On Friday evening, as Donald Trump began the process of settling into his summer vacation, he fired up his TV and recorded programs, and started hate-tweeting basketball legend LeBron James, taunting him as not “smart.”
The president’s wife, first lady Melania Trump, had a markedly different approach to the sports star and philanthropist.
“It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the First Lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” Melania’s communications director Stephanie Grisham wrote in a statement to CNN on Saturday.
It was hardly the first time a disconnect between the Trump era’s West Wing and its East Wing has spilled into public view. The latter’s press apparatus largely operates independently of the president’s comms shop, now run by former Fox News executive Bill Shine. With the aid of a trusted Trump operative handling the media, Melania is often left to craft her own messaging—and the result has been a number of apparent breaks with the president.
For those close to Melania Trump, the motive is simple and benign. The first lady speaks her mind from time to time, and the president and his team accept that his wife will, on occasion, disagree with—and even appear to rebuff—him publicly.
“We work with the East Wing and the first lady's office on a daily basis on all matters and have a great working relationship,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a brief comment to The Daily Beast.
But the contradictory statements have also been interpreted by observers and reporters as conspicuous breaks between the president and the first lady, perhaps even an effort by the latter to publicly distance herself from her husband on scandals or contentious issues. It also speaks to a larger Trump White House messaging operation that has frequently found itself internally disjointed—when it’s not drowning in bitter infighting—thus fueling speculation of dissension even within the first family.
The first lady’s office is not deferential when it comes to her public statements. Occasionally, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will receive a heads-up before such statements go out, particularly if they could be perceived as Melania contradicting the president’s position. But according to multiple sources with direct knowledge, Melania Trump’s East Wing does not need, or wait for, sign-off from the president’s staff before weighing in on the day’s headlines or reporters’ inquiries.
That’s a significant break from protocol in past administrations, where public statements from the first lady were at least cleared by, and often crafted in conjunction with, the West Wing’s press office.
“First of all, there is no analog for a first lady’s office going, ‘Hey, we are going to put a statement out disagreeing with the president,’” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as a top communications official at the Obama White House and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “That didn’t happen. But if they were going to put out a statement on a policy of the president then, yeah, they would clear it with us.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been friction between the first lady’s team and the president’s office. Nancy Reagan’s feud with top aide Donald Regan, after the assassination attempt against her husband, was legendary. During the Bill Clinton days, top White House aides bristled at the closed-door process Hillary Clinton used to spearhead health care reform. And under Barack Obama, the communications team often felt that first lady Michelle Obama circumvented them by going directly to the president with concerns about messaging or political strategy.
Rarely, however, do the two sides ever seem in open conflict, or at least contradiction, with one another. But this, of course, is not your average presidency, and the LeBron episode was just the latest, notable instance of that apparent disconnect between the president’s and the first lady’s statements.
The public face—or voice—of Melania Trump’s at least superficial autonomy is her spokeswoman Grisham, a Trumpworld stalwart and a Melania gatekeeper.
Late last month, following a New York Times report that President Trump was upset to learn that the first lady’s television set on Air Force One was tuned to CNN (a recurring Trump nemesis), Grisham told CNN that Melania would watch “any channel she wants [by the way].”
When President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said earlier this summer that Melania “believes her husband,” and that she knows the Trump-Stormy Daniels allegations are “untrue.” Grisham, again communicating with CNN, was brief and cutting.
“I don’t believe Mrs. Trump has ever discussed her thoughts on anything with Mr. Giuliani,” she wrote.
A widely liked and respected Trump campaign veteran, Grisham handled press wrangling on the 2016 campaign, building relationships with the dozens of reporters she shepherded to and from events. She quickly earned then-candidate Trump’s trust as someone fiercely loyal to him and his family, and as a staffer almost on par with former White House communications director Hope Hicks in helping manage his relationships with an adversarial press.
"President Trump could only wish that he had a comms and press team as loyal to him as Stephanie is loyal to, and defensive of, the first lady,” a former Trump administration official said. “She would throw a haymaker in defense of Melania in a way that nobody on Trump’s press team does for him.”
“You have to remember that Stephanie wasn’t just ‘on the campaign’—she was on the plane with Trump every single day as traveling press secretary,” another former White House colleague told The Daily Beast, putting Grisham in the category of “almost adopted Trump family members,” a group of loyalists including Hicks, White House social media director Dan Scavino, and former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller.
“[Trump] even expressed remorse about ‘losing her’ to the first lady’s office, although he also said he was happy his wife was in ‘good hands,’” this ex-colleague added.
Grisham’s level of demonstrated loyalty to the president is one reason why the sometimes irreconcilable statements issued on Melania’s behalf are viewed with such amusement by her current and former Trumpworld comrades, several of whom started audibly chuckling when asked by The Daily Beast about the stir those statements caused. Three sources who have worked with Grisham since the 2016 campaign described her as a highly competent and self-aware communications operative who likely gets a kick out of the frantic speculation that she helps stir. She was, at least in part, “trolling the press,” the sources said.
Still, Grisham invariably finds herself in the position of trying to tamp down speculation about the reportedly precarious state of the Melania-Donald union—speculation that she has at times been less than zealous about shooting down.
“The laundry list of salacious & flat-out false reporting about Mrs. Trump by tabloid publications & TV shows has seeped into ‘main stream media’ reporting,” Grisham tweeted in late January. “She is focused on her family & role as FLOTUS—not the unrealistic scenarios being peddled daily by the fake news.”
Six days earlier, the first lady’s official “@FLOTUS” Twitter account had posted, with a photo attached, that the first year of the Trump era had “been a year filled with many wonderful moments. I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet throughout our great country & the world!”
Astute observers noticed that the tweet did not include a photo or even a passing mention of her husband.