Last Friday, President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron, 12, left the White House to board Marine One, the president’s helicopter.
As they departed, Melania smiled and waved at someone nearby.
The helicopter transported them to Andrews Air Force Base, where they boarded Air Force One for a trip to Georgia and then Alabama, where a pair of tornadoes had ripped up several communities and left 23 people dead.
When Trump walked off the presidential plane in Georgia, Melania was by his side.
They arrived in Alabama soon after and visited an informal memorial to those who had been lost.
For a brief moment, they stood side-by-side in silence.
And that moment kicked off a new round of one of the stupidest rumors to have emerged in a very stupid time.
You may recall a moment last October when conspiracy rumors spread on the Internet about Trump deploying a body double to stand in for Melania at an official event. It was a rumor started by a guy who sells hemp oil for a living and was quickly and easily debunked. Even setting aside the sheer dumbness of the idea that Trump would want or need to have an impostor at an event where the first lady’s presence was completely optional, the photos that were offered to prove that the attending Melania wasn’t the real Melania actually quite obviously showed that it was the real Melania.
That hemp guy, though, was clearly enthusiastic about his turn in the spotlight. So he seized upon a version of the photo above and made the same nonsensical claim.
“My Fake Melania conspiracy continues,” he wrote on Twitter. “The body double makes another appearance. I’m telling ya’ll, they are not telling us the truth.” In short order, he changed the name that appears on his tweets to a domain promoting his business — meaning that everyone who embedded his tweet into their stories about the fake Melania were effectively running in-line ads for the guy. He may make up nonsense, but he’s not stupid.
For some reason, ABC’s “The View” decided to run a whole segment on the rumor Monday. The tone was not one of simple dismissal.
Why? In part for the fun of it, obviously. But in part because several of the show’s hosts are obviously hostile to Trump, and the idea that he’d engage in some weird effort to hide Melania for undetermined reasons is appealing as a demonstration of Trump’s willingness to mislead the American public. That’s made possible, of course, by Trump’s actual willingness to mislead the public, as manifested most obviously in the untrue statements he makes on a near-hourly basis.
This new version of the rumor, too, is obviously false. The timeline above makes clear that the same woman who left the White House is the one who got on Marine One and then Air Force One and then went to Alabama. Where was this theoretical body double swapped in? Midflight from Maryland to Georgia? Does she wait upstairs at the White House until needed? And, most of all: Why? Why bother doing this?
You may tack on another question: Why are we talking about this now? And the answer is that Trump himself did Wednesday morning, in a distinctly Trump fashion.
There are several things happening here that bear mentioning.
The first is Trump’s conflation of talk shows and culture reporters covering the story as a lark with “fake news” broadly. It’s a nifty rhetorical trick that he deploys often: Any coverage of any sort that’s at all unflattering becomes evidence that the media broadly is out to get him. This is not a story that ran on the front page of The Washington Post after four reporters uncovered that a fake Melania was present in Alabama. It was “The View.” Granted, Trump often conflates Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” with hard news coverage, so it’s clear that the line is blurrier than it may seem.
The second thing that Trump does in the tweet is expand his allegations of what the media did wrong into the realm of falsehood. It’s not clear where the hemp guy’s photo of Melania came from, but there’s no obvious evidence that it was manipulated. (In a prior life I worked at Adobe and helped write the manual on Photoshop, so I think I know of what I speak.) Almost no one looks the same in every photo, especially when the person is surrounded by cameras every time she is out in public. Hemp Guy simply leveraged that inconsistency — twice — to go viral.
Where’d Trump get that detail? He appears to have heard about the story when it was covered Wednesday morning on “Fox and Friends.” The hosts and guest Tammy Bruce discussed the segment on “The View" and looped it into a broader critique of the left, but they don’t appear to have suggested the photo had been altered. (Bruce thought her appearance may have been different because Melania was emotional at the memorial.)
And Trump may well have made it up from whole cloth, simply to bolster his idea that the media is so deranged (as he and his followers like to say) that they’d intentionally make the first lady look different to reinforce this weird conspiracy theory.
And that’s the problem. Nothing the media can do short of outright obsequiousness will prevent Trump from offering critiques or stretching the truth to force one. But perhaps the media broadly, including light daytime talk-show fare, should ignore obviously nonsensical conspiracy theories fostered by people just trying to get attention.