Renee Graham: The unbearable awkwardness of being Melania
I generally avoid getting all up in other people’s relationships.
Doesn’t matter whether those involved are friends or family members, doesn’t matter if someone is soliciting my advice. What transpires between every couple is inscrutable, each union rife with angles alien to outsiders. Best to stay out of it.
Yet for the current occupants of the White House, I’ll make an exception. Not that I have any choice. When the first lady and the president are at odds, it’s impossible to look the other way.
If you’re sensing some heightened tension between the president and his wife, Melania Trump, these days —- not to be confused with their usual simmering enmity — you aren’t alone. What looked from afar like a marriage of cynical, if mutual, gain is publicly molting under a relentless glare of the White House. And it’s not so much what Melania is doing, but what she’s spurning that’s inviting lots of speculation.
In an abrupt change of plans, the first lady decided not to join her husband on his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. East Wing communications director Stephanie Grisham told CNN that the switch was based on “scheduling and logistical issues.”
Those “logistical issues” apparently included being with her husband.
This came just days after Melania marked the first anniversary of the Trump inauguration with a tweet that was more of a tell: “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!”
Just in case anyone didn’t notice that she never mentioned her husband, there was the accompanying photo: A smiling Melania, arm in arm, with a tall, lantern-jawed military escort on inauguration day.
That’s shade thrown with a grenade launcher.
For the Trump marriage, 2018 has been a series of slings and arrows, and it’s the one thing the president won’t talk or tweet about. Michael Wolff, author of the bestselling “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” calls Melania a “non-presence,” who sleeps in a separate bedroom and burst into tears of dismay when Trump was elected.
And that was before the latest erupting storm — as in Stormy Daniels, the porn star who was reportedly paid $130,000 to cover up an affair with Trump. It began, Daniels says, shortly after Melania gave birth to Trump’s youngest son Barron in 2006. For her part, Melania has remained silent.
No one elects a first lady, but the role carries stifling attention and expectations. Hillary Clinton used the position as a staging area for her own political ambitions. Others, such as Michelle Obama, exude such grace, warmth, and intelligence, they’re even more popular than their husbands.
Melania has seemed more reluctant than most women thrust into this odd, undefined space. There’s no indication that she’s a calming influence on her erratic husband or his chaotic presidency, which seems the most basic thing the nation could want from this first lady.
It’s been 20 years — and one stained blue dress — since the foibles of an uneasy presidential relationship has garnered public attention for all the wrong reasons. After eight years of the Obamas’ loving, respectful marriage, now we have the discomfort of watching the Trumps’ festering marital dysfunction on the world stage.
Married for 13 years, the Trumps’ roles have been clearly defined — he was wealthy, she was a former model. Trump got an eye-pleasing prop to prove his virility. Melania got access, shiny baubles, and a cushy life.
Yet, as necessary, she was willing to do her husband’s nasty bidding, like perpetuating lies about President Obama’s birth certificate and American citizenship. When Trump was heard on a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape boasting about sexually assaulting women, Melania dismissed his offensive comments as “boy talk.”
Make no mistake: Melania is not a hostage. She is a grown woman who has made her choices — terrible ones, no doubt — but, for her own reasons, she continues to live with the embarrassing consequences. The Trumps don’t have a marriage so much as an assembly line of gifs and memes ready made for social media.
Michelle Obama once said that “the presidency doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.” That observation is also applicable to presidential couples. Nothing about the Trump presidency adheres to protocol or decorum. Neither, it appears, does the first couple, with their marital dysfunction on display while the whole world — however reluctantly — is watching.
Renee Graham is a Boston Globe columnist.