“I find it shameful,” Trump wrote near the beginning of the essay, “that surrounding these tragic events there has been salacious gossip, unwarranted personal attacks, and false misleading accusations on me — from people who are looking to be relevant and have an agenda.”
That barb, which immediately followed a paragraph about the six people who died, including two U.S. Capitol police officers, seemed to be aimed at Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. Over the weekend, the first lady’s former friend and adviser wrote a Daily Beast op-ed titled “Melania’s Ex-BFF: There’s Blood on Her Hands.” Winston Wolkoff argued that Melania Trump is complicit in the president’s actions through her “silence and inaction” and is “leaving dead bodies behind.”
Melania Trump’s essay expressed no acknowledgment of her family’s role in the events of Wednesday, the culmination of two months of false claims of election theft by President Trump.
In her letter, Melania Trump does not attribute the tragic events to anyone in particular, saying only that she is “disappointed and disheartened with what happened last week” and she condemns the violence. She says she prays for the families of those who died and asks that we “look at things from all perspectives.” She seems to see a silver lining, writing, “It is inspiring to see that so many have found a passion and enthusiasm in participating in an election.”
During the short-lived insurrection, the first lady was overseeing a photo shoot of rugs, furniture and decorative objects in the White House — perhaps for a coffee-table book about her restoration efforts that she has expressed interest in writing, CNN reported. She continued on with the shoot, according to CNN, even as staff and members of the press asked if she would be issuing a statement asking for calm, as she had done during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, announced her resignation that evening, as did another member of the first lady’s staff, Anna Cristina “Rickie” Niceta, the White House social secretary.
Winston Wolkoff, the former aide whose essay seemed to anger Melania Trump, turned on the her after she thought the first lady was making her take the fall in news reports over how money was spent at Trump’s $107 million inauguration. The former aide has spent recent months undermining the first lady’s public image. “Many still believe that Melania is powerless, but don’t be fooled; she is an abuser too, of the worst kind,” she wrote in The Daily Beast op-ed. “The kind that speaks kindly to children. The sickness is under the skin. Melania knows and supports Donald and his viewpoints.”
Trump’s latest statement is “at least in part a response to Winston Wolkoff’s op-ed,” says Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who studies first ladies. “To me, the ‘tell’ is Trump's language criticizing naysayers who are trying to remain ‘relevant.’ She has used that language before in responding to Wolkoff’s public criticism of her.”
“This is a deeply insecure woman whose need to be relevant defies logic,” Grisham told The Washington Post in late August.
The way the essay is written seems to signal that Melania Trump, sans Grisham, is operating largely on her own, says Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies first ladies and their communications. Wright points to “the typos, the vague language, the euphemisms and the references to being personally attacked” as indications that she is “lacking support staff to help with public messaging, which has been a feature of her office since day one.”
Also telling, says Jellison, is the order in which she lists the names of the dead — beginning with Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who was shot and killed by police during the riot as she tried to break into the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House of Representatives, and ending with Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood, a pair of Capitol police officers. (Rioters reportedly hit Sicknick in the head with a fire extinguisher; he later died. Liebengood died by suicide several days after the raid.)
“You would have thought that SOMEONE would have told her to mention the Capitol police before mentioning the rioters in her condolence statement and not to chalk it up to ‘enthusiasm’ about the election,” Jellison wrote to The Post. “She is not being well served by her remaining staff.”
Kate Bennett, CNN’s correspondent on first families, found that several lines of the statement had been lifted directly from Melania Trump’s speech last fall at the Republican National Convention held in the White House Rose Garden. One line, “The common thread in all of these challenging situations is America’s unwavering resolve to help one another,” is identical in both the speech and the essay; in other instances a word or two is changed (“witness” instead of “see,” “vulnerable” instead of “fragile”). It was a strange echo to the beginning of Melania Trump’s run as a political spouse, when lines from her 2016 RNC speech were found to be plagiarized from Michelle Obama.
In this case, says Wright, “If the goal is to comfort, calm and empathize, certain features of this statement, like the recycled phrases and references to being personally attacked, probably diminish its effectiveness.”
Melania Trump has never quite eased into the “Comforter in Chief” role embraced by Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. She has been vocal during the pandemic, the member of the Trump administration most active in encouraging Americans to wear masks and spreading public health guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. But she also stayed largely out of public view, neither showing up at hospitals nor helping those suffering from the economic collapse.
Michelle Obama released a statement of her own the day after Wednesday’s riots, four days before Trump released hers, calling those who laid siege to the Capitol “a gang — organized, violent, and mad they’d lost an election.” She talked about how much it “hurt” to see them fly the Confederate flag or desecrate an iconic building, and the stark difference between how the rioters were treated (i.e. being allowed to walk out of the building without arrest) and Black Lives Matter activists this summer, who were met with armored vehicles and tear gas. She called for accountability for the President.
“If we have any hope of improving this nation,” Obama wrote, “now is the time for swift and serious consequences for the failure of leadership that led to yesterday’s shame.”