Melania Trump entered the House chamber to a standing ovation Tuesday night ahead of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
The rousing applause punctuated an unexpected drama that played out on the sidelines of the president’s speech. The first lady traveled from the White House to the Capitol without her husband, a break with tradition, CNN reported. She instead commuted with the special guests she and the president had invited to the event, according to her spokesperson.
I will be joined tonight by an honorable group of Americans. Sitting with me are heroes who have served our nation in times of need, families who have suffered at the hands of evil, and citizens who have embraced the American dream. #SOTU— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) January 30, 2018
The decision to ride separately probably wouldn’t have created ripples had it not been for the fact that Melania has avoided public appearances with her husband since a January 12 Wall Street Journal report. The report alleged Trump’s private attorney, Michael Cohen, had paid $130,000 in hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign — an effort to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter between then-businessman Trump and Daniels.
Daniels has said the affair took place less than four months after Melania gave birth to the couple’s son Barron. (She has since denied, sort of, the encounter with Donald; the White House has also denied the Journal’s story.)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed the Trumps’ State of the Union travel arrangements, saying Melania traveled separately for “no reason other than she can greet the guests and he can go straight in.”
But Melania’s recent decision to cancel her trip to Davos, Switzerland, fed into the intrigue. What’s more, Melania, an immigrant and former model, has always been a source of fascination — as has her marriage to the much older Trump (his third).
Melania isn’t the first woman in the White House to deal with questions of her husband’s infidelity while in office. For an intensely private first lady who’s been portrayed as a captive, it’s hard not to notice her quiet distance from the president of late.
#FreeMelania and the fascination with the first lady
Talk about Melania Trump, at least in liberal circles, often comes back to the same question: What does she think about all this? What does a woman with a somewhat murky immigration history think about her husband’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies? What does Trump’s wife think about the multiple allegations that her husband sexually harassed and assaulted women, incidents that reportedly occurred during their marriage?
Melania was 28 when she met Trump, then 52 (and with a date), at a Fashion Week party at the Kit Kat Club in Times Square in the fall of 1998. “I didn’t know much about Donald Trump,” Melania Trump told GQ in April 2016. “I had my life, I had my world. I didn’t follow Donald Trump and what kind of life he had.”
The couple wed in 2005 and celebrated with a Mar-a-Lago reception. They had their only son, Barron, about a year later, in 2006.
During Trump’s candidacy, Melania, now 47, was an infrequent presence on the campaign trail. One of her first high-profile political appearances came at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. Her speech sparked a scandal, after people noted that portions of the speech seemed to have been cribbed directly from former first lady Michelle Obama’s address during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Melania was thrust in the spotlight again toward the end of the campaign, after the infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked. She defended Trump’s crass language, suggesting others had goaded her husband into “boy talk.”
After Trump won, Melania decided to stay in New York rather than move immediately to the White House so that Barron could finish the school year without disruption. (They moved to Washington in June.)
And by Trump’s inauguration, jokes that Melania was a hostage rather than a willing participant in her husband’s presidency began in earnest — especially after a viral clip seemed to show Melania smiling at Trump, a smile that completely disappeared as soon as Trump’s back was turned.
I can’t stop staring at the gif https://t.co/LqHMmFOVyp pic.twitter.com/CSGxT2eRS4— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) January 23, 2017
That fired up the “Save Melania” and “Free Melania” memes, including one in which Melania attempts to slip an SOS message into the Tiffany box she gave to Michelle Obama before the two couples headed to the inauguration ceremony. (Obama, incidentally, will say Thursday on Ellen that it was a picture frame.)
Everyone was wondering what was in the Tiffany box that Melania handed Michelle Obama... We were hoping it was this pic.twitter.com/dcoG4Ub2US— Rogelio Garcia Lawyer (@LawyerRogelio) January 22, 2017
The #FreeMelania hashtag also popped up on signs at the Women’s March. The campaign never quite died, either, fed by little moments and gaffes, such as when Melania swiped away Trump’s hand during their foreign trip (which kept happening).
Well this is embarassing https://t.co/XaPL1AbCm5 pic.twitter.com/mumhuQHDFz— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) May 22, 2017
The memes sparked a debate: Was Melania a figure to be pitied? Or was she complicit in her husband’s positions and policies?
“The jokes pivot on the idea that Melania Trump is miserable and cornered, and therefore pitiable,” wrote Megan Garber for the Atlantic, “in part because the alternative requires imagining a woman who is happy with her husband — that is, a woman who refuses to be as offended as they are at ‘grab them by the pussy’ and ‘such a nasty woman’ and ‘Miss Piggy.’”
