Melania Trump attended a White House event to honor Gold Star families on Monday night. Normally, the first lady’s presence at such an event would be no big deal, but this time is different: Trump hadn’t been seen in public since May 10. Her absence fueled multiple conspiracy theories about her condition and whereabouts, and while her Monday showing might have quelled some current whispers, it didn’t quiet them entirely — the event was closed to the press.
Trump, a reluctant first lady whose relationship with her husband, President Donald Trump, is reportedly less than warm at times, has become the target of much speculation during her time at the White House. During the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, signs reading “Free Melania” and “Melania, blink twice if you need help” peppered the streets. The president and first lady’s body language is often scrutinized in their public appearances, and for a while, there was even a theory floating around that a fake Melania Trump was escorting her husband around. (Spoiler alert: It was the real Melania.)
But the latest round of speculation began when the White House made a surprise announcement on May 14 that the first lady had undergone a procedure to treat what was described as a “benign kidney condition.” Her last public appearance was four days before, on May 10, and she remained out of sight for weeks.
Fifteen days after Trump’s last public sighting on May 25, the president, according to the White House pool report, was asked by a reporter where his wife was and pointed to an empty window and said Melania was there. “She’s doing great. She’s looking at us right there,” he said. No one could see her.
Melania had a surprise surgery, and then the “Where’s Melania?” conspiracy was born
The first lady’s office on May 14 announced that Trump had undergone an “embolization procedure to treat a benign kidney condition” at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. There had been no previous reporting of any health problems for Trump or leaks that any type of procedure was upcoming. More details on her condition weren’t released, and the length of her stay in the hospital — five days — raised eyebrows, as the typical hospital stay for such a procedure is usually shorter.
After leaving the hospital, Trump remained out of sight. She skipped a Memorial Day wreath-laying at Arlington National Ceremony, and she didn’t accompany the president to Camp David last weekend. She won’t go to the G7 summit in Quebec or to the upcoming summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore.
But since that time, she has been active on social media. She tweeted thanks to her caregivers and supporters after her procedure in May and has sent out another handful of messages, including one taking a swipe at the media over speculation about her absence.
I see the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I’m doing. Rest assured, I’m here at the @WhiteHouse w my family, feeling great, & working hard on behalf of children & the American people!
The theories about her whereabouts and activities ran the gamut — that she had moved back to New York City, or that she was cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Perhaps she had plastic surgery, or maybe her condition was actually much more dire. Maybe she and Trump were finally calling it quits.
According to the New York Times, few aides outside of the East Wing have known where Melania has been in recent weeks, and her office has kept the leaky West Wing largely out of the loop. “Mrs. Trump has always been a strong and independent woman who puts her family, and certainly her health, above all else, and that won’t change over a rabid press corps,” Trump’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said in an email to the Times on Monday. “She’s confident in what she is doing and in her role, and knows the rest is just speculation and nonsense.”
She said Trump had taken internal meetings and was planning events even while remaining out of the public eye.
Melania is back — kind of
The first lady accompanied the president to a reception honoring Gold Star families on Monday. The event was closed to the press.
President Trump reportedly joked about his wife’s absence. A person in the room told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that Trump mimicked the media, asking, “Where’s Melania?” He went on for about a minute about the speculation. “Did she leave him?” he said.
The first lady tweeted out a handful of pictures of the event; she can be seen in two of them.
Jena Greene of the Daily Caller caught video of her walking with the president as well.
The first lady’s office released a statement about the event, calling it a “privilege” to welcome Gold Star families to the White House. “To all those who have lost ones in service to our country, our nation grieves with you,” she said.
On Wednesday, President Trump addressed the speculation about his wife’s whereabouts on Twitter and blamed it on the “unfair” and “vicious” media. He claimed that reporters had actually spotted the first lady last week “walking merrily along to a meeting” and did not report it. It’s not clear whether that actually happened.
