Melania Trump picks up telephone diplomacy during coronavirus crisis


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Her work, while stymied by the restrictions of coronavirus, has continued, according to her office, and one of the first lady’s regular habits has included checking in with her counterparts in other countries.

“Talked to today w/@carriesymonds. Our prayers are w/her & UK PM @BorisJohnson for a speedy and full recovery,” tweeted Trump. “The United States & the United Kingdom will get through this difficult period & emerge stronger than before. We stand w/ the UK in the fight against #COVID19.”

Symonds has tweeted that she has been experiencing Covid-19 symptoms; she is currently pregnant, expected to deliver this summer. Johnson had a particularly virulent case of the virus, ending up in a London hospital ICU. He was released on April 12, the same day Symonds tweeted: “There were times last week that were very dark indeed. My heart goes out to all those in similar situations, worried sick about their loved ones.”

Trump has talked on the phone with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had the virus, tweeting the two women also discussed “the special relationship between our two countries.”

Brigitte Macron of France, Akie Abe of Japan, Laura Mattarella of Italy, Elke Büdenbender of Germany and Queen Letizia of Spain also received calls from Trump. The Queen of Spain was to be a guest of honor with her husband, King Felipé VI, at a White House State Dinner on April 21; it was indefinitely postponed last month as the spread of the coronavirus peaked.

“The first lady is keeping in touch with several leader spouses at a time when communication is essential,” Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s chief of staff, told CNN.

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For Trump, who was born in Slovenia and reportedly speaks French, Italian and German among other languages, finding bonds with foreign spouses has also served as a comfortable space.

Trump’s diplomatic check-ins are a link to life beyond a boundary, to women who, like the first lady, are stuck for now in the position they find themselves — messenger, facilitator and partner to a spouse forced to navigate unfamiliar territory.

“There are really only a handful of women in the world who have any idea what it is like to be first lady,” said Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of the upcoming book, “Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump.” “It makes sense that they would empathize with one another, particularly during crises.”

Trump has become friendly with several of her foreign counterparts, including Abe, with whom she has spent the most one-on-one time as first lady, last year even sitting side-by-side at a sumo tournament in Japan. Ditto Sophie Trudeau, with whom Melania Trump has forged a relationship, partaking in the touristy type events designed to occupy spouses in a host country of a leader summit. Trump also has a warm friendship with Macon, when together, the two women are frequently photographed smiling and chatting amiably.

“These women know both the limitations of being the spouse of a leader, and the tremendous influence and responsibility that also comes with the job,” Brower said.

When she was first lady, Hillary Clinton became close with Cherie Blair, the wife of then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair was a lawyer, like Clinton.

“Hillary and Cherie had so much in common as educated, high-powered women who were the breadwinners in their family while their husbands were climbing their way to the top of the political chain,” Brower said.

Blair also got on with Laura Bush, meeting for the first time in person at Camp David.

“Bush wrote in her memoir, ‘Cherie is funny and smart, and we talked about our families; her oldest children and Jenna and Barbara are close in age,’ ” Brower said. “They could relate to each other.”

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Sometimes a tragic global issue doesn’t help a spousal relationship. Laura Bush was quite friendly with the wife of then-Mexican President Vicente Fox, Marta Sahagún, when George W. Bush first took office. The two couples were fans of ranch life, cowboy boots, and spending time outside of their offices, visiting their respective second homes. But after 9/11, Bush and Fox’s relationship fractured under the strain of new immigration guidelines, and expected support from Mexico for Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, which did not come. The two first ladies’ friendship was curtailed as well.

Yet no first lady feud was quite as on public display as the one fostered by the frosty relationship between Soviet Russia and the United States.

“Nancy Reagan could not stand Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, and the feeling was mutual,” Brower said. Reagan wrote in her memoir, “My Turn,” of her disdain for Mrs. Gorbachev, even as the two women met in person, thrust together a number of times during the Russian leader’s visit to Washington in 1987.

“She never once mentioned my breast cancer surgery or asked me how I was feeling,” wrote Reagan. “Nor did she offer condolences on the death of my mother. The Soviets know everything, so I can’t believe she didn’t know what I had gone through only a few weeks earlier.”

Good or bad, the bond of being in the same role of first spouse, a job sometimes nebulous, other times strictly defined by rules of protocol, is unique.

“Mrs. Trump looks forward to continuing her discussions with leader spouses as we continue the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic,” Grisham said.

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