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First Lady Uses Rose Garden As A Backdrop To Her Keynote Address


What can the Republican convention add to the image of a president who's put himself in constant public view for years? Republicans are giving their best answers to that question.

Days after unveiling the replanting of the Rose Garden, the first lady used it as the backdrop for a political speech last night. Turning federal property to her husband's personal political use, Melania Trump acknowledged the crisis overshadowing the president's reelection campaign.


MELANIA TRUMP: I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know you're not alone. My husband's administration will not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment or vaccine available to everyone.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening to Mrs. Trump and the various other speakers and is on the line. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What stood out for you there about what Melania Trump had to say?

LIASSON: What stood out for me was she didn't downplay the situation with the pandemic. She didn't call it an offensive nickname like the China virus. She tried to make it clear the president takes it seriously, something he doesn't always convey himself. She said, quote, "I don't want to use my time attacking the other side. That just divides the country." And she also said instead of tearing things down, let's reflect on our mistakes.

So I think it was a message pretty clearly aimed at suburban women - very key group. Many of them have drifted away, and Melania Trump was trying to make it easier for them to come back to Trump. These are the people Trump calls suburban housewives of America.

The other thing that stuck out for me was that she was speaking before a live crowd in the Rose Garden, a place that's not supposed to be used for partisan political events, and that raised some ethical and legal concerns.

INSKEEP: And we'll just note that you're speaking before a live dog, which is totally fine.

LIASSON: Yes, a live dog.

INSKEEP: It's totally fine. So we'll just go on here. I want to note - you said the ethical issues. She's in the Rose Garden. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, spoke from Jerusalem. He said, it's on my own time, but, of course, he was on an official trip. How serious are the legal issues?

LIASSON: Well, I think this is more of a political problem than a legal problem, although House Democrats say they will launch an investigation. It's interesting because Pompeo recently signed a memo saying that State Department officials should not speak for or against a partisan candidate and they shouldn't attend a political convention. But mixing official duties and partisan politics has become a feature, not a bug, of the Trump administration.

And Trump himself busted through a few more norms last night because he conducted two official acts as part of the convention program. There was a video of the president signing a pardon of a convicted bank robber. That pardoning, obviously, is part of his constitutional powers. And he attended a naturalization ceremony - this at a time when the administration has pretty much stopped naturalization ceremonies because they don't want to do them on Zoom.

INSKEEP: I want to note that the president ran as an outsider. As president, he has continued to pose as if he's not really in charge of the government. That's the tone a lot of the speakers have taken. How is this working?

LIASSON: Well, I think they're trying to present this kind of split-track message, portray him as an outsider - Biden is the establishment - but still showcase all the trappings of power. I thought the first two nights of the convention were an exercise in methodically addressing Trump's deficits on character, race, COVID and the economy. And I think they painted a pretty effective portrait. It just bore very little resemblance to the things we see from the president on a daily basis - the tweeting, the airing of grievances, the attacks on his enemies.

So the big question for me is who's watching? Whose minds are still open to be changed? And is the hole that the president has dug for himself too deep for him to get out of? We just don't have the answer to that yet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.