Michelle Obama carried on an awkward White House tradition when she hosted Melania Trump for tea Thursday. It was their first meeting, coming on the heels of the ugliest campaign in recent history.
They talked about raising children and took a tour of the White House’s private residence before heading to the Oval Office to meet with the president and president-elect. The tour also included a visit to the Truman Balcony, which overlooks the South Lawn, and a tour of the State Floor of the executive mansion with the White House curator.
Mrs. Obama’s aides offered no further details of the meeting. Donald Trump and his wife arrived at the White House via a back door on the South Lawn, an area not visible to the public.
Still, the meeting of the current and future first ladies was a moment to consider both the fraught public relationship between the two and their differing styles.
Michelle Obama played an unprecedented role in the failed campaign to elect Hillary Clinton, traveling the country to make the case that Donald Trump was a poor role model for the nation’s children and unfit for the presidency.
Melania Trump was less involved in her husband’s campaign. She rarely gave public speeches, saying she preferred to stay home in Manhattan and care for her young son, Barron.
Mrs. Trump’s most prominent moment of the campaign came during the Republican National Convention when she gave her first speech before a large national audience. It was well received — until a journalist discovered that several phrases had been plagiarized from a 2008 Michelle Obama speech. Trump’s campaign later explained that Melania was an admirer of Michelle’s.
Obama addressed the plagiarism matter only briefly, when talk-show host Stephen Colbert asked her about it during a September appearance on his show. “That’s tough,” she said.
Aside from being mothers whose children were young when their husbands won the presidency, Obama and Trump have little in common. Trump, who is from Slovenia, is only the second first lady to be born outside the country.
Though Melania Trump has evidently read up a little on the current first lady, Michelle Obama has said she never expected to become first lady and purposely did not read the memoirs of other East Wing inhabitants before she took on the role.
There is likely to be another visit by Melania Trump to the White House prior to moving her family in. During the transition period, the spouse of the president-elect usually meets with White House staff to discuss a range of issues, from interior decor to nitty-gritty household details such as which kinds of soaps and deodorants their families prefer, said Kate Andersen Brower, author of two books about the White House, “The Residence” and “First Women.”
Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Trump are far from the first political spouses to be tossed together following a difficult campaign. Betty Ford had no interest in meeting with Rosalynn Carter and had to be prodded to greet her. Mamie Eisenhower never offered a seat to Jackie Kennedy, who toured the house just days after giving birth.
“They don’t have to like each other personally, and given what has gone on, I would be surprised if Michelle Obama was chatty with Melania,” Brower said. “This is pure political theater now.”