling of the government response and pinning the blame on China, and only ever mentioning the lives lost as an afterthought.

“It is what it is,” Mr. Trump said in an interview earlier this month when asked about the pandemic’s death toll, which on Tuesday reached above 178,000 in the United States, according to a New York Times database.

Politically, Mrs. Trump’s high-profile role in the convention could mean a boost for President Trump from a surrogate who, in theory, could help sway suburban women voters but who has been disinclined to participate in campaign events.

Striking a moderate tone Tuesday night, Mrs. Trump said she was not going to criticize the Democrats. Instead, she said she was calling “on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives.” She added, “I have also asked people to stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice. And never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin.”

She made a plea to parents and teachers to look for signs of drug addiction. And she defended Mr. Trump as an “authentic person who loves this country.”

“Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking,” she said.

Campaign aides have been eager for more of Mrs. Trump’s time, and she had finally been convinced to participate in fund-raisers in Palm Beach and Beverly Hills back in March, high-dollar gatherings that were ultimately canceled because of the coronavirus.

But she has remained a reluctant player in politics. “We don’t hear from her often, so that means every time we do hear her speak, people are intently listening to what she has to say,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush, the former first lady. “Sometimes the quietest voice in the room is the one who you hear what their message is.”

Mrs. Trump deserves credit, Mrs. McBride noted, for over the years subtly “getting her point across without poking the president in the eye.” While her husband was still promoting an anti-mask message last month from the White House, for instance, Mrs. Trump posted a portrait of herself wearing a face mask on Twitter, and encouraged Americans to wear face coverings and practice social distancing.

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Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Mrs. Trump’s speech is likely to represent her biggest contribution to her husband’s campaign. She has made it clear, throughout her time as first lady, that she is committed to doing things her own way, or not at all. Mrs. Trump has never been a natural fit for the office. She generally hated campaigning in 2016, and her main concern throughout her time in public office has been the couple’s teenage son, Barron, with whom she spent most of the month of August secluded at the president’s private golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

For her one big concession to the campaign — the speech — Mrs. Trump considered using Seneca Falls, N.Y., the cradle of the national movement for women’s rights, as a backdrop. But she ultimately decided against it because it was logistically too complicated to pull off.

Her appearance at the White House represented a final blurring of the lines between governmental and political in a convention full of them. She spoke before a crowd seated — but not socially distanced — on white folding chairs in the Rose Garden, whose renovations she recently oversaw.

In recent days, she worked on her address and practiced her delivery at the White House, with help from Ms. Grisham; Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president; and Emma Doyle, the deputy chief of staff for policy. The West Wing did not vet her speech.

The speech came at a time of family turmoil for the Trump clan, which has always aimed to be seen as a close-knit tribe, and of unwanted revelations from one of Mrs. Trump’s own former trusted confidantes, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.

Mary L. Trump, the president’s niece, recently published a tell-all memoir about her family that described decades of family dysfunction and brutality. Mary Trump also released secretly recorded conversations with Mr. Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, in which the president’s sister said he had “no principles” and that “you can’t trust him.” Robert S. Trump, the president’s younger brother, died earlier this month, and at a rare White House funeral, his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, and his ex-wife, Blaine Trump, were not in attendance.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Meanwhile, Ms. Wolkoff is reported to have secretly recorded the first lady speaking disparagingly about her family, including her stepdaughter Ivanka Trump, and the recordings are said to be the partial basis of her forthcoming book, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady.” The actual recordings are likely to be given to a news outlet ahead of her book’s publication on Sept. 1, two people familiar with the plan said. Ivanka Trump is set to speak at the convention on Thursday night, when she will introduce her father.

Ms. Wolkoff declined to comment on the existence of the tapes.

One of Mrs. Trump’s better-known initiatives in office, “Be Best,” is an awareness campaign dedicated “to the children of this country and all over the world” but has no clear policy benchmarks through which to measure its success.

Mrs. Trump said Tuesday night that if her husband is re-elected, “I will continue to build upon Be Best and work with individual states to pass legislation to take care of our most vulnerable.”

Her bigger contribution to her husband’s presidency, perhaps, has been on travel abroad, where she has helped elevate him on the world stage. While Mr. Trump has spent time on foreign trips insulting the leaders hosting him, Mrs. Trump has always been a gracious guest by his side, practicing fashion diplomacy by wearing designers from the countries she is visiting, or clothes that nod to the local customs and practices there.

Her most famous fashion faux pas — when she chose to wear an army green jacket that said “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” on her way to visit a child detention center in Texas — has become a lasting piece of her image as first lady. Aides said she has shrugged it off, along with all of the other criticisms of how she has chosen to take on the role.

“As she has demonstrated time and again, negative coverage does not affect her,” said Ms. Grisham.

Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.