Is Melania Trump's Be Best campaign doomed by her husband’s presidency?

David Smith in Washington


Just for once, Donald Trump entered the White House rose garden without fanfare, did not say a word and seemed content to play second fiddle.

On Tuesday it was the turn of his wife, Melania Trump, to take centre stage as she marked one year of her Be Best children’s initiative.

Speakers showered her with praise but sceptics question how the campaign measures up to those of past first ladies – and whether it is doomed to be overshadowed by her incorrigible husband.

Related: 'Be Best': does Melania Trump's oddly named initiative break the laws of grammar?

“Prediction: Most news orgs will cover Melania’s BeBest thing as if it is really a thing, and as if it has actually accomplished anything, and without mentioning that the biggest bully sits in the White House,” tweeted journalist and philanthropist Soledad O’Brien.

Even the first anniversary had to compete for attention with another event that took place on the same date a year ago: Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy, which led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.

Be Best – the grammatical integrity of the phrase has been challenged – is focused on “well-being”, “online safety” and “opioid abuse”, aiming to educate children and parents and promote relevant programmes and services.

Wearing a dark sleeveless dress in brilliant sunshine, Trump said her office has spent the past year listening to children, parents, medical professionals, teachers, leaders in technology and social media and others. She has visited schools and hospitals, hosted or taken part in 18 roundtables and policy briefings and met more than 30 foreign diplomats, heads of state or spouses.

The first lady noted that she has travelled to 15 US states and nine countries including her first solo trip where she visited Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt.

“While in Africa, I felt it was important that people throughout the continent and world understand that the United States cares,” she said.

The president’s lack of interest in African nations, which he once reportedly referred to as “shithole countries”, has been widely noted.

Trump announced that the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) has appointed a Be Best ambassador, Julie Cram, and called on all partner agencies to appoint similar representatives.

There were also speeches from Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, Toni Townes-Whitley, president of the US Public Sector of Microsoft, and Eric Bolling, a conservative TV anchor whose son, Eric, died from an accidental opioid overdose in 2017.

In a heartfelt speech, Bolling praised “Lady M’s” effort to raise awareness of the opioid epidemic by speaking at events around the country.

“You’ve helped lift the stigma, which will lift countless lives going forward,” he said. “When the history books are written, there should be a special chapter reserved for our first lady.”

He added: “Many first ladies have focused on making American life better and they have, but you, First Lady Melania Trump, have gone one step further and saved lives … The most important and accomplished first lady in American history. Full stop.”

Trump recognised members of the Farming High School robotics team from Minnesota, which designed a motorised wheelchair for five-year-old Rocco Zachow, who suffers from limited mobility. Members of the team presented the new chair to Rocco at the White House.

The first lady said she would be making another international trip in the autumn but did not say where. She promised: “I will continue speaking with and learning from leaders in the technology industry in order to raise awareness around the importance of safe and positive online behaviours.
“I will continue to work with those who are fighting the epidemic and stigma of drug addiction. And I will continue to travel and speak to children directly about some of the challenges they face every day.” Trump has expanded the focus on drug abuse to include all children, not just babies and young mothers, while the social media pillar will be broadened beyond bullying to include online safety in general – a move unlikely to win over critics who point to her husband’s conduct on Twitter.

Kurt Bardella, a political columnist and former congressional aide, said: “Traditionally, the efforts of first ladies are not dramatically contradicted by their husbands’ own rhetoric. It’s disingenuous for the first lady to try to be a leader in anti-bullying when that’s what her husband perpetuates every single day with a litany of insults and name calling on Twitter. It’s a huge contradiction.”

He added: “It’s almost just for show. At the very best her efforts are undermined every day by her husband. She has remained lamentable when it comes to holding her account for his toxic rhetoric.”

Observers suggest Be Best has some way to go before it matches the impact of Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No anti-drug campaign, Laura Bush’s literacy initiative or Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Trump’s staff remains relatively small.

Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, told CNN: “I think [Be Best] is well-intentioned, and it showcases how well the first lady does when she interacts with children, but I think it’s too broad and unfocused.

“If Trump could drill down on one part of it, like opioid addiction and babies born to mothers who are addicted, it would be more successful. Being single-mindedly focused would also serve to help people see her contributions to this administration, which I think get lost amid the turbulence.”