Ever since Melania Trump walked into the White House, the world has been waiting for her to go rogue.
How could she stick it, we wondered – not just the endless stories about his wandering hands, but all the immigrant-bashing stuff when she’s originally from Slovenia herself. There were a lot of grim jokes about her trademark glassy-eyed expression in public and whether she was silently trying to signal for help. Blink twice, Melania, if you want rescuing!
So, it’s tempting to read news that the First Lady “hates to see” thousands of children being forcibly separated from their immigrant parents at borders and held in temporary shelters – which is, of course, a direct result of her husband’s policies – as evidence she’s finally turned. Her words are being seen around the world as criticism of a sitting president by his wife, especially as the First Lady has been absent from the public eye recently. (She’s had a kidney operation, from which she’s obviously been convalescing, but her disappearance also coincided with the embarrassing aftermath of porn star Stormy Daniels’ claims to have had a historic affair with her husband.)
Yet, focusing on the marital soap opera in the White House, gripping as it might be, misses the point about a policy that has led to heartbreaking stories of parents handing their small children over to officials only to be told they won’t be coming back while the parents are detained pending assessment of any claim to asylum. In just six weeks of Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy, 2,000 children have either been effectively interned in shelters or put into foster care, and 100 of those children are under four. Heartbreaking stories of toddlers weeping inconsolably for their parents are being beamed into American TV viewers’ homes every night. When an issue is this controversial, a spokeswoman for the First Lady doesn't just put out a public statement describing her views (which is how they first emerged) without the president’s staff knowing or approving.
This is a president who deliberately fanned the flames of hatred during his campaign, who exaggerated the limits of what was possible, who pretended that controlling immigration from Mexico was a cinch
So, if Melania’s out there publicly saying she hates what’s happening, then the White House is allowing that for a reason. And the obvious one is that her husband’s trying to have this both ways – to please his fanbase and deter immigrants, introducing a policy that even former president George W Bush’s wife Laura Bush has called “cruel” and “immoral”, all while distancing himself from it. For the Trump line is that he doesn’t like doing this any more than anyone else and that somehow it’s all someone else’s – pretty much anyone else's – fault.
Maybe it’s a previous administration's fault for passing laws under which family separation is possible (although previous administrations haven't used it like this). Or it's the Democrats’ fault for not agreeing to pay for the wall he wants to build on the Mexican border, or the fault of immigrant parents themselves for coming to America in the first place. It’s everyone’s fault, in short, except the man who got elected by openly boasting about how tough he’d be on immigrants and is now duly delivering while simultaneously pretending that the inevitable consequences are nothing to do with him. Even his own wife hates it! And what sort of man does something his own wife hates, eh? To which the answer should, of course, have been obvious even before Stormy Daniels' claims became public knowledge.
This is a president who deliberately fanned the flames of hatred during his campaign, who exaggerated the limits of what was possible, who pretended that controlling immigration from Mexico was a cinch but whose first reaction when building a wall turns out to be more complicated than it looked is to hide behind someone else. Melania hasn’t gone rogue. It’s her husband who has trampled through politics like a bull through a china shop, breaking all the rules of responsible policymaking (like the one about not using small children as bargaining chips to get what you want out of Congress). And it’s squarely on him, when they turn out to have existed for a reason.