By Karen Tumulty,
The last time the country heard from Melania Trump, she was discovered to have been channeling Michelle Obama, in a political convention speech that turned into a plagiarism controversy.
On Monday night, the glamorous, reclusive wife of the Republican presidential nominee went before a national television audience again — but this time her role model appeared to be Hillary Clinton.
Melania Trump did not actually utter the words “vast left-wing conspiracy,” of course. But her argument echoed one that the then-first lady used in the days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
Donald Trump, his wife told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, was not the perpetrator but the victim — of a television personality determined to “egg on” his guest to “say dirty and bad stuff,” of “the left-wing media,” and of a smear “all organized from the opposition.”
Until now, Melania Trump has declined to fulfill the mundane tasks of political wives, saying her duties to her young son are more important than the demand that a spouse go along for the ride to “humanize” a candidate.
“It was my decision not to be on the campaign trail,” the Slovenian native insisted in English so heavily accented that CNN posted subtitles on some versions of the interview. “I don’t listen [to] anybody about what to do, what to say, when to say it, when to do interviews. If it would be, for example, for my husband or the campaign, they will have me on the trail all the time.”
Now, however, Melania has found herself in a time-honored duty for a political wife when a sex scandal hits — clean-up. It falls to her because no one else can do it.
Sometimes, they perform the role mutely, standing dolefully at a husband’s side as he confesses and promises never to do anything like that again. I forgive him, the wife’s presence is supposed to say, so you should too.
Melania Trump made that declaration herself.
“Those words, they were offensive to me and they were inappropriate,” she told “Fox and Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt in a second interview, which aired Tuesday morning. “And he apologized to me. I accept his apology, and we are moving on.”
But the more serious charge is that Donald Trump actually engaged in the kind of sexual assault that he boasted about on the now-infamous leaked audio from 2005.
Though at least nine women have now come forward to say that they have been the victims of precisely that kind of behavior, his wife says his word is enough for her.
It is the tack that Lee Hart took, when her husband Gary, the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic nomination, was discovered to have been on a yacht named “Monkey Business” with a woman who was not her: “When Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened.”
“I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” Melania Trump said. “This was all organized from the opposition and with the details that they go — did they ever — did they ever check the background of these women? They don’t have any facts.”
She added that, when she heard the language her husband used on the video, “I was surprised because that is not the man I know.”
If it is true that Melania had not seen that side of Donald, it reveals only that she has never tuned into his many interviews on Howard Stern’s radio show.
The timing of her interviews with Cooper and Fox News was inexplicable, given that it adds a few more news cycles to a story that had begun to die down and comes at a moment when his campaign strategists are desperate to change the subject.
The New York Times has reported that Melania had resisted entreaties by his aides and his children to do a joint interview with her husband shortly after the “Access Hollywood” tape became public, in hopes that it would put the campaign back on track, as the Clintons’ had by sitting down with “60 Minutes” when allegations of infidelity threatened to derail Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the White House.
Instead, Melania issued a written statement. And when the allegations of sexual assault began, her response was to threaten a lawsuit against a former People Magazine reporter — not over the central allegation that Donald Trump had pinned her against a wall and kissed her, but over a peripheral point in the first-person account.
“She wrote in the same story about me that she saw me on Fifth Avenue, and I said to her, ‘Natasha, how come we don’t see you anymore?’ I was never friend with her. I would not recognize her,” Melania told Cooper. “That’s why I sent them the letter, because it discredited the story.”
Even now, Melania Trump is willing to go only so far.
In a moment where the script would appear to call for her to share a little more about “the man I know,” Melania offered no personal glimpses of their lives. There was nothing more revealing than what one might hear in a campaign ad — outside, perhaps, her observation that she feels like she is living with two boys, not one.
“As I always said, as my husband said, as well, for a successful businessman, entrepreneur, entertainer to achieving so much in his life, being in so many shows, so many tapes, it’s very hard to run for public office,” Melania Trump said on Fox.
“And he did this anyway,” she added. “He said, I want to help American people. I want to keep America safe. I want to bring back jobs, bring back economy, so our children, our futures will be the best way possible.”
“Strategically odd” is how Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communication expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, described Melania Trump’s appearances.
“She is certifying the public person who is Donald Trump,” Jamieson said. “She’s not certifying her personal experience with him as an individual with the kind of stories you would ordinarily expect the defending spouse to be telling.”
But maybe that’s because Melania Trump agrees with Hillary Clinton on another point. “In a better world,” Clinton wrote in her White House memoir, “this sort of conversation between a husband and a wife would be no one’s business but their own.”