WASHINGTON — Finally, Melania Trump has reappeared.
After more than three weeks out of the public eye, the first lady strolled into a White House event Monday for military families and swept away the wild speculation that she was incapacitated or had otherwise vanished.
The White House did not allow journalists to cover the Gold Star event out of respect for the families, which meant Mrs. Trump was seen in person only by the 40 or so families and administration officials who attended. Others had to keep an eye on social media.
Video posted on Twitter showed the first lady, who wore a black sleeveless dress and her trademark stilettos, strolling into the East Room accompanied by President Donald Trump. He showed her to a front-row seat across the aisle from Vice President Mike Pence before heading to the microphone.
"She looked beautiful," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Diana Pike. Pike's son, Chief Petty Officer Christian Pike, of Peoria, Arizona, died in 2013 from injuries suffered in Afghanistan. "She just looked so beautiful."
Trump joked about all the speculation that his wife had supposedly left him but said she was doing fine, Pike said.
The first lady later tweeted several photos of the event, including two of her seated alongside the president.
Mrs. Trump was last seen publicly during the overnight hours of May 10 when she and the president welcomed home three Americans who had been detained in North Korea. Four days later, the White House announced that she had been hospitalized to treat a benign kidney condition.
The closest first lady parallel to Mrs. Trump's time out of the public spotlight is Bess Truman, who did few events as first lady because of discomfort around the media, said Anita McBride, a veteran of three Republican administrations who last served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Truman also spent a lot of time in Missouri with her mother.
Nancy Reagan spent several weeks out of public view after a mastectomy, but continued to meet with staff and do other work behind the scenes.
Public interest in and news media coverage of first ladies exploded during the Obama administration, the first White House to extensively use social media to spread its brand, McBride said. But first ladies are not elected and technically are still private citizens, and each one gets to tailor the job to suit her.
"She is going to do this job her way," McBride said of Mrs. Trump. "It's her style and we just have to accept that."
Mrs. Trump stayed in the hospital for five days and has kept out of public view since returning home May 19. She has been meeting with staff and working on upcoming projects, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham.
Grisham said the Gold Star families' event was important to Mrs. Trump and had been on her calendar for some time.
It's still unclear when the first lady will make an appearance in public. She's not scheduled to accompany Trump to an annual world leaders' summit in Canada this weekend, or when he meets with North Korea's leader in Singapore next week.
Her absence sparked all kinds of wild speculation, but the first lady has shown no interest in making an appearance just to knock down rumors.
She sent early signals that she will not bow to speculation or public expectations about what she should be doing.
Her first clue that she would be a different first lady came when she decided to continue living at Trump Tower after her husband took office in January 2017, citing a desire to maintain stability for her son's schooling. She and son Barron officially moved to the White House last June.
"Mrs. Trump is very strong and independent," Grisham said.