The Melania conspiracies are probably going to continue
Despite Melania’s Monday appearance, speculation about her activities is likely to continue. She’s still not accompanying the president on his upcoming international trips, and details on what she’s been up to in recent weeks remain vague. Her pullback from the public eye also lands just as she was starting to step more into her role at the White House. She unveiled her “Be Best” platform for children on May 7.
More broadly, Melania Trump has been a target of conspiracy theories and speculation throughout her time in the White House. Her private life and relationship with her husband are often of intense interest.
Prior to this latest “Where’s Melania?” drama, there was the “Fake Melania” conspiracy theory last fall, when online speculation surfaced that it was not the first lady who attended a press event alongside her husband but instead a look-alike.
And ahead of the State of the Union address this year, there was again drama surrounding the first lady when she traveled from the White House to the Capitol separately from her husband. The break in tradition probably wouldn’t have caused ripples, except for the fact that it came just days after the Wall Street Journal broke the news about Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about her alleged affair with Trump.
When that story came out, the first lady stayed out of the spotlight too. She canceled a trip to Davos, Switzerland, and instead made an impromptu trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and went to Mar-a-Lago.
And, of course, the Trumps’ relationship has also been a continued source of rumors and fodder. Melania met Trump in 1998, when she was 28 and he was 52, and she generally has kept a low public profile throughout their marriage, despite her husband’s flair for publicity and fierce desire to be in the public eye.
Melania was a scarce presence on the campaign trail, and when Trump was elected, she initially opted to remain in New York, moving to DC in June of last year. The pair reportedly sleep in separate bedrooms and have a distant relationship.
There have been different readings of their relationship and how Melania should be interpreted.
“Melania Trump is hardly a stand-in for American women, she is neither a victim nor is she lacking agency,” Stassa Edwards wrote for Jezebel in January 2017. “Rather she’s an active participant working to construct Donald Trump’s narrative, readily available to put a gauzy domestic veil on his racism and misogyny.”
“She may not be progressive. She may not be political. And yet Mrs. Trump may end up doing more than any of her predecessors to upend our expectations of the slavish devotion a first lady must display toward her husband,” Kate Andersen Brower wrote in the New York Times a year later in 2018.
It’s not clear Melania really cares.
In 2005, the year she became Trump’s third wife, a student in a business class at New York University asked Melania if she would still be with her husband if he were not rich. Her response: “If I weren’t beautiful, do you think he’d be with me?”
We speculate about Melania because we know nothing about her
Perhaps Melania Trump has become such an object of fascination because we know so little about her, and what we do know we don’t understand. Especially among liberals, the same questions about her often arise. What does she think about all this? Does she want to be here? Especially in light of her husband’s multiple alleged affairs and allegations of sexual misconduct, how and why is she sticking around?
A lot of the Melania speculation has culminated in jokes and memes — the #FreeMelania and #SaveMelania hashtags, the viral videos of her swatting away her husband’s hand.
— Voice of Reason (@raggapegs) May 22, 2017
A video of her smile quickly fading after Trump turned away from her during his inauguration swept across the internet as well.
Not only do we not know much about Melania, but we also don’t know how to feel about her. Is she a trapped wife to be pitied, or is she an accomplice in her husband’s politics and policies?
“The jokes pivot on the idea that Melania Trump is miserable and cornered, and therefore pitiable,” wrote Megan Garber for the Atlantic, “in part because the alternative requires imagining a woman who is happy with her husband — that is, a woman who refuses to be as offended as they are at ‘grab them by the pussy’ and ‘such a nasty woman’ and ‘Miss Piggy.’”
On the one hand, Melania is a tough spot — she is in a position she never signed up for, subject to public expectations she never anticipated, and every move she makes — even a one-second facial expression or a hand movement — has the potential to generate hundreds of news stories, memes, and jokes. And her husband’s alleged affairs are in the news practically daily, which must be mortifying.
On the other hand, she backed his racist birtherism and conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and she has not spoken a public word out of line with him. Her anti-cyberbullying initiative, given her husband’s history, is naive and tone-deaf at best.
As much as her absence as first lady might stem from personal reluctance to be in the spotlight, it could just as easily be indifference to the position she holds, whether she asked for it or not.