“Who gives a fuck about Christmas stuff and decorations, but I need to do it,” Melania Trump told her friend in a recorded phone conversation released by CNN Thursday night. “And then I do it, and I say that I’m working on Christmas planning for the Christmas, and they said, ‘Oh, what about the children, that they were separated?’ Give me a fucking break.”
In the tape, recorded in July 2018 by Melania’s former aide Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who recently published a tell-all about her friendship with the first lady, Melania claimed that she “was trying to get the kid reunited with the mom” but “didn’t have a chance” because it “needs to go through the process and through the law.”
She then complained that she wasn’t getting credit from the press for allegedly trying to stop the Trump administration’s systematized child abuse. “They would not do the story,” she said. “You would not believe it. They would not do the story because … they are against us because they are liberal media.”
The language was very familiar. The public is just used to hearing it come from a different, more active mouth. Since Donald’s 2016 presidential campaign heated up, fixing Melania’s place in the spotlight, there has been a persistent liberal fantasy that not even his own spouse can really accept the things he says—that she is an unwilling participant in the president’s cruel, wannabe-authoritarian hijinks. Some people who attended the Women’s March carried “FREE MELANIA” signs. Some pored over the Inauguration Day video that showed Melania’s smile at Donald melting into a frown as soon as he looked away. We (I did it too!) chuckled at video clips that showed her rebuffing Donald’s touches, as if she were as disgusted by the president as any of his many detractors.
So in case there remained any doubt about whether Melania Trump is supportive of her husband’s racist views, buys into all the Donald-elevating falsehoods promoted by the president’s employees and Fox News, and shares with him a governing philosophy that revolves around taunting his political opponents, let these recordings make it absolutely clear: She is, and she does.
Her own private musings were every bit as vicious and self-centered as his public performances. According to CNN, the recording also features Melania suggesting that asylum-seekers are lying about the dangers they face in their countries of origin. And another tape has her claiming that migrant children are amazed by the excellent treatment they receive in ICE jails, where they are “taken care of nicely.” “The kids, they say, ‘Wow I will have my own bed? I will sleep on the bed? I will have a cabinet for my clothes?’ ” Melania said on the tape. She also told Winston Wolkoff that said she wore her “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket on a plane to visit a child detention center purely to troll the libs. “I’m driving liberals crazy, that’s for sure,” she said, per the CNN report. “And they deserve it, you understand? And everybody’s like, ‘Oh, my God. This is the worst. This is the worst.’ After, I mean, come on. They are crazy, OK?”
The image of Melania as a furtive, muzzled critic of the president’s worst deeds persisted for years after his inauguration. When she wore a white pantsuit (the color of the suffragists!) to the 2018 State of the Union address, weeks after revelations about Donald’s affair with Stormy Daniels became public, some wondered whether she was signaling her support for the #MeToo movement, Hillary Clinton, or the female legislators who’d worn white to Donald’s first address to Congress. Saturday Night Live has been a devoted perpetrator of the myth that Melania hated being married to her husband and wanted out. SNL videos have depicted Cecily Strong as Melania telling Trump, “Fix your bald spot, I’ve had enough,” and wanting to switch places with a maid so the maid could “lay under Donald” while Melania would be free to roam outdoors. In one skit, she insinuated that she’s a “scared woman who’s trapped inside a mansion.” Another showed Melania wishing to help save her just-born replacement from her miserable fate: “I must find this girl and vanish her to the woods—not for my sake, but for hers.” Without many public appearances from the first lady to mock, Melania’s supposed private rebellion became a major part of her satirizers’ shtick.
Most of these musings about Melania’s inner struggle were half tongue-in-cheek. But the idea that Donald has someone critical in his ear has done real work to humanize and soften the image of his administration. News outlets have given Melania credit for disavowing her husband’s child separation policy. But, as I wrote in 2018—right around the time the newly released recording was made—Melania’s public stance on family separation was never any different from Donald’s. Melania said she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Both sides, eh? Likewise, Donald blamed his human rights abuses on “these horrible laws” the Democrats were supposedly propping up. Then–White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Donald “doesn’t like” family separation, but “we’re not the ones responsible for creating this problem.” Neither Donald nor Melania out-and-out said they liked abusing children, but also, neither would admit that it was the Trump administration’s policy that was doing the abusing.
In the Trump era, all over political media, there has been a repeated rush to assume that women—especially women of color—are the smart, compassionate ones in the room who are so over the mess their male counterparts are making. The presidential approval rating gender gap has been so wide, and the resistance to Donald Trump so thoroughly gendered, that liberals readily project their own horror at the president’s misdeeds on all the women in his orbit. Time and again, that assumption has been proved wrong.
Melania’s phone conversation vindicates Occam’s razor: She’s not staying with Trump because she feels trapped. She’s not uninterested in politics or hostile to Trump’s views. Their marriage is not a simple exchange of money for beauty. They’re together because they have a lot in common: a perpetual persecution complex, for one thing, and an extraordinary narcissism. As Melania spoke to Winston Wolkoff, children were sobbing for their parents, alone in detention cells, and the thing that nearly brought her to tears in an exasperated phone conversation was the negative press she was getting. Melania peppered her rant with Donald’s talking points, blaming Barack Obama for enacting an identical policy (he didn’t), railing on journalists, and casting immigrants as conniving liars who love their cages.
Perhaps her customary reticence owes not to her distaste for her husband, but to a smart PR strategy. The perception that Melania—she of the warm, sympathetic RNC speech—was secretly against the whole deal was a fiction that made Donald Trump seem more reasonable, and possibly convincible. If she could forgive him, America could, too.