With little fanfare or notice, first lady Melania Trump has begun asserting her influence on her husband’s administration.
The impact is hard to see both because that influence remains modest and because that administration remains engulfed in self-inflicted controversy, internal strife, and chaos. But it is there, and aides say it is making a difference inside the White House.
The clearest evidence came earlier this month, when, senior aides say, Melania Trump encouraged her husband to be more aggressive in his approach to the opioid epidemic. She sat in on a meeting with him and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and advised that they label the crisis a national health emergency. Trump, who had initially balked at doing so, reversed course a few days later.
White House aides argue that too much has been read into the president’s reversal on declaring the epidemic a national emergency—that he was never opposed to doing so even as Price said it wasn’t necessary. But they say Melania Trump’s counsel did play a role in her husband’s decision making.
“She’s been researching the issue,” said a senior administration official. “She’s been reading stories and meeting families. And when the time came, she was engaged.”
Policy adviser is a new hat for the first lady. Early in the administration, she was best known for her absence from the White House (she remained in New York City for nearly five months after President Trump moved to Washington, D.C.) and for occasionally swatting away her husband’s hand as he searched for her embrace.
But close associates say Melania Trump has grown more comfortable with the political spotlight. She is a news consumer—though not at the voracious levels with which her husband watches cable—and is acutely aware of the narrative surrounding the administration. It was not lost on insiders or the public that she, not her husband or her husband’s daughter or son-in-law, was the first to react publicly to the violence in Charlottesville following a gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Among the Trump family members, Melania Trump had the lowest expectations heading into this administration. It was anticipated that she would do little outside of the ceremonial functions often associated with a first lady and her own pet causes, namely cyberbullying.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, were the ones with the high-profile roles and Everestian objectives, handed large portfolios and billed as moderating influences on President Trump. The Trump brothers were to run the business in addition to being public boosters.
So far, however, Javanka has produced vanishingly few concrete policy wins and done little to keep the Trump presidency from going off the rails. Often, they’re on vacation during the moments of peak crisis. Donald Trump Jr. has been beset by scandal and Eric Trump seems content to stay in the private sector world with the occasional stab at political punditry.
Which has left Melania Trump. Those close to the first lady describe her as the antithesis of her husband: calm and stoic; someone who plans every excruciating detail and who recoils at improvising. She doesn’t mind the spotlight—she’s a former model who married Donald Trump, after all. But she’s more content to choose her battles in a pinpointed, meticulous manner.
“She actually is what Ivanka [Trump] has cultivated an image of,” said a senior White House official.
“While her focus is family,” said another senior White House official, who like others would only discuss Melania Trump on the condition of anonymity, “she has been the most powerful and respected representative of the administration at home and abroad.”
All of which is not to say that the first lady is now a top domestic policy adviser. Far from it. Both her portfolio and her desire for public exposure remain limited. But unlike the other Trumps, she has grown in her her post—a low bar to clear, for sure. And associates say she increasingly recognizes that she can use the proximity to her husband for concrete purposes.
“The first lady offers her opinions and thoughts to her husband on a variety of subjects,” Stephanie Grisham, communications director for the first lady, told The Daily Beast. “As has been evidenced since the president took office, Mrs. Trump cares very much about children’s health and wellness, which certainly includes all forms of drug abuse.”