WASHINGTON — On the 25th day of a much-discussed absence from the public eye, the first lady re-emerged.
Weeks ago, Melania Trump essentially vanished from view after undergoing what her office described as a successful treatment of a benign kidney condition.
On Monday, she reappeared on the president’s schedule and joined him at a reception for military families.
But Trump’s scheduled appearance was not open to the press, and was unlikely to calm rampant speculation about why she has not been seen in public in more than three weeks. It is an unusual stretch for one of the most visible women in the world and, according to historians, it is the longest break anyone has taken from the role in modern memory.
“What Mrs. Trump has executed here seems unprecedented,” Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, said in an interview. “I don’t know what we want to call this period where she hasn’t been in view. Respite from the role of first lady? Vacation from first lady? Medical recovery period?”
On Monday evening, one journalist caught video of Trump at the White House reception: Jena Greene, a reporter for The Daily Caller whose father was killed during the Iraq War, filmed the first lady, dressed in a black dress, accompanying the president to a reception honoring families of service members killed during that conflict.
In front of families honoring their fallen relatives, the president joked about the theories that have run rampant in Trump’s absence, including that the two were headed for divorce.
“Melania had a little problem a couple weeks ago, but she wouldn’t miss this for anything,” President Donald Trump said, according to Greene.
In a statement, Melania Trump said it was “a privilege” to host the families. “To all those who have lost loved ones in service to our country, our nation grieves with you,” she said. “It is a solemn reminder that we, the American people, are able to live as freely as we do because of the selfless sacrifices of our men and women in uniform.”
At the White House, few aides outside the East Wing have known Melania Trump’s whereabouts, and her office has kept the West Wing — which tends to leak like a sieve — on a need-to-know basis after the first lady returned from a five-day stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in May. In the absence of answers, theories about Trump’s health and the length of her recovery have abounded. Her aides have cited privacy laws to which Trump, like any other patient, is entitled.
And when that does not work, they have admonished journalists for inquiring.
“Mrs. Trump has always been a strong and independent woman who puts her family, and certainly her health, above all else, and that won’t change over a rabid press corps,” Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said in an email Monday.
In recent days, Trump has taken internal meetings and is planning events, her spokeswoman said, but her office has not said when the first lady might resume her public appearances.
Trump’s absence came abruptly, and at a time when she seemed to be getting used to standing in the spotlight. She was admitted to the hospital just days after the kickoff of Be Best, her official platform. In the weeks before, the first lady had organized a state dinner with France and saw her poll numbers rising.
Then she vanished — not an easy feat for someone whose every public move has been dissected on social media.
“It’s amazing she’s been able to pull it off given the scrutiny that first ladies are under in our times,” Jellison, the historian, said. “For all we know, maybe she does understand what the expectations are but just chooses not to play that game.”
Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, dismissed curiosity about her intention not to join the president during scheduled trips to Quebec and Singapore, saying that it was “pretty typical” not to travel after a medical procedure.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.