Melania Trump's RNC Speech, in Controversial Setting, Acknowledges COVID-19 & 'Reality' of Racial Unrest
In a lengthy address, the first lady talked about the pandemic's death toll (recently brushed off by her husband) as well as social media, the scourge of drug addiction and more
In a Tuesday night appearance in which she praised husband Donald Trump as “what is best for our country” — a familiar refrain at this week’s Republican National Convention — First Lady Melania Trump also talked of the shadow of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and the “harsh reality” of centuries of racial strife.
It what is almost certainly her longest-ever speech, Mrs. Trump at times seemed to try to wrap together the “unforgettable” preceding three-and-a-half years along with a message for the future and a slew of talking points in support of her husband.
While the RNC has largely been focused on decrying what America would become under Democratic rival Joe Biden, the first lady, 50, said she was avoiding “attacking the other side.”
And in a convention that often referred to the pandemic in terms of what the president believed he did right and the recent protests in terms of what protesters did wrong, Mrs. Trump had another message.
It was, in short, a zigzagging address. (And one, more cynical observers were quick to note, partially designed to provide a beating heart for any slice of the much-needed swing vote ahead of November's election — as the president says "it is what it is" about pandemic deaths)
Even the setting carried subtext: Mrs. Trump, whose 2016 RNC speech imploded because parts of it plagiarized Michelle Obama, spoke Tuesday night from the newly renovated White House Rose Garden, with the president in the front row.
Once the White House was chosen for their RNC appearances, critics and legal experts took umbrage at the use of government property for political purposes, saying it appeared to violate a federal statute and showed "breathtaking ... contempt for the law." (The administration reportedly disputes this.)
Mrs. Trump — who aides insist is unfazed by public perception; and who even as she spoke was being memed on social media for her olive-green, militaristic outfit — appeared in the garden nonetheless.
The same first lady who has alternately been slammed as an out-of-touch hypocrite (infamously wearing an “I Really Don’t Care” jacket to visit detained migrant children) and an enabler to the worst of her husband's policies on Tuesday spoke at length about the people she had met while in office.
Kids dying from disease, families waiting for service-members to return from war and other parents like her.
"After many of the experiences I have had, I don’t know if I can fully explain how many people I take home with me in my heart each day," she said, "from brave soldiers who give up so much so we can be free to children of all circumstances who we have met around the world."
While she touted the administration’s response to the novel coronavirus, which has been widely criticized, Mrs. Trump also addressed people feeling “anxious” and “helpless” and said, “You are not alone.”
Conspicuously, she refrained from referring to the coronavirus or its disease with the racist term “China virus,” which the president prefers.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically,” she said. “The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us. My deepest sympathy goes out to all of you who have lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering.”
"Americans have come together in such an unfamiliar and often frightening situation," she said, praising healthcare and front-line workers and teachers. (As she spoke, the attendees in the Rose Garden neither wore masks nor were socially distanced, though people in contact with the president are tested.)
While the first lady cited the number of women working in the White House and spoke of “how proud I would be to cast my vote again for Donald this November” in reflecting on the anniversary of women’s suffrage — and argued her husband has “worked to try and effect change when it comes to issues around race and religion” — she also spoke of learning about the slave trade on a trip to Ghana.
She did not mention George Floyd or the national demonstrations against injustice after he was killed in May. But, in an unusual break from the rhetoric of her husband, she said:
“It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past. You must remember that today we are all one community, comprised of many races, religions and ethnicities. Our diverse and storied history is what makes our country strong, and yes, we still have so much to learn from one another.”
Then she added, in another swerve characteristic of her remarks:
“With that in mind, I would like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause and look at things from all perspectives. I urge people to come together in a civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals. I also ask people to stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice. And never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin. Instead of tearing things down, let’s reflect on our mistakes. Be proud of our evolution and look to a way forward.”
The first lady also spoke about her "Be Best" initiative — seen as fodder by critics, given its focus on anti-bullying even as the president has mocked numerous people online, including teenagers.
Any response to that was implicit as Mrs. Trump said, "Through 'Be Best,' my office and I have been able to highlight people, programs, and organizations doing extraordinary things in our country and around the world. ... Helping children is not a political goal, it is our moral imperative."
"In the next four years as first lady, I will continue to build upon 'Be Best' and work with individual states to pass legislation to take care of our most vulnerable," she said.
"We all know Donald Trump makes no secret about how he feels about things," she said. "Total honestly is what we as citizens deserve from our president. Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking."
In one of a few direct addresses to the camera, the first lady spoke of the toll of drug addiction — with another whiff of subtext.
"When so often the headlines are filled with gossip, I want to take this moment to encourage the media to focus even more on the nation’s drug crisis. This disease is one that affects everybody," she said, continuing: "If you are struggling with addiction, there is no shame in your illness. Please seek help. You are worth it."
She spoke, too, of her time as a mother, linking her experience to "Be Best"'s work around social media and children.
"Like every parent in the country, I feel there are so many lessons to teach our sons and responsibilities as his mother, there are just not enough hours in the day to do it all. I remind myself that I am more fortunate than most and still have days I look forward to with strength to do the very best I can for him," she said, referring to 14-year-old Barron.
Nearly four years ago, she said, Election Day dawned with the Trumps as underdogs. Now they are incumbents.
As she concluded her 26-minute speech, Mrs. Trump waited for her husband to approach for a kiss and then they walked hand-in-hand back into the White House.