The “Melania Tapes” are the controversy that never was

The “Melania Tapes” are the controversy that never was
Source: Carlos Barria, Reuters
The various recorded comments reveal the first lady’s frustration with her role in the White House and the criticism she has received for being “complicit” in Trump’s administration.

On October 1, CNN released secret recordings that briefly appeared as if they could damage President Donald Trump and the first lady. Two days later, those recordings were barely in the news. The recordings are of Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, and they were made by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Melania’s former friend and adviser.

On the same night “the Melania Tapes” were released, the president confirmed on Twitter that he and the first lady had COVID-19. News agencies have continued to report on the trickle of information from the recordings, but the story – and any potential fallout for Melania – has been all but subsumed by the coverage of Trump’s health.

What is in the Melanie Tapes?

Wolkoff’s tell-all memoir, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady,” was published on September 1. In it, the New York socialite details her time as a friend and close confidant of Melania. Wolkoff’s book is just one of roughly a dozen books written by former friends and colleagues in the four years of Trump’s first term.

Wolkoff’s memoir is unique in that it focuses on her relationship with the first lady instead of the president. In promoting the book, Wolkoff appeared on the October 1 episode of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” It was while on the show that she revealed secret recordings of Melania that Wolkoff made in 2018, after she no longer worked in the White House.

The various recorded comments reveal the first lady’s frustration with her role in the White House and the criticism she has received for being “complicit” in Trump’s administration. She also appears annoyed by her expected duties.

“I’m working … my ass off on the Christmas stuff,” she is heard saying in one of the recordings CNN played. “Who gives a fuck about the Christmas stuff and decorations? But I need to do it, right?”

The recordings also show that Melanie feels she is being unfairly criticized by the “liberal media,” especially as it relates to the immigrant children at the border.

“I say that I’m working on Christmas and planning for the Christmas, and they said, ‘Oh, what about the children that they were separated?’ Give me a fucking break. Where they were saying anything when Obama did that?”

Discussing the immigrant children in ICE facilities in the United States, Melanie states, “The kids, they say, ‘Wow I will have my own bed? I will sleep on the bed? I will have a cabinet for my clothes?’ It’s so sad to hear it, but they didn’t have that in their own countries, they sleep on the floor. They are taken care of nicely there. But you know, yeah, they are not with parents, it’s sad. But when they come here alone or with coyotes or illegally, you know, you need to do something.”

Out of the news

In the days since the original CNN report on the Melania recordings, the story has continued to unfold. More recordings have come out with the first lady discussing a range of topics, including Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford), the porn star Trump is alleged to have had an affair with while married to Melania. Melania refers to Daniels as “the porn hooker” in the recordings.

Nonetheless, the story has not achieved the viral bump that other Trump-related stories have, including one incident in 2018 in which the first lady wore the infamous “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket when visiting the US/Mexico border (a topic discussed in the Wolkoff tapes).

There have been a smattering of negative headlines, such as The Cut’