The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Melania Trump was praised for acknowledging racism. But she has also spread false ‘birther’ claims about Obama.

First lady Melania Trump spoke at the Aug. 25 Republican National Convention. Here's her speech, in three minutes. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Halfway through this week’s Republican National Convention, Melania Trump took a stance that no speaker before her had dared to assume.

“Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country,” the first lady said Tuesday night, speaking before a crowded audience at the White House’s Rose Garden. “It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history."

As she called for an end to “violence and looting being done in the name of justice” as well as a stop to racial profiling, media figures on both ends of the political spectrum praised the speech’s civil tone.

Yet as some journalists and commentators pointed out, the first lady is hardly a passive actor in nation’s fraught recent history of racial politics: In 2011, she helped her husband spread the falsehood that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

“I appreciate that Melania’s tone was gentler. And that she at least acknowledged Covid suffering and civil unrest,” wrote Bryan Behar, a TV writer and HuffPost blogger. “But she has been complicit with her husband in sowing racial discord and trampling on our laws, norms & institutions. That can’t be forgotten nor forgiven.”

Nearly a decade ago, the former model was supporting her real estate tycoon husband’s conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and was thus constitutionally ineligible to be president.

Some political scientists have argued that the “birtherism” theory helped drive Trump’s transition from reality TV into politics, using racism as its fuel. None of the 43 White men to first serve in the White House had been questioned about their birthplace, but Obama — the nation’s first Black leader — faced these questions as an attack on his legitimacy.

Trump began raising unfounded doubts about Obama’s citizenship during a media tour in March 2011, as he floated the possibility of running for office himself. Hawaiian state health officials called his claims “ludicrous.”

Before Obama responded late the following month by producing his long-form birth certificate, Melania Trump went on “The Joy Behar Show” to defend her husband.

“It’s not only Donald who wants to see it,” she told Behar the following month. “It’s American people who voted for him and who didn’t vote for him. They want to see that.”

When the TV host pointed out that Obama’s short-form birth certificate was already available on the Internet, Trump shot back, saying: “We feel it’s different."

Nearly a decade later, after praising the “fine people” on both sides of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and cracking down on protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it would appear that little had changed for Donald Trump on matters of race.

On the first night of the Republican convention, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the two St. Louis lawyers who brandished their guns at protesters, warned that those demonstrators were threatening the suburban way of life. Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that “America is not a racist country” and that Democrats had merely made it “fashionable” to make those allegations.

Melania Trump will give her biggest speech in four years. Can she convince skeptical women to vote for her husband?

Then came night two, and Melania Trump bucked the trend.

“Never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin,” said the spotlight-averse first lady. “Instead of tearing things down, let’s reflect on our mistakes, be proud of our evolution and look to our way forward.”

Four years after she faced allegations of plagiarizing from her predecessor, Michelle Obama, Trump’s appeal for racial understanding received a comparably sunny reception.

“The first lady talking about the horrors of slavery from the White House was remarkable and so rare,” MaryAlice Parks, the deputy political director at ABC News, said on Twitter. Besides talking about learning and reflection, “she acknowledged some of the hurt felt by protesters this summer in a way we have just not heard from others.”

“Not only is it in contrast with her husband, it’s almost a contradiction,” CNN host Jake Tapper noted on the air, before bringing up Trump’s Behar interview.

Yet not everyone was quite so laudatory.

Amid the torrent of highly politicized responses to the first lady’s speech, the comic and singer-songwriter Bette Midler alleged that Trump — who was born and raised in Slovenia — “still can’t speak English."

Much as Trump’s comments sparked fury on the left, Midler’s tweet launched a tidal wave of anger on the right, at one point causing the performer’s name to trend on Twitter overnight alongside the former first lady.

Before long, Midler faced her own charges of xenophobia and racism.