WASHINGTON — While President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail last week with a flurry of appearances and his family members have fanned out to events across the country, one of his key surrogates has been notably absent: first lady Melania Trump.
On Tuesday, she was scheduled to attend her first rally in more than a year, accompanying her husband to Erie, Pennsylvania. But hours before the trip, her office said she would not travel due to a “lingering cough” from her bout with the coronavirus.
“Mrs. Trump continues to feel better every day following her recovery from Covid-19, but with a lingering cough, and out of an abundance of caution, she will not be traveling today,” the first lady's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told NBC News in a statement.
Since March, Melania Trump has played a very limited public role as the incumbent first lady, opting to stay away from the political events the president has dedicated most of his time to in the final months of the election.
Her campaigning has been hampered, in part, by the pandemic. In the spring, she was planning to headline a series of high-profile fundraisers for her husband’s re-election effort, her first major foray into the 2020 presidential race. Those were scrapped when in-person campaigning was postponed for several months and the first lady did not opt to participate in any virtual events, which the president was also hesitant to embrace initially but eventually did.
Both the president and the first lady tested positive for Covid-19 in early October, sidelining them from any travel for 10 days. Since then, the president has held about a dozen rallies, with many more planned for the days ahead. Melania Trump is expected to join additional ones in the last push, though the schedule is still being finalized.
Apart from her Rose Garden speech at the Republican National Convention in August, Melania Trump has focused much of her public messaging on the health crisis and less so on the case for another four years in the White House.
She has repeatedly encouraged Americans to practice social distancing and wear masks: two health and safety precautions rarely seen enforced at her husband’s campaign events. Months before the president sported a face covering and called it “patriotic,” she tweeted a photo of herself in one and urged people to use them to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
She didn’t wear a mask, however, at the indoor and outdoor gatherings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, which infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci later labeled as a “superspreader” event.
And though Melania Trump was the only member of the Trump family to keep a mask on for a short period of time in the hall at the first general election debate in Cleveland last month, she eventually removed it, violating the venue’s safety protocols for the indoor space.
Apart from that trip, the first lady been off the trail this cycle. The last Trump rally she attended took place 16 months ago, when the president formally launched his bid for a second term in Orlando last June.
In 2016, she occasionally accompanied her husband to campaign events, but she mostly dedicated her time to taking care of their son, Barron, who was then 10 years old, in New York City.
Her rare participation in the political operation comes in stark contrast to the former first lady Michelle Obama, who was a regular fixture on the campaign trail in 2012 and a huge draw for Democratic voters. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign locked down her commitments early in the cycle. She held solo rallies, headlined fundraisers, recorded robocalls and appeared at events alongside her husband. The president’s advisers called her “the closer.”
“She had a unique vantage point on how her husband conducted himself as president,” Valerie Jarrett, a former senior White House adviser and a longtime friend of the Obamas, said. “She appreciated what an extraordinary first term he had, so she was very enthusiastic about sharing that with the American people.”
First ladies, while not seen as overly influential in elections, tend to have higher approval ratings than their husbands, which has typically made them valuable surrogates.
Melania Trump’s favorability rating is higher than her husband’s — 47 percent to 41 percent — according to a Gallup poll last month. She slightly trailed Jill Biden’s favorability rating, which was 49 percent, in the same poll. But the first lady had a much higher unfavorable rating in the poll, 43 percent to Jill Biden’s 27 percent.
Her scant appearances on the campaign trail stand apart from that of her predecessors.
“Is the absence from the first lady from the campaign trail unusual? Yes, it is,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “First ladies are almost always such an asset that there must be a very good reason for a first lady not to be out there campaigning, because usually a first lady helps so much.”
They have been a fixture in presidential campaigns for 80 years. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first presidential spouse to speak at a national convention in 1940. Since then, first ladies have campaigned with and independently of their husbands. Lady Bird Johnson did a train tour of southern states for her husband’s re-election effort to try to win over voters who were hostile to him over his position on civil rights.
Jackie Kennedy became more popular than her husband, who asked her to make appearances with him when he was suffering in the polls. First lady Betty Ford also was more popular than her husband, incumbent President Gerald Ford, during his 1976 campaign and was a regular fixture on the campaign trail, as was Barbara Bush in 1992. Nancy Reagan stuck close to President Ronald Reagan during his re-election bid in 1984 because she felt his morale was better when she was there.
Hillary Clinton was an exception as first lady. With her favorability as first lady polling below her husband’s, she was used more carefully in President Bill Clinton’s re-election effort in 1996.
Laura Bush was sometimes referred to as George W. Bush’s “secret weapon” in 2004. While her husband’s standing among Americans sank, she remained broadly popular.
Jill Biden, for her part, has kept a very robust schedule for the last year, stumping in both battleground states and places her husband hasn’t traveled to this year, such as Texas and Georgia. At the height of the pandemic, she often participated in daily virtual events. Since then, she’s been on the trail as former Vice President Joe Biden’s most active surrogate.
Though the candidate’s spouse is usually the most high-profile surrogate, in both 2016 and 2020, it’s the adult Trump children who are doing the most frequent travel and appearances on behalf of their father.
Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump have all canvassed the country in recent weeks, with dozens more events expected in the home stretch.
During that time, the first lady has penned several blog posts, detailing her experience with the coronavirus and revealing that Barron also was positive but never had any symptoms and has since tested negative.
“I was very fortunate as my diagnosis came with minimal symptoms, though they hit me all at once and it seemed to be a roller coaster of symptoms in the days after,” she wrote online. “For me personally, the most impactful part of my recovery was the opportunity to reflect on many things — family, friendships, my work, and staying true to who you are.”