In the seemingly endless first two weeks of the Trump presidency, Melania Trump made clear what many already suspected from her appearance on the campaign trail: She has no interest in being first lady. Melania has yet to appoint a social secretary, press secretary, floral designer, or White House chef, all roles that traditionally fall under the umbrella of the first lady’s office. She finally hired a chief of staff on Wednesday, and her press release about the appointment sounded kind of defensive. “I am putting together a professional and highly-experienced team which will take time to do properly,” she said in a statement.
As a result of Melania’s failure to appoint anyone to run the White House visitors office, tours of the White House have been suspended. Melania also hasn’t announced her platform—although she has stated an interest in addressing online bullying—or her social schedule. The coup de grâce? She’s not even living in the White House. The Trump administration says she will move from New York to Washington at the end of son Barron’s current school year, but rumors swirled this week that she might stay in New York indefinitely.
In one sense, Melania’s refusal to hew to tradition is refreshing. It is undeniably retrograde that it is considered the president’s wife’s job to oversee the traditionally feminine realms of tours, meals, and flowers. And there’s something admirable in Melania’s apparent intention to keep her life the same as it was pre-presidency. (After all, she’s not the one who ran for president.) But can you imagine what the outcry on the right would have been if Michelle Obama had stayed in Chicago after her husband’s inauguration, dragged her feet in staffing her office, and forced the White House to close its doors to the public? It would have been a front-page scandal. In a post-Trump era, no Republican is ever allowed to criticize a Democratic first lady for being insufficiently respectful of the dignity of the office.
What’s genuinely troubling about Melania’s abdication of the traditional duties of her office—apart from the fact that the White House, a government building, is currently closed to the public—is that her decision to stay in New York is costing taxpayers a ton of money. According to a widely reported pre-inauguration estimate, New York City was spending $1 million a day on police assigned to keeping the Trumps and Trump Tower safe. In November, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he would “begin the conversation with the federal government shortly on reimbursement for the NYPD for some of the costs that we are incurring.” But is it right for federal tax dollars to go to accommodating the first lady’s choice to renounce her usual duties and live in a different city from her husband? Melania and Barron are probably better off, psychologically, not living with Trump—but it’s not taxpayers’ responsibility to foot the bill for their choices. Trump has often claimed that he’s a billionaire, and we’ll never be able to disprove that claim as long as he refuses to release his tax returns. If Trump is so personally wealthy, let him reimburse New York City for the police who are keeping his estranged wife and son safe. Whatever arrangement Trump and Melania have made regarding how their marriage works, the rest of the United States has no part in it.