“Melania Trump is hardly a stand-in for American women, she is neither a victim nor is she lacking agency,” Stassa Edwards wrote for Jezebel in January 2017. “Rather she’s an active participant working to construct Donald Trump’s narrative, readily available to put a gauzy domestic veil on his racism and misogyny.”
And until recently, there was little indication from Melania Trump’s public appearances that she’s anything but supportive of her husband.
Rumors about the Trumps’ marriage have picked up steam
A few recent events have thrust the Trumps’ marriage into the spotlight. Reports that Melania had not wanted her husband to win — first made by Vanity Fair in May 2017 — gained new life after Michael Wolff’s gossipy Trump White House tell-all.
His book Fire and Fury suggested that Melania had cried “tears — and not of joy” after the election night results. (Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, also denied the Wolff account, saying Melania encouraged Donald to run and “was confident he would win and was very happy when he did.”)
Then after the Stormy Daniels allegations broke, Melania traveled to Mar-a-Lago with the president over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, but she reportedly wasn’t seen at two dinners. Two people close to the Trumps told the New York Times that the reported “payoff blindsided the first lady, who was furious with her husband.”
Melania also tweeted on the anniversary of her first year in office, and some pointed out that of all the photos she could have chosen, her selection conspicuously did not include the president. (The Trumps’ 13-year wedding anniversary also happened to be on January 22; there was no report on whether the couple celebrated together.)
This has been a year filled with many wonderful moments. I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet throughout our great country & the world! pic.twitter.com/MMRi72ENd0— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) January 20, 2018
Melania also dropped her plans to accompany the president to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead, she made an impromptu trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then headed to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. Grisham said her absence was due to “scheduling and logistical issues.”
Grisham shot down any rumors of turmoil. On Twitter last week, she slammed “salacious & flat-out false reporting,” adding Melania’s focus was on her family “& role as FLOTUS.”
BREAKING:The laundry list of salacious & flat-out false reporting about Mrs. Trump by tabloid publications & TV shows has seeped into "main stream media" reporting. She is focused on her family & role as FLOTUS - not the unrealistic scenarios being peddled daily by the fake news.— Stephanie Grisham (@StephGrisham45) January 26, 2018
The State of the Union marked Melania’s public debut after weeks of speculation. Though she and the president traveled together for Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress last year, the White House dismissed the arrangements in 2018 as a matter of convenience — and a chance for the first lady to have more time with the attendees.
Grisham told CNN that Melania and second lady Karen Pence planned to host “a more intimate meet-and-greet” with those guests ahead of the State of the Union.
Melania did enter her box alone, walking in to a standing ovation. Her outfit also got some attention. She chose a Christian Dior pantsuit — which some saw as white, others as cream. Female Democratic lawmakers dressed in white — which suffragettes wore as they fought for the right to vote — in protest of Trump’s first speech to Congress last year. (Also, another pretty notable female politician wore a white pantsuit to Trump’s inauguration one year ago.)
The first family met up and headed back to the White House together after the State of the Union, according to Grisham.
Why does this even matter?
The first lady is a private woman. Trump hasn’t exactly been a paragon of, or an advocate for, marital fidelity. (The Access Hollywood tape began with the future president describing at length his efforts to sleep with a married woman.) So on one level, it shouldn’t matter if the state of their marital union is somewhat less than strong.
Still, the intense interest in the rumored rift between the Trumps is understandable. Melania Trump, by dint of her husband’s electoral victory, is now one of the most famous women in America. She is more popular than her husband, and her reserve and sometimes obvious dislike of the limelight has helped make her a sympathetic figure, even among Trump’s detractors.
She is elegant, sometimes aloof, and doesn’t always seem to relish her role (or at least its trappings) in office as much as previous first ladies. In general, Melania seems most at ease when interacting with others, if not away from the spotlight, at least on her own terms, as she did last night at the State of the Union and in some of her visits to local schools.
Nor is she the first first lady to serve as a blank screen onto which Americans project a narrative. During the George W. Bush administration, some liberal women desperately wanted to believe that Laura Bush shared their views. Author Curtis Sittenfeld spun her fantasy version of the first lady into a novel, American Wife, about the ambivalent wife of a swaggering Texan politician.
It turned out that Laura Bush really did support same-sex marriage and abortion, even if she didn’t say so when her opinion might have changed policy. And the idea that Melania Trump is a victim or innocent bystander in her husband’s presidency — #FreeMelania — has been, for many, an oddly comforting thought.
Melania is now being cast again, this time in an old role — the woman scorned — in a stunning scandal. Her husband faces the incredible allegation that he or his associates tried to silence a porn star with hush money to cover up an affair. That revelation would likely sink any other political career. For Trump, the only thing possibly at risk appears to be his marriage.