More than she let on: Melania’s influence on Donald Trump during his biggest scandals is being revealed

Former first lady has been more instrumental to her husband’s political operations than has previously been understood – at least, if Michael Cohen is to be believed

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 16 May 2024 09:35
Melania Trump dismisses husband’s comments in Access Hollywood tape as “boy’s talk”

Donald Trump’s wife Melania Trump has often been portrayed as publicly hands-off, both in the political world and when it comes to her husband’s biggest scandals. But this might not be the case after all.

Media reports have long presented Melania, a former fashion model, as a reluctant participant in her husband’s administration and campaign. When some of his biggest scandals came to light, she would typically be in the background, rarely taking time to comment, if she did at all.

Now, it’s being revealed that her role in shaping his public responses to scandals was bigger than it may have been let on. That includes the Access Hollywood tape scandal that nearly ended Mr Trump’s political career. While recorded in 2005, the bawdy talk with that show’sanchor Billy Bush about grabbing women by the genitals wasn’t revealed until 2016, just weeks before the election. His team tried to downplay it as “locker room talk”.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told a New York City courtroom this week about the immediate response to the Access Hollywood tape. “We needed to put a spin on this... that this is locker room talk, something that Melania had recommended—that’s what Melania had thought it was—and use that in order to get control over the story and to minimize its impact on him and his campaign.”

Former US first lady Melania Trump during a rare public speaking engagement at the National Archives in Washington DC on 15 December 2023 (AFP/Getty)

Cohen’s insight into Melania’s role in handling the scandal was detailed as he took the witness stand in Mr Trump’s trial over alleged hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The former president faces 34 felony counts and prison if convicted. Cohen is one of the star witnesses for the prosecution as he details the payments and the efforts to try to prevent the affair between Ms Daniels and Mr Trump from becoming public.

Ms Trump’s absence from the trial, of all people, is understandable given that Ms Daniels’ claims to have had an extramarital sexual encounter with Mr Trump in a Lake Tahoe hotel room in July 2006. The actor claims the affair took place four months after Melania gave birth to son Barron Trump.

The Republican presidential candidate, it should be noted, denies that the episode ever took place, has pleaded not guilty to all 34 of the felony charges brought against him by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg and insists the trial is a “scam” orchestrated by his political opponents to keep him from the campaign trail.

Then-US president Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive to the White House after a trip to Baltimore, Maryland, on 25 May 2020 (Getty)

While Ms Trump has kept her distance throughout the first month of legal proceedings in the Big Apple and has not spoken publicly about it, The New York Times quoted a source close to her describing the case as “a disgrace” and branding it tantamount to election interference, seemingly finding her in lockstep with her husband on that point.

However, the Slovenian-born socialite has found her name cropping up a number of times in courtroom testimony.

Ms Daniels mentioned Ms Trump last week, when the porn star claimed Mr Trump had told her that he and his wife did not sleep in the same bed.

She was then mentioned twice more in testimony by Cohen, whose remarks, if accurate, suggest she has been more central to Mr Trump’s political whirl than has previously been understood.

That “locker room talk” line – an attempt to downplay the seriousness of Mr Trump’s “grab them by the p****” comment – presented conservatives with a convenient, palatable rationale for excusing the scandal and casting their vote for the GOP candidate, regardless of the extent of their distaste for his statement.

It may even have prevented disaffected Republicans from deserting the campaign in droves right before the election.

Donald and Melania Trump attend the Michael Kors show during Olympus Fashion Week at Bryant Park in New York on 9 February 2005 (Getty)

It has not previously been suggested the framing came from Ms Trump but that changed when Cohen portrayed her as a key figure in how to handle the response. The spin certainly proved successful enough in stabilising her husband’s campaign at a pivotal moment and ensured he could go on to defeat Hillary Clinton at the ballot box.

Elsewhere during Cohen’s testimony, he said Mr Trump’s concern about the Ms Daniels story was always about his political campaign, not his wife’s feelings, and mentioned her again when he described struggling to locate Mr Trump during a moment of crisis over the alleged payments in 2016. Cohen eventually received a text message from Melania that read: “Good morning Michael, can u pls call DT on his cell. Thanks.”

Donald Trump walks off the stage followed by Melania after the final presidential debate of 2016 at the University of Las Vegas in Nevada on 19 October 2016 (AFP/Getty)

Again, if Cohen is to be believed, Ms Trump was there playing a calm, facilitating role in a moment when her husband’s campaign and political future looked on the brink of disaster.

After Mr Trump went on to win the White House and served as commander-in-chief, Melania Trump would often be characterised as a reluctant first lady, initially staying behind at Trump Tower in New York rather than joining her husband in Washington DC, to enable their son Barron to complete his school year.

She was later mocked for her “scary” taste in Christmas decorations and derided for her insensitive choice of jacket when she visited a migrant detention centre on the Texas border.

Commentators also liked to zero in on clips of her seemingly batting the president’s hand away from her own as they exited Air Force One to speculate that she did not welcome his attention and that theirs was an unhappy marriage and elected life.

But Cohen’s testimony hints at the possibility that the Trumps may have been much closer than anyone realised when it came to defending his scandals.

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