As Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and Donald Trump flees to Florida, still grumbling about his election defeat and smarting from a historic second impeachment for inciting insurrection, it’s time to say goodbye to an iconic first lady as well.
Slovenian-born model Melania Trump, nee Knauss, has been on quite a journey since her descent down the golden escalators at Trump Tower on 16 June 2015 to support her husband’s tilt at the presidency, truly announcing her own arrival on the world stage when she plagiarised Michelle Obama in her 2016 Republican National Convention speech.
Here’s a look back at her finest moments in the White House.
The doppelganger conspiracy theory
When Donald Trump first arrived at the White House following his inauguration, his wife was not with him.
She initially stayed behind in New York City with their teenage son Barron while he completed the school year, a decision that cost the American taxpayer plenty in providing a second security detail for the first family.
The decision led many to speculate that she was less than pleased by her new role and was ducking out of her responsibilities for as long as she could, an idea given further credibility when she suddenly disappeared from view in May 2018 for what turned out to be a kidney operation.
The perception mutated into the online conspiracy theory – reportedly originating on Facebook in October 2017 – that she was employing a doppelganger to attend public engagements in her stead, the body double saying little and hiding behind large sunglasses to avoid detection.
The prime “evidence” to support the idea derived from visits to Belgium and Alabama on 10 July 2018 and 8 March 2019 respectively, when she was snapped by the press corps somehow not quite looking her usual self, sending amateur Photoshop detectives into hyper-drive.
The theory was last aired as recently as 22 October 2020 when the Trumps were photographed returning home from campaigning in Tennessee, when Melania’s unfamiliar happy smile revived the issue.
As her chief of staff said in 2017, "Once again, we find ourselves consumed with a ridiculous non-story when we could be talking about the work the first lady is doing on behalf of children, including the opioid crisis that is gripping our nation."
Refusing to hold Trump’s hand
Also adding to the perception of Melania as an icy presence uncomfortable as first lady and not always enamoured by her husband are the frequent sightings of her swatting his hand away whenever he tried to clasp it at official events.
This happened again and again throughout the presidency and, while it can sometimes be attributed to an understandable desire to steady herself against the bannister while descending the steps of Air Force One in heels, that reason doesn’t always appear to stand up.
The Huffington Post once tasked body language expert Jacqueline Whitmore with assessing the behaviour, who agreed, gently, that it “could be perceived as a sign of disrespect”.
The death of the ‘friendship tree’
One person who leapt to the defence of Melania was her French counterpart Brigitte Macron, who insisted she found her “very fun”.
The duo joined their husbands to plant a “friendship tree” in the White House grounds during a state visit in April 2018 – the men bearing gold shovels and grimacing for the camera, no one properly dressed for gardening – only for it to wilt and die a little over a year later, unsuited to the acidic Washington soil.
The oak sapling had been presented by Emmanuel Macron as a gift, the plant gathered from the Belleau Wood, north east of Paris, the sight of the massacre of American soldiers during the First World War and intended as “a reminder of the ties that bind us”.
Its demise served as an apt metaphor for waning US-French relations in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Melania continued to have bad luck with trees when she was tasked with decorating the White House for the festive season.
Her first stab at it in December 2017 was just that, the pines lining an East Wing corridor dyed a terrifying blood-red shade, her couture-and-gore aesthetic seemingly derived from Italian horror films of the 1970s.
She suffered further ridicule a year later when she opted for a forest effect of frost-tipped branches that reminded many of an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson chasing his son through the Overlook Hotel’s snowbound ornamental maze at the close of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Fed up with all of the mockery, Melania complained to her then friend and aide Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in surprisingly effusive terms, little realising that the latter was taping the call with a view to protecting herself should she be left holding the bag over investigations into the misuse of inauguration funds (she would be).
“I'm working... my a** off on the Christmas stuff, that you know, who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations? But I need to do it, right?” Melania is heard to say in the audio released by Winston Wolkoff in October as she promoted her tell-all memoir, Melania and Me.
The ‘I really don’t care. Do U?’ jacket
In June 2018, the Trump administration came under intense international pressure over its “zero tolerance” immigration policies being enacted at the US-Mexico border, which amounted to breaking up asylum-seeking families as a deterrent, separating 1,995 frightened children from their parents and imprisoning them in detention centre cages.
Melania would only make matters worse during this period when she visited one such facility on the Texas border wearing an army green Zara jacket bearing the astonishing slogan, “I really don’t care. Do U?”, apparently her own choice and intended to “drive the libs crazy” (according to Melania in that Wolkoff tape) but which saw her stylist Herve Pierre attract no end of abuse for the crashing insensitivity. She did not stand up for him.
Every US first lady is obliged to have a worthy initiative to work on, a campaign to promote typically dedicated to improving the lives of children.
Melania’s was a seemingly worthwhile anti-bullying effort called #BeBest, which was difficult to take seriously given that its good intentions were undermined on an almost daily basis by her husband’s trolling presence on Twitter, which regularly saw him berate and hound his many enemies in politics and the media in a, well, bullying fashion, regularly stooping to crude personal insults.
The burning statue
Brad Downey, a Berlin-based American artist, had erected a giant wooden statue of the first lady in 2019 near her home town of Sevnica in Slovenia, distinctly unflattering and crudely cut, depicting her in the powder blue dress she had worn to Donald’s inauguration and waving to the horizon.
To apply another horror film reference, it resembled the Wicker Man, and duly met the same fate, set on fire on 5 July 2020, apparently in honour of the American Independence Day weekend and in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Downey subsequently replaced it with a less flammable bronze successor.
Let them play tennis
Perhaps Melania’s most Marie Antoinette gesture in office was her decision to have a tennis pavilion built at the White House while the pandemic raged around the world, a crisis that has killed almost 400,000 Americans (and counting) thanks to her husband’s mismanagement.
In fairness, this luxury project was commenced in October 2019 prior to the onset of Covid-19 (an illness she herself contracted) and is part of a long tradition of first families redesigning aspects of 1600 Pennsylvania, from Harry Truman’s bowling alley to Ms Obama’s vegetable garden.
And, unlike her husband’s white elephant of a border wall, Melania’s courts were at least completed on time.
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