There’s a petition carrying half a million signatures. There are cost estimates for daily security as high as $146,000. Reports have forced the White House to calm fears that Melania Trump will remain in New York City indefinitely.
The First Lady’s decision to stay at Trump Tower with her son until he finishes the school year has sparked what presidential historians consider almost unprecedented criticism.
“If she chooses to live apart from her husband, the American Tax Payers should NOT pick-up the tab! They can afford to pay for the extravagance of living apart,” one signer wrote on the petition page calling for Trump to move to D.C. or foot the security bill herself. “The Tax Payers have provided a perfectly acceptable home which has met the needs of every other previous president.”
But she is hardly the first White House spouse to spend prolonged periods living outside of D.C.
While there are multiple examples – including Jackie Kennedy, who took frequent trips outside D.C. to go horseback riding and to travel Europe, and Martha Washington, who didn’t have a White House to live in at the time – most scholars align her closely with Bess Truman. Truman spent about an equal amount of time in D.C. and her home in Independence, Missouri, according to Nicole Anslover, a professor on American presidencies at Indiana University. Also worth noting, Anslover added, was the White House was undergoing extensive renovations during the Truman Administration, and former President Harry Truman spent most of his presidency residing at the Blair House in D.C.
Bess Truman originally faced some criticism due to her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an active first lady and seen as highly accessible to the public. Truman, however, avoided press coverage and preferred to live in anonymity, according to Sam Rushay, the supervisory archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
“Some reporters were frustrated with her not being accessible, but I don’t get the sense the public was too upset about it,” Rushay said.
Scholars have also drawn parallels between Truman and Melania Trump because Truman was partially motivated by familial concerns, such as the health of her mother and the development of her only daughter, who had a singing coach in Independence. However, Rushay said Truman’s main motivation was she simply “didn’t like the limelight.”
But that’s where similarities between the two seem to end, according to Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies. Though she said no one has faced the same level of criticism Melania Trump has, she emphasized that Bess Truman’s time and the present are completely different for first ladies – both in regards to security and their roles at the White House.
Though Eleanor Roosevelt was highly involved, the “continual standard that a first lady needs to be seen” wasn’t an official precedent until Jackie Kennedy, Jellison said. The “fortress mentality” of the U.S. Secret Service was also a result of the Kennedys, she added.
“You had minimal security costs (in Bess Truman’s time) compared to today,” Jellison said. “This heavy, heavy security for all members of the first family didn’t develop until after the Kennedy assassination.”
Rushay said the Truman Library didn’t have figures on security costs for Bess Truman individually. Anslover said though she couldn’t quote exactly what security would be like for Bess Truman, she agreed it was minimal.
“At most, two or three officers, maybe even one,” Anslover said. “They didn’t even have a fence around their home.”
Indeed, the heat Melania Trump is taking strikes some as clearly political, with motivations outside of the cost factor. Jellison said she believes the reasons Melania Trump faces so much more criticism are threefold: her husband’s general unpopularity, she gave an impression from the start that she didn’t want to move to the White House and where she happens to live is New York City.
“It’s hard to imagine a more difficult, expensive place for security to coordinate,” Jellison said.
And it wasn’t just first ladies who used to have a more lax security detail, Jellison added. When President Truman left D.C., he got to drive his own car home to Independence with his wife in the passenger seat. Compare that to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who said in 2014 the last time she personally drove a car was in 1996.
“Even though it’s a good comparison to talk about, the differences over time are almost night and day,” Anslover said.