New York Times reporter Katie Rogers knows firsthand just how tricky it can be to cover the life of Melania Trump. After a year working in the D.C. bureau covering Washington, the Times named her an official White House correspondent in January. Over the past few months, Rogers has been entrusted with covering the First Lady’s whereabouts — a particularly challenging task given Melania’s notoriously press-shy office and her penchant for disappearing acts. Following the First Lady’s recent unprecedented absence from the public, we wanted to know what insight Rogers has gained into her mysterious life. Here, she tells us what she’s learned.
On the First Lady’s (very small) circle of trust:
I think it’s important to note that the East Wing is always pretty locked down. It’s probably one of the hardest areas of the White House to cover because the staff is smaller, and First Ladies feel as if they have a certain right to privacy. So, that part is not really unusual. What is unusual, though, is that Mrs. Trump’s circle is very small. She relies really heavily on her aides, including her director of communications, Stephanie Grisham, to control the message. Stephanie is responsive, but if you ask her something that veers into anything that is considered personal, her office can lash out. That’s a little unusual — that they don’t always confirm where the First Lady is.
On what it was like reporting on Melania’s 25-day absence:
There’s been a really long-peddled theory that she doesn’t actually live in the White House. Her team is really well-aware of these theories because they get questions about it and they’re tuned into what people are saying on social media. I mean, there are some long-running theories that aren’t crazy, but they persist. And her absence has added to the list of things we think about her or feel like we need to know about her. I think what’s important to know about the First Lady is that people tend to form an opinion about her based on what they think of the presidency itself.
On Melania’s very controlled return to the public:
When I saw that she was going to be at an event that was closed to the press, I thought two things: The White House was probably easing her back into the public eye. They knew that she’d be in photos and that she would control the message. In any other White House, I think having a First Lady who’s essentially been out of the public eye for so long with so few updates would be the biggest story. But this is not a typical White House.
On her best guess for Melania’s disappearance:
I’ve spoken to people who are close to the president, and I think that as the curiosity around her grew, the East Wing dug in and said they’re not going to put her out in public or release statements to prove a point. I don’t have any guesses, but I do know that the more you press her office and the more curiosity mounts about her, the less likely she’s going to comply with it.
On what Melania has learned from Trump:
I think people tend to not remember that she came into the White House with a history of being really comfortable behind the scenes. She’s been content to let her husband sort of take the lead, and I think she’s been really unapologetic about that.
From Melania’s energy in photos and memes, people have really cast her on social media as cold and modelesque and icy. In person, she’s much warmer. However, she is a Trump and she supports her husband in a lot of things that would infuriate people. She smiles pretty easily, and she has a sense of humor. I do think she has her own thoughts about her role in life, but we’re still trying to uncover them.
I will say that if she feels things are unfair to her, though, she adopts the Trump tactic of totally punching back. She’s not a weakling.
On the hardest part of reporting on the White House:
The hardest part of my job is the job. It’s like standing in front of a tennis-ball machine every day. You think you know what the story is at 9 a.m., and then every three hours, it’s something new, and we’re talking about used mattresses. I think Melania is super fascinating in his life, and I think it’s also wild to her that she’s in this position. I think she’s really tried to embrace it, but I don’t think it has gone as she might have hoped.
On Melania’s state of mind:
I don’t know, since I’m not inside of her head. I think this role has been really hard for any modern First Lady. Michelle Obama really struggled with it, but I think she found ways to bring parts of her old life here. She always had a tight circle of friends, so she found ways to go away with them, and she also launched a platform. I mean, Michelle Obama also faced a ton of scrutiny, too, but I think as countries become even more polarized, there’s not much the First Lady can do without being super scrutinized.
On why the public is so fascinated with the First Lady:
I think there is a large group of people that is not disturbed by [her absence], and thinks that she deserves her privacy. But she and the president live in taxpayer-funded housing, and she’s a public figure at the end of the day. Also, historically, since someone like Jackie Kennedy, who also really valued her privacy, Americans have come to expect that they deserve to know the whereabouts of the First Family. Americans expect this from people who live in the White House, but the president has made it very clear that he’s not going to run the White House like other presidents have. And I think his wife is doing the exact same thing in the East Wing.