Being Melania interview proves her the queen of barely coded messages | Meghan O’Rourke

From fashion choices to her marriage, ABC special reveals first lady is far from clueless and willing to bait those around her

Media can be very tricky sometimes, Melania Trump said back in 1999, in an interview with ABC News. You need to be very careful.

That wariness has, not surprisingly, stuck with her, which is why much of the new ABC special, Being Melania, consisted of her offering up vague bromides and an innocuous set of talking points: her independence, her own priorities, the Be Best initiative she launched earlier this year and the work of staying true to myself.

But, strikingly, there were also many moments when Melania seemed uninterested in being careful. And in that unwillingness to stick to her own talking points, we got a tiny glimpse of her spiky recalcitrance her refusal to be what either the left or right want her to be.

In general, being Melania meant not being entirely on script. She pronounced herself to be the most bullied person on the world. She freely noted that there are people in the White House she does not trust. (After ABC released an advance clip of Melanias comments on the White House, Trump himself called the producers to say that this was not his version of things.) She told Tom Llamas, her interviewer, she was blindsided by the policy of separating children from their parents at the border, and found it unacceptable. In this, she didnt play the usual role of the political wife, cannily couching disagreement and controlling the narrative to hide administrative chaos. She just seemed indifferent to such strategies.

Melania Trump on the infamous jacket: It was for the people and for the leftwing media who are criticizing me. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Then there was the matter of the infamous Zara jacket. In the days leading up to her June visit to the Mexico border, the Trump administration had come under harsh fire over the separations policy. And so when Melania wore a military-style jacket that carried the slogan I really dont care do u? en route to visit children at detention centers, it appeared at best stunningly clueless and at worst a horrific expression of disengagement, on par with Marie Antoinettes Let them eat cake.

At the time, her spokesperson said: There was no hidden message. After todays important visit to Texas, I hope this isnt what the media is going to choose to focus on. Many on the right treated the hubbub over her style choice as an example of liberal hypocrisy, citing the lefts war on women.

On ABC, Melania initially deflected the question.

Its obvious I didnt wear the jacket for the children, she said. I wore the jacket to go on the plane and off the plane.

But then she paused and, jaw tightening, went on to explain that the jacket was in fact a message.

It was for the people and for the leftwing media who are criticizing me. And I want to show them that I dont care.

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Melania Trump: I’m ‘the most bullied person’ video

When she saw how the media was covering it, she told Llamas, she put the jacket back on for the journey home.

The interview clarified that Melania is not clueless: the jacket was a sophisticated form of baiting. After all, any media criticism of it would only make Trumps base hate the media more, for focusing on trivialities instead of her real mission that day.

Her admission to Llamas made other style choices namely, her decision to wear a white pantsuit, associated with suffragettes, at the state of the union, shortly after the Stormy Daniels affair broke look like a similar kind of telegraphing, this time to her husband and his handlers, of her displeasure. Llamas showed a clip of Melania sitting expressionless, clapping while others stood to applaud and cheer. The first lady, it seems, has a strong sense of what she will and wont tolerate and if anyone crosses the line she lets them know.

Perhaps its not so crazy to read meaning into tiny choices Melania makes; she seems to want us to. In fact, if Being Melania showed anything, its that she is quite skilled at sending messages in a barely coded way, and very willing to bait those around her. Its the power of the powerless person in powerful situations, a mode of communication perhaps learned from years working as a model who had lots of glamorous visibility but no real authority.

Nowhere was Melanias spiky mode of signaling more apparent than in her responses to questions about her marriage. Nearly 20 years ago, ABC interviewed a 26-year-old Melania about her possible marriage to Trump and what she would do if he ever became president. Charmingly, she replied: I would be very traditional, like Jackie Kennedy I would support him, I will do a lot of social obligations. A pause, then: I stand by my man.

Melania Trump departs Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

When their husbands infidelities become public, women in American politics are expected to do just this, to appear beside their spouses at press conferences, testifying to their essential goodness despite slip-ups along the way.

Asked about the state of her marriage to the president, Melania instead said, somewhat impatiently, Yes, were fine. And left it at that. Likewise, asked about Daniels claim of an affair with her husband, which he denies, she said, simply: It is not a concern and focus of mine. Im a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do.

It was a far cry from, say, Hillary Rodham Clintons support for her husband in a similar 1992 interview: Im sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what hes been through and what weve been through together. And you know, if thats not enough for people, then heck dont vote for him.

It was hard not to hear another coded message in the brevity of Melanias response.

In the end, though, there was something both sad and dangerously blinkered about the interview. Melania may be quietly pushing back at what she perceives as her bullying bullying by the left, bullying by her husband. But ultimately, one felt one was watching someone out of her depth, someone at once reasonably pained by the way she has been treated and also terribly unaware of the entitlement of her position a victor who sees herself as a victim.

Hers is a vantage with a hazardous lack of self-awareness. After saying she is possibly the most bullied person on the world, she also claimed she was having a good time in the White House.

Im enjoying it, she said. I love the Washington.

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