Melania Trump is not in Davos. She was planning to go — her office had already announced that she would be there to “support the president” as he hobnobs with the global elites at the World Economic Forum. But the first lady is staying in Washington for what her office opaquely calls “scheduling and logistical reasons.” What happened?
Well, one thing that happened was the disclosure that Donald Trump’s lawyer arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star, reportedly to keep quiet about her decade-ago affair with Trump.
In the swirl of news over the last week, Melania’s defection — which was announced on the couple’s 13th wedding anniversary — didn’t get much public attention. (Yahoo News White House correspondent Hunter Walker asked the White House how the Trumps celebrated, but got no answer.) To the many rules that Mrs. Trump’s husband has rewritten in the past two years, add one more — that the public will always care how a politician’s wife reacts to news of his infidelities.
Until Trump changed everything, the public was insatiably interested in what the wronged spouse thinks. When Bill Clinton was accused of Oval Office dalliances, for instance, Hillary Clinton at first became his fiercest defender, blaming the charges on a “vast right wing conspiracy.” She also became the subject of endless speculation about whether she would stay in the marriage or leave. The photo of the couple walking forlornly toward the presidential helicopter, with Chelsea between them holding each of their hands, ran with countless stories about the tense state of their marriage.
When John Edwards was found to have fathered a child out of wedlock, attention also focused on his wife. Some publications were reluctant to cover the story at first, in part out of respect for Elizabeth Edwards, who was fighting cancer at the time. At first Elizabeth defended her husband, but then she announced she was separating from him.
Ditto for Eliot Spitzer’s payments to prostitutes, when much of the coverage centered on why we expect wronged women, like his wife, Silda, to stand publicly — and clearly miserably — by their husband’s side. Or Anthony Weiner’s lewd texting, when as much ink and energy was dedicated to why his wife, Huma Abedin, stayed with him (she did eventually file for divorce last year) and what price she would pay in her own career for his behavior.
The meme of the wronged wife, and the public’s outrage on her behalf, became an entrenched part of popular culture. The TV show “The Good Wife” rode it for seven seasons. In the musical “Hamilton,” the title character’s admission that he had an affair leads to brief glee from his political opponents, which abruptly ends with the words “his poor wife.” That segues into a wrenching solo, and the rest of the show focuses more on her anger and eventual forgiveness than it does on the political price he paid.
There has been, to be sure, much speculation about the Trump marriage: The way he left her behind when the couple arrived at the White House on Inauguration Day; how her smile turned to a frown during the ceremony; how she didn’t move to the White House for months, and swatted his hand away when he reached for hers on a tarmac; and, most recently, how the photo she chose to tweet on the first anniversary of his taking office was of herself not with her husband but with the military escort who accompanied her to her seat.
But the public reaction to the news that weeks before Election Day Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, set up a shell corporation to pay Daniels shows the fundamental rulebook for public reaction to sex scandals no longer applies. (Cohen has denied that Trump and Daniels had an affair but has not denied the payment nor said what it was for.)
There was no “stand by your man” statement, no public display of support. While Melania did travel to Florida with her husband immediately after the allegations were first published in the Wall Street Journal, she did not attend any events with him there that weekend. The closest she came to signaling her feelings was canceling her trip to Davos, and while it appeared to speak volumes it was not accompanied by the headlines and speculation that would previously have been de rigueur in such circumstances.
Perhaps it’s because this is the second time the Trumps have been through this particular type of news cycle. In October 2016, when the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, Melania did a version of the traditional public wife walk, telling Anderson Cooper that Trump’s boasting about grabbing women was “boy talk, and he was led on — like, egged on — from the host to say dirty and bad stuff.”
Or perhaps it’s because this first lady is so opaque, and those who might be inclined to speculate or empathize have been given no window into how she might be feeling. Other wives weathering scandals had friends who would dish. Articles about the Clinton and Weiner marriages, for instance, were filled with anonymous quotes from friends of the couple, who served as conduits for their pain. But Melania Trump’s public-facing world seems to be only herself, her parents and her son, Barron. Who are her close friends?
Perhaps because the man who is accused of cheating on her does not seem to pay a political price for his actions and because his actions do not “stick” to him, the usual public embrace does not envelop her. Yes, polls show she is the most popular member of the Trump family, but still her approval numbers are lower than her disapproval numbers.
And so, one of the many lessons of this presidency may be this: When every day brings an accusation or misstep that might have brought down a previous president, it leads to a numbing lack of surprise that translates into lack of sympathy for his wife. With a news cycle in hyperdrive, there is neither time nor inclination to wonder what Melania is thinking.