As Melania Trump accompanied her husband on his first foreign trip, the public got an uncommon glimpse into the first couple’s dynamic.
The first lady, who remained in New York when President Trump moved to Washington, was more visible than she has been during any other stretch of his presidency. She strode along, usually a pace or two behind, as he greeted dignitaries. She stood over his shoulder as he signed guest books. She ventured out on her own a few times, primarily to meet with women and children. But her foremost job was to accompany the president.
Seeing the Trumps together over the course of their nine-day trip aroused the fascination Americans have with all White House marriages. Do they hold hands? (Not regularly.) Glance at one another lovingly or roll their eyes? (Neither, at least before the cameras.)
On the second leg of their trip, they walked on the tarmac at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, and Trump seemed to reach back to take his wife’s hand. With a quick flick of the wrist, she seemed to swat it away. The moment, captured on video, went viral.
As they departed Israel the next day, they walked to Air Force One hand-in-hand as photographers captured the scene. This moment of connection was less commented upon than the apparent brushoff.
For months, Trump’s critics have questioned whether the first couple are happily married. Their friends insist that they are.
“I will put my hand in fire and say that they are super, super happy,” said Paolo Zampolli, the Manhattan businessman who introduced the Trumps to each other at a New York Fashion Week party he hosted in 1998 and remains friendly with the couple.
Karen LeFrak, a longtime friend of the Trumps, told a Washington Post reporter that Melania Trump is “enjoying her life and new role. . . . Their relationship is great.”
Melania Trump has described herself as a supportive wife. “We know what our roles are and we are happy with them,” she told Parenting magazine a few years ago. “I think the mistake some people make is they try to change the man they love after they get married. You cannot change a person.”
The president, meanwhile, has repeatedly proclaimed that Melania is doing a wonderful job as first lady.
“She was always the highest quality that you’ll ever find . . . and I’ve known her for a long time,” he said at a news conference earlier this year.
He’s used blunter terms of praise as well. In a recent conversation on Air Force One, Trump boasted to a supporter that his wife is “Jackie O on steroids.”
The first couple have been married for 12 years and together for 17. The personalities they’ve presented to the public have typically suggested an opposites-attract dynamic — he is impulsive and decisive, while she is quiet and cautious.
At one point during their foray abroad, they carried themselves like a couple on a double date with other world leaders. An Israeli television station’s microphone caught an exchange they shared with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife.
“The majority of the people in Israel, unlike the media, love us,” Sara Netanyahu told the Trumps as they met.
“We have something very much in common,” President Trump replied.
In Italy, the president introduced the first lady to Pope Francis, who shook her hand and asked in Italian, “What do you give him to eat — potica?”
“Potica,” Melania Trump repeated lightheartedly, referring to a Slovenian sweet bread popular in her home country.
If every marriage is a mystery, political marriages are the Twilight Zone. Really, who knows what goes on in the confines of any relationship they are not a part of? So first couples — like celebrities — are subject to endless analysis and interpretation of their every interaction. They are expected to perfect the political performance of marriage.
Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship was a central part of their political story. They spoke of their family’s 6:30 p.m. dinner as a sacred time. They teased each other and held hands in public. She fixed his tie while the cameras snapped photos of them on the North Portico of the White House waiting for guests to arrive for state dinners. He kissed her cheek.
At times, the Obamas seemed to be performing. At a basketball game, they seemed to initially wave away the Kiss Cam when it settled on them — but later called it back and gave a smooch for the crowd.
In 1998, the Clintons were photographed lovingly dancing together, in swimsuits, on a beach vacation. Some political analysts thought the “candid” photo had been staged for the media. Later that same year, amid the sex scandal that engulfed his presidency, Bill and Hillary Clinton made a memorable photo by walking dutifully across the White House lawn together — both holding hands with their then-teenage daughter, Chelsea.
In a moment that made some observers swoon and others cringe, Al Gore planted a full-mouth kiss on wife Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The crowd went wild for the show of passion by a man who was perceived as stiff. A decade later, they separated.
Less showy interactions between political couples may be more telling. At the Easter Egg Roll earlier this year, Melania Trump gently nudged her husband as the national anthem was played, to remind him to place his hand over his heart.
She rarely accompanied her husband on the campaign trail, but he referred to her as “his pollster.” Politico reported recently that the first lady continues to watch cable news and report back to her husband how she thinks his communications staff is performing.
Others who have observed the Trumps closely back home say there is an obvious spark between them.
“When we were together at Mar-a-Lago, they looked like they were on a first date,” said Zampolli, referring to a New Year’s celebration he attended with the first couple. “They were quite close to each other.”
On another occasion at Mar-a-Lago, before the election, Trump interrupted an interview with a Post reporter to call out “Hi, honey!” to Melania, as she passed through in large sunglasses and a bathrobe on her way to the spa. She acknowledged him quickly but kept walking.
The Trumps will wrap up their tour abroad Saturday, and this summer Melania Trump is expected to move to Washington, where the media glare and public interest in their marriage could intensify.
“She is very strong, and he’s very strong, but of course it is not pleasant,” Zampolli said.
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.