Melania's silent revolt
Could the US first lady become a figure of inspiration for women, wonders David Usborne
Melania Trump has much to be thankful for. A Slovenian model who landed her first gigs in the United States barely 20 years ago and only became a green-card holder in 2001, she now lives in the world's most recognisable mansion with the world's most powerful man. She's rich, she's beautiful, she has a handsome young son and an array of homes to go to at weekends.
She is most fond of Mar-a-Lago, the 126-room villa once owned by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in South Florida. We knew this two weekends ago when she was meant to join her husband, Donald Trump, on his brief trip to Davos, Switzerland. Most of us would leap at the chance, particularly since travel was by private 747. But no. She went to the villa instead.
Maybe she doesn't like the cold. But her demurring made us wonder. Was there some kind of marital beef between her and the President? Or was this a signal that actually she wasn't going to be playing by the old rules any more. No more traipsing along with POTUS wherever he goes. No more pandering to the expectations associated with the role of America's first lady - FLOTUS.
The tensions-in-the-bedroom theory was instantly more popular. The confirmation from the First Lady's office of her intention to skip Davos came on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report about the President allegedly paying $130,000 (£92,000) to a dirty films actress named Stormy Daniels in return for her staying silent about an affair they had purportedly had a decade before. The paper said that transaction occurred just weeks before the presidential election in November 2016.
The lawyer, Michael Cohen, denied the two had ever had a sexual encounter. But the Washington Post said it had two sources confirming that the First Lady had felt "blindsided" by the report and was "furious" with the President.
Remarkably, the Stormy Daniels story hasn't consumed political discourse in Washington in the way you'd expect. Such is the fraught nature of this presidency: pitch one more hand-grenade in a bathtub full of them and no one takes much notice. And this isn't just a tabloid-titillation deal. Were such a sum indeed paid to suppress a story that might have altered the course of the election, that could be deemed illegal.
It is not inconceivable, in fact, that Robert Mueller, the special investigator, may add this to his already long list of matters he considers worthy of his attention. It has nothing to do with colluding with Russia, but Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with the Whitewater land deals, which were the starting point of Kenneth Starr's probe of Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
But if it hasn't triggered an earthquake, the Stormy affair hasn't gone away either. In Touch, a tabloid magazine, followed the Journal by releasing an interview it conducted with Daniels in 2011 offering more details of the purported relationship. Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of Slate, offered his own corroboration of the outlines of the Journal report, based on interviews he did with Daniels in 2016.
At times, the story has erred into the comical. Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, has recounted Trump allegedly sharing with her a special hatred for sharks. That triggered a surge of donations to shark research groups across the United States. One anonymous donor just sent a $2,500 donation to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy to name a shark after Special Counsel Mueller. And there was this tidbit: Trump once asked Daniels to spank him with a rolled-up copy of Forbes magazine. We also learned from Stormy that Trump did not use a condom and that when she enquired about Melania, he replied: "Oh, don't worry about her."
There has also been the denial, non-denial pantomime. Oh yes they did. Oh no they didn't. On the day of the State of the Union, Daniels released a statement apparently meant to knock the story dead.
With her own signature attached, it said: "I am not denying this affair because I was paid 'hush money' as has been reported in overseas-owned tabloids. I am denying this affair because it never happened."
But then on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that night she said she didn't know where the statement had come from and that the signature didn't look like hers.
You begin to see why every late-night show in the land has been in Stormy heaven. The First Lady has been giving them fodder too. While she did attend her husband's State of the Union last Tuesday, she travelled to Capitol Hill in a separate limo. No first lady has ever done that. When he included a line in his speech about the importance of faith and family, she remained seated while everyone around her stood up. There was even chatter about the white Dior pantsuit she wore. It looked a lot like outfits favoured by Hillary Clinton at key moments in her presidential campaign. Dressing like Hillary would surely get Donald's attention.
It's dangerous to guess at other people's marriages. But it's safe to say that life for Melania Trump, despite all the privileges, is a lonely one. She can't seek solace from the former-first-ladies club because they - Hillary, Laura, Michelle - won't let her in. She isn't finding it from her husband either. And we know also she never wanted the job of first lady in the first place.
But just maybe, her anger and isolation will mean that more than any of her predecessors, Trump will be able to update and modernise the business of being first lady, from slavish subjugation to spouse and office to confident, if occasionally rebellious independence. It will be tricky. The relationship with her husband must be repaired and so too her relationship with the country. But get it right and she could go from figure of fun to figure of inspiration.
The one-time supermodel from Slovenia could even end up making Eleanor Roosevelt proud.