Michael Cohen’s statement Tuesday that he arranged hush payments to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs was a news-cycle-breaking revelation. But it’s also not entirely unprecedented, given that it calls up memories of Bill Clinton’s indiscretions decades before. Whether Cohen’s claims set Trump on the path to impeachment, the parallels between the two men’s troubles are striking, not least of all because both could have avoided them with some old-fashioned, do-not-have-sex-with-someone-who-is-not-your-wife self-control.
Yet the Clinton administration had a major weapon in their arsenal that the Trump administration does not: a first lady who was willing to fall on a sword for her husband, no matter what.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who passionately defended her husband throughout the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, Melania Trump has stayed silent in the face of multiple allegations against her husband. That may be a good thing for future political spouses, who are unfairly expected to salve their partners’ public wounds, even when they are the ones being betrayed most. But it could not be more costly for Donald Trump, who faces a real risk of being removed from office.
Like the Russia investigation — which is not, at present, directly related to Cohen’s guilty plea — the Whitewater investigation, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal that eventually arose from it, played out in the court of public opinion. It’s there that presidential spouses are the most effective, and there that Hillary Clinton painstakingly buoyed and resurrected Bill Clinton’s reputation.
Trump and his allies have taken many pages directly out of the Clinton administration crisis-management playbook, continuing to lob accusations of partisan bias and corruption at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Justice Department officials. Where Trump tweets his rage at the investigation, even as his allies defend him on television, Hillary Clinton herself was a crucial and active part of the efforts to discredit her husband’s detractors. She took to the airwaves on numerous occasions to vehemently deny the accusations against her husband, even famously alleging that the president was the victim of “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
After Bill Clinton publicly admitted the affair and lying to his wife about it, Hillary Clinton was angry, but she defended her husband nonetheless. In an interview with Talk magazine in 1999, the first lady said President Clinton was “a very, very good man” and that his infidelity was the result of abuse he suffered as a child. “You don’t walk away if you love someone,” she said. “You help them.”
And help her husband she probably did. Although research on first lady and presidential favorability ratings suggests that these measures are not interdependent (first ladies often become more popular in years presidential and vice-presidential popularity sinks, for instance), evidence in my book demonstrates that when first ladies vouch for their husbands, particularly on issues of character and integrity, they can have a profound effect on public evaluations of them.
Melania Trump, like Hillary Clinton, was a staunch defender of her husband on the presidential campaign trail. While Trump was teasing a run for president in 2012, Melania Trump propagated Trump’s birther conspiracy on Joy Behar’s show and gushed about his patriotism, intelligence and negotiating skills. Later, in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape release that many thought would end Trump’s campaign altogether, Melania Trump made a critical appearance on CNN to dismiss her husband’s comments about groping women as “boy talk” and to blame the media for the scandals plaguing her husband’s campaign.
But as first lady, she has defied pressure placed on her to conform to the role of conciliatory spouse. She stays clear of the president’s public relations disasters, ignores accusations of his infidelity and shuns opportunities to boost his image.
In the last few months alone, Melania Trump, through her communications office, has announced a solo trip to Africa, a continent her husband continues to disparage, praised and encouraged LeBron James after the president attacked him on Twitter, coldly rejected Rudolph W. Giuliani’s assertion that she believes her husband’s denial of the Stormy Daniels affair and declared that her controversial “I Don’t Care” jacket, which overshadowed an otherwise positive trip to a border detention facility in Texas, was “just a jacket.” (The president later said the jacket was a deliberate message to the “fake” news media).
It is not at all an exaggeration to say that Melania Trump may be the only person who can hoist her husband out of the hole he is in. Survey experiments I conducted in 2016 and 2017 suggest that Melania Trump is a more effective advocate for her husband than other Trump surrogates such as Chris Christie, Ivanka Trump and Vice President Pence, especially among independents, and is even better at boosting opinions about the president than Trump himself on average.
Melania Trump remains the most popular member of the Trump family, steers clear of partisan debates (which is one reason first ladies are often perceived to be more credible and trustworthy than politicians), and rarely interacts with the media despite the public’s utter fascination with her.
It is actually plausible that Melania Trump could be an even more effective advocate for her husband than Hillary Clinton, who was a polarizing public figure at times and faced substantial backlash for her involvement in the administration’s health-care reform efforts.
If Melania Trump were to give a high-profile interview denying the allegations against her husband, a la Hillary Clinton, it would probably crowd out many negative headlines with some positive soft news. That’s just the sort of thing that could improve perceptions of her embattled husband and help lift the shadow of impeachment that hangs over his presidency.
But she probably won’t.
Buried in all of the esoteric debates about whether a president can be indicted, what exactly constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors, and whether presidents can pardon themselves and their political allies, might be an uncomfortably familiar story. A powerful man cheats on his wife. He tries to cover it up to preserve or amass more power. He gets burned. He turns to the very person he wronged to save him.
Maybe the question is not whether Melania Trump will ultimately come to her husband’s rescue, as countless political spouses have before, but why we can’t find leaders who don’t require rescuing.