The Lie at the Heart of Melania’s Speech

The first lady lamented the divides that her husband foments and exploits, and that she herself has done little to overcome.

Michael Reynolds / EPA / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In order to fill the White House Rose Garden for Melania Trump’s Tuesday night speech, COVID-19 safety procedures were ignored. Attendees did not socially distance and did not mask, and not all were tested beforehand.

The speech violated historical conventions about how the White House should be used during a president’s reelection campaign. If, as seems overwhelmingly likely, government resources were used in any way to produce the event, the speech violated laws as well.

Melania Trump’s speech did all these things in order to tell a lie. The lie, in this case, was not one of the flamboyant, paranoid lies told by her stepson on the first night of the Republican National Convention. Nor was the lie, in this case, one of the casual misrepresentations of specific checkable facts that filled so much of the convention’s second night. The lie was a more existential one, and one somehow even more symbolic of the Trump presidency than the other kinds of lies.

No presidential spouse in modern times has engaged in fewer public appearances than Melania Trump. That’s her prerogative of course. There’s no job description for the first lady, or a future first gentleman. There is virtually nothing a first lady or first gentleman must do. If the spouse of the president wishes to make few public appearances, or do little for public causes, and focus almost exclusively on her personal and private concerns, that is, of course, an option. What is uniquely Trumpian about this first lady is that she has done far less for the American people than any first lady in a century—while spending far more public funds on her personal upkeep.

During the government shutdown of 2018–19, President Donald Trump nixed a long-planned trip by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan. During that same shutdown, Melania Trump spent $35,000 of public funds to fly to Florida so she could spend the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend there, although her husband remained in Washington. The trip was her second solo trip to Florida in less than a month; she also traveled apart from her husband in Washington over New Year’s Eve, again at public cost.

When Donald Trump was elected president, Melania Trump at first refused to move to Washington with him at all. The purpose of the delay, Mary Jordan reported in her book about Melania Trump, was to leverage a more advantageous prenuptial deal out of Trump. Once the money was secured, Melania Trump relocated. But if the delay was indeed about a renegotiation, the process came at incredible expense to taxpayers. Melania Trump did not relocate to the White House until June 2017. The first three months of that delay alone—January, February, and March—imposed $675,000 in travel costs on taxpayers. That figure emerged only because of court proceedings; the cost of her full six months in New York remains a secret. And to put the figure in perspective: The cost to taxpayers of only those first three months was double Michelle Obama’s average total annual travel cost.

Doing as little for public good as possible, grabbing as much as possible from the public Treasury: That has been the approach of the whole Trump family during the Trump presidency.

The story Melania Trump narrated in the Rose Garden was, of course, just the opposite. There, she spun her very occasional public acts as a public contribution on the scale of her predecessors’, who all did far more, at less expense. To do the spinning, she violated an important restraint on the use of the White House, and almost certainly involved her staff in violations of federal election law.

The text of Melania Trump’s speech was rambling, vapid, and disconnected from reality. It mixed sad laments about the partisan and cultural divides that her husband foments and exploits, and that she herself has done little to overcome, with partisan slams at opponents and the media. “No matter the amount of negative or false media headlines or attacks from the other side, Donald Trump has not and will not lose for you,” she said. But the speech in its full context revealed much about the family side of the Trumps: the damage they have done in office, the damage they will continue to do if given a second term. That approach framed the spooky blankness of the first lady’s face and the empty falsehood of her words.