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Melania Trump’s CNN interview was cringeworthy, but she doesn’t want your pity

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign began, Melania Trump has refused to play the role of a typical campaign spouse. She’s barely on the campaign trail. She doesn’t give interviews, she doesn’t host fundraisers, and she’s proud of it.

But on Monday night, in her interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she was forced into the most traditional of political roles: the woman standing by her man, the political wife who must give an interview to render her husband’s sexual misdeeds acceptable.

Trump, defending her husband on the secret recording where he described sexually assaulting women, trotted out well-worn clichés. She said that she forgives her husband and the American people should as well: “I accept his apology,” she told Cooper. “I hope the American people will accept it as well. And it was many, many years ago. He's not the man that I know.”

Boys, she tried to say, will be boys, even if they’re actually 59-year-old men, as Donald Trump: “Sometimes I say I have two boys at home -- I have my young son and I have my husband.”

And she tried to blame it all on Billy Bush: Trump “was led on — like, egged on — from the host to say dirty and bad stuff."

It was a painful spectacle, even when Trump pled with the audience not to feel sorry for her. “I’m very strong. People, they don't really know me,” she said. “People think and talk about me, the -- like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh, poor Melania.’ Don't feel sorry for me. Don't feel sorry for me. I can handle everything.”

When she needed to laugh off Trump’s behavior, she called him a boy (“And sometimes I said I have two boys at home — I have my young son and I have my husband”); when Cooper asked if she’d tried to stop him from tweeting, she answered that he was an adult man (“He's an adult. He knows the consequences.”). She took exception, at length, to former People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff’s accusation that Melania had approached her on the street and spoken to her, something Trump said never happened.

She said, incredibly, that her cause as First Lady would be preventing bullying on social media — not including, presumably, tweeting “check out sex tape” about a political adversary, as Donald Trump did 3 weeks ago.

Trump says she gave the interview of her own accord. Even if that’s true, her interview was sometimes cringeworthy to watch, in part because of the underlying message of the spectacle. A former First Lady is running for president, but a political wife is still responsible for her husband’s misdeeds.

Melania Trump was still asked to answer for her husband

The role Trump was hackneyed and outdated when Hillary Clinton played it 24 years ago, when she gave an interview about her husband’s infidelity during the 1992 presidential campaign and infamously described herself as “not… some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

The Trump campaign has perpetuated the idea that a wife is responsible for her husband’s behavior — that’s why Trump mentions the allegations of assault and harassment against Bill Clinton so much. The same campaign that attacks Hillary Clinton relentlessly for saying unkind things about her husband’s accusers has now deployed Melania Trump to cast doubt on the accounts of the woman accusing her own husband of sexual assault.

Watching a wife defend her husband’s infidelity, or worse, was cringeworthy when Silda Wall Spitzer did it for Eliot Spitzer, when Huma Abedin did it for Anthony Weiner, when Jenny Sanford did it for Mark Sanford, even when Julianna Margulies did it in character as Alicia Florrick, the star of The Good Wife.

And it’s equally painful when it’s Melania Trump. Cooper, who pressed Trump relentlessly on his comments about sexual assault at the second debate, was softer to his wife, not correcting her when she suggested that Bush egged Trump on on tape.

But it was still a painful spectacle. The Trump campaign’s belief that a wife is responsible for her husband, it seems, didn’t stop at Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. It went all the way to their own prospective First Lady.

Watch: GOP, only now you realize Trump is Sexist?