Melania Trump said women accusing men of sexual assault needed to show “really hard evidence.” She considers herself “one of the most bullied people in the world.” She revealed that there are people working in the White House that she doesn’t trust.
And she said allegations of her husband’s infidelity were “not a concern and focus of mine.” On the state of her marriage? “Yes, we are fine.”
And on her role as first lady: “This won’t last forever.”
In the only interview that the first lady has sat for since her husband was elected, Melania Trump offered a rare glimpse into her White House life on ABC’s “20/20,” taped during her visit last week to Africa. She addressed an array of topics, including the #MeToo movement, her husband’s alleged infidelities and her efforts to rein in her husband’s notorious Twitter habits.
There was talk of the jacket, too. Melania Trump took on one of her own biggest controversies — the jacket she wore to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrant children were being separated from their families under the Trump administration’s policies, that read “I really don’t care, do u?” That message was “for the left-wing media” and other critics, she said, echoing her husband’s explanation of the jarring sartorial choice.
The above statements might not sound like a woman baring her soul — but for the normally tight-lipped first lady, who publicly sticks to short, teleprompter remarks, such statements were something close to revealing.
In the 20 months of her husband’s presidency, Melania Trump has said little publicly about the news of the day, scandals swirling around her husband’s administration or about policy issues. When she has spoken in front of cameras, it has almost always been scripted, invariably brief and carefully crafted to avoid controversy.
Her silence had led some of her husband’s critics to project their own ideas on her or to imagine that she might not be fully on board with President Trump’s divisive administration. People read volumes into the smallest gestures: her swatting the president’s hand away was seen as a rejection of him (“Melania Trump Hates Her Husband and She’s Becoming Our Spirit Animal,” read a headline on the Root). Asnd whenever cameras capture an unhappy expression, it’s immediately tagged with a #FreeMelania hashtag.
“She’s showing that there’s much less daylight between her and President Trump on issues than people might think.”
Although Melania Trump has shown flashes of independence from her husband — for example, by taking up cyberbullying as a plank of her platform, despite her husband’s belittling comments on Twitter, or her visit to the border to witness people impacted by her husband’s policies — her answers to questions from ABC’s Tom Llamas indicate that behind her reticence to engage in public life is a resolute embrace of President Trump’s worldview.
Even Melania Trump’s claim that she might be the “most bullied person in the world” has the distinct ring of the superlative-loving president.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney said Melania Trump’s defense of her husband in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he was heard making derogatory comments about women (Melania Trump dismissed it as “boy talk”) had long ago signaled that the first lady was willing to step into the public eye when her husband needs defending. “That told us a lot about the role she was going to play,” Finney said. “She’s not above the fray. She’s concerned about what’s going on and how it’s being perceived.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says that although Melania Trump might be operating from the Team Trump script, her words can have a different effect than her husband’s. “She may be saying the same thing as the president, but she’s saying it a different way,” he said. “She’s not approaching the issues the way Donald Trump does, which is designed to be in your face and overwhelming — and she’s not tweeting about it. She has a soft touch.”
It’s unlikely that Melania Trump will ever “mom dance” with Jimmy Fallon like Michelle Obama or jokingly refer to herself as a “Desperate Housewife,” as Laura Bush did during a White House correspondents’ dinner comedy routine. But might her recent willingness to speak up signal a new era of approachability?
A new CNN poll finds that the first lady remains more popular than her husband — 54 percent hold a favorable opinion of her, compared with 41 percent for the president — making her a potentially powerful surrogate for her husband’s administration.
“She’s coming into her own as first lady,” Bonjean said. “Many people see her as a very glamorous, but they don’t know anything about her. This is definitely an effort to paint a picture of who Melania Trump is as a person and to start to define her — her personality and her thoughts on the issues.”
But others are loath to forecast much about anyone in the orbit of the famously unpredictable administration.
“Logically, you could see that this might be the beginning of a new approach to being first lady where she is more accessible,” Brower said. “But with the Trumps, who knows?