The Quiet Tragedy of Melania Trump
A small act of resistance highlights the public humiliation of America’ could-be First Lady.
Melania Trump never exactly warmed up to the role of campaign spouse. She’d been reluctant, reticent at best, and really mostly absent from the trail for much of the last 16 months. And why not? The third Mrs. Trump liked her semi-private life as the wife of a New York real-estate billionaire turned reality star. She flitted around from one gala to another and split her days between the Trumps’ gilded Fifth Avenue penthouse and country home, or flew on private planes to Palm Beach. So it makes sense that she was hesitant when her husband was mulling whether or not to throw his hat in the ring last year. “I said to him, ‘You really need to think, because our family life will change. The three of us will change.’ I know what it takes, traveling and all that stuff,” she told Dujour magazine earlier this year. Once Donald Trump did decide to run, she made it clear that she would “be a mom first,” often sitting out the primary state shuffle that was running her husband and his older children ragged, before the general-election campaign dragged her once again into the national spotlight.
When she did appear, she often remained a quiet presence, behind her poised, more comfortable stepdaughter Ivanka. Her introversion and desire to keep her personal politics private played a role in this. But the fact that Melania seemed to step into controversy without saying much at all certainly could not have encouraged her to be more public. When she did speak at the Republican National Convention, she was lauded for about three seconds before it appeared portions of her speech had been borrowed from a Democratic convention speech delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama eight years earlier. The media pounced on whether or not she had graduated from college with a degree, as an R.N.C. bio and her official Web site had boasted. And then there were questions about her immigration story—claims her husband said there would be a press conference to address.
The press conference never happened. But that’ not to say Melania has been silent. On the contrary, she’ been the subject of one campaign hiccup after another. She threatened to sue a handful of news outlets that published a story insinuating that she had once been an escort for hire, resulting in a round of retractions and apologies. She has been vocal about her immigration status. She issued a statement after tapes leaked last week in which her then new husband is heard talking about going after married women and groping others without their consent. “I hope people will accept his apology, as I have,” she wrote. She turned up to the debate with a so-called hot-pink pussy bow tied around her neck—what some said was a subtle sartorial nod to her husband’ recorded choice of words.
One couldn’t help but feel for Melania as a number of women came forward in the wake of those tapes, alleging they had been sexually assaulted by her husband (claims that Donald vigorously denied), particularly as one surfaced from a People magazine reporter, Natasha Stoynoff, who wrote a detailed account of visiting the Trumps on the occasion of their first wedding anniversary. When a then heavily pregnant Melania went to change, the writer claimed, Donald kissed her and told her they were going to have an affair.
A day after the report was published in People, Melania’ attorney, Charles Harder wrote the magazine and Stoynoff a letter demanding an apology and a retraction, which Melania posted on her Twitter account. But there was something deeply tragic in this small display of public courage. In the letter, Melania isn’t objecting to the lewd acts Stoynoff claims her husband committed—that he allegedly stuck his tongue down her throat while his pregnant wife went upstairs or talked about his sexual prowess. She asked the magazine to take back the writer’ claims that she had run into Melania on Fifth Avenue months later and that the two had a brief conversation.
“Mrs. Trump did not encounter Ms. Stoynoff on the street, nor have any conversation with her. The two are not friends and were never friends or even friendly,” the letter reads. “At the time in question, Mrs. Trump would not have even recognized Ms. Stoynoff if they had encountered one another on the street.”
Of course, this misses the point. This is perhaps the least important bit of information in Stoynoff’ essay and the least of Melania’ problems. But what other recourse does she have? She has been publicly humiliated by her husband’ words and the allegations against him. Perhaps Melania isn’t so different from the women who have come forward over the last week, who, too, feel angry and humiliated by Donald. A legal threat over one insignificant portion of an essay in an entertainment magazine may well seem foolish or trivial in the scheme of the storm brewing around her family, but that may well be her only alternative right now. There are 24 days until the election, and she is bound by a flailing campaign and likely an iron-clad pre-nuptial agreement. If she wants to take issue with whether or not there was a chance meeting on Fifth Avenue more than a decade ago, it shouldn’t be seen as petty. It should be seen as profoundly sad.