Less than a month ago, Michelle Obama went out on the campaign trail and called Melania Trump’s husband a foul-mouthed sexual predator. On Thursday, the two sipped tea and discussed child care while taking in the view from the White House’s Truman Balcony.
The sit-down, which coincided with President-elect Donald Trump’s Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama, was part of the White House’s broader effort to put on a brave face and project the type of post-election unity that’s central to the peaceful transition of American power.
The White House kept the meeting between Michelle Obama and Melania Trump their first away from reporters’ prying eyes. But Obama, who is one of the most beloved figures in America, has talked about the gratitude she felt for Laura Bush, who showed the incoming first lady her closet and the rooms where the twin Bush daughters slept tender gestures designed to ease the nerves of a fellow mom.
Obama is expected to do no less for Trump, who is bringing her own young son with her to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said they discussed “raising kids at the White House, and you know, obviously the first lady’s two daughters spent their formative years of their childhood at the White House and Mrs. Trump’s son will also spend some important years of his childhood here at the White House.”
He added, “That’s a rather unique childhood, and the two women had an opportunity to talk about that experience and being a good parent through that experience.”
In some ways, the women are entering the high-profile post under similar circumstances. Barron Trump is 10, the same age as Malia Obama when her family moved into the White House. Neither woman seemed especially comfortable on the stump — a moment underscored by Trump’s convention speech that turned out to be plagiarized from Obama’s 2008 version.
In other ways, they couldn’t be more different. Obama, then 45, was a high-powered hospital executive with a Harvard Law degree who financially supported her family while Barack Obama worked his way up in Illinois politics. Her roots on the South Side of Chicago are in stark contrast to Melania’s upbringing in a small town in communist Yugoslavia. Melania, now 46, will be the first presidential wife since Louisa Adams not born in the United States.
Though she speaks in heavily accented English, she’s fluent in four other languages, including French and German. She dropped out of college to pursue a modeling career, moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s and became the third wife of Donald Trump, 25 years her senior, in 2005.
And Obama has made it clear that she sees their husbands as very different men.
In a blistering speech delivered days after a leaked tape revealed the president-elect-to-be talking coarsely about groping women, Obama called Donald Trump “disgraceful.”
“We simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any longer not for another minute, and let alone for four years,” Obama said. “Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough.”
Obama also made it clear that she had little respect for the Republican’s approach to campaigning during her own convention speech with a showstopping line: “When they go low, we go high.”
Nonetheless, Obama is following through with the tradition of introducing the incoming first lady to the East Wing although the White House’s decision to skip the customary photo op with both families raised eyebrows.
Earnest told reporters that Obama “enjoyed” her chance to take Trump on a tour of the private residence, including teatime and a visit to the Truman Balcony, where the current first couple have spent “quality time” together. During a walk through the State Floor, they were joined by Bill Allman, the White House curator. Afterward, Earnest said, the women headed over to the Oval Office to chat briefly with their husbands.
“Mrs. Obama has talked before publicly about the stresses and anxieties of moving to a new place, living inside a fishbowl, living inside a museum and raising your family there,” Earnest said. “And I’m sure that Mrs. Trump is feeling many of those same anxieties as she prepares to move herself and her family into the White House and so the courtesy that Mrs. Obama extended is rooted in her own experience of going through this difficult transition.”
Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2009, recalled how the former first lady followed the time-honored tradition of smoothing the way for her successor despite Barack Obama’s harsh critiques of George W. Bush.
“They talked about the things that matter to a family. Mrs. Obama wanted to know, will my girls have a comfortable life here, will they feel at home here,” McBride recalled in an interview on Thursday. “That’s one of the things that will bind them together.”
Bush also showed Obama a dressing area off the master bedroom where there’s a window that looks out onto the Rose Garden and into the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton had showed it to Bush, and Barbara Bush had clued Clinton in to the spot eight years earlier.
A spokeswoman for Michelle Obama said on Thursday afternoon that she did not know whether that was part of Trump’s tour. But it’s clear they talked about the strange adjustment she’ll have to make.
“You are living in this bubble,” McBride said. “You’re trying to maintain a private life in a heavily secure environment in a public sphere.”
It’s unclear whether this will be Trump’s last visit before Jan. 20. Traditionally, there’s just one White House meeting for the spouses. However, McBride said, Laura Bush invited Obama to bring her mother and daughters for an additional visit before move-in.
For her part, Melania has in a sense embraced Obama’s “go high” message. In a speech last week, she said she planned to make cyberbullying a focus if her husband won the White House.
“It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied or attacked,” Trump said in a rare speech. “It is terrible when it happens on the playground, and it is absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet. We have to find a better way to talk to each other.”
Last week, President Obama predicted that Donald Trump would “dig up Michelle’s garden,” a centerpiece of her campaign against childhood obesity.
While Melania Trump looks like she’ll have a different focus, the so-called kitchen garden is likely safe, McBride predicted.
“The chefs at the White House use produce from that garden,” McBride said. “It’s part of White House life beyond just the first family.”