On 17 June, Melania Trump released a statement. “Mrs Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” Stephanie Grisham, the First Lady’s communications director, told CNN. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
Unfortunately, the separation of almost 2,000 children from their families at the Mexican border, and the horrific internment of minors in cages at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) camps, is the direct result of a policy from the Trump government – an administration within which Melania holds a powerful position. Videos of children sobbing as they are dragged away from their parents have gone viral. On 18 June, the Associated Press published an interview with an NGO representative, Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission, who described how one 16-year-old girl was forced to teach other children how to change the nappies of an unaccompanied infant incarcerated with them. Public outrage is building. And so, along comes Melania. Why, she wonders, do they not just eat cake?
Melania Trump was born Melania Knauss in 1970 in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, and moved to New York to pursue a career as a model in 1996. In September 1998, she met Donald Trump at a party at New York’s Kit Kat Club. They were married in January 2005 in Palm Beach, Florida, with a reception at Trump’s golf resort Mar-a-Lago, and had a son, Barron, the following year.
Melania was largely absent from her husband’s 2016 presidential campaign; her most high-profile appearance was at the Republican National Convention, where she made headlines mainly because part of her address had been plagiarised from a speech by the then first lady, Michelle Obama.
It now appears that one of the early casualties of the intensive press attention that followed Trump’s election has been his marriage. Melania was always a private person and has been a reluctant First Lady. According to Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, she “was in tears – and not of joy” when her husband won.
The froideur in the First Family increased as Trump’s presidency veered onwards and indignities were heaped upon his wife. On 12 January 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump, through an intermediary, his personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, had paid $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, and a similar amount to a former Playboy model.
And in April, in a characteristically unhinged appearance on the morning TV show Fox & Friends, Trump announced unprompted that it was Melania’s birthday, and then appeared to realise live on air that he had failed to buy her a present. He breezily implied that the TV appearance itself was in some way a celebration of her birthday; when pressed, he claimed that he had got her a “big, beautiful card”.
In May, Melania retreated from almost all public appearances. The hashtag #WhereIsMelania started to trend. After a while, the White House announced that she had been in the Walter Reed medical centre in Washington for a “routine kidney procedure”. She remained in hospital for more than a week. In a tweet announcing her return to the White House, Trump misspelled her name, writing “Melanie” instead of “Melania”.
Videos of joint appearances by the couple began regularly to feature Melania coldly slapping away her husband’s hand, or clenching her fists white-knuckle tight any time he tried to hold hers. Journalists, and those engaged in White House Kremlinology, are now speculating that the Trumps’ marriage is all but over.
It has often been suggested that the president is playing “ten-dimensional chess”. Proponents of this theory, popular among the alt-right, believe that what appears to be chaos and incompetence is in fact a cover for a more sophisticated strategy. On the left, this instinct also appears: often pure incompetence is instead assumed to be part of a huge and wide-ranging conspiracy. According to this reading, Melania’s public support for the families torn apart by her husband’s immigration policies is a cynical cover, designed to make her the sympathetic face of the administration – just another element of the White House lie machine.
It is certainly possible that Melania’s outburst is part of a co-ordinated campaign to avoid blame for the border crisis. But it may also be simply a declaration of independence by the First Lady. As relations worsen in the Trump family, Melania cannot easily go down the usual route of divorce. So she now feels emboldened to lobby her husband in the only language he understands: public shaming.
Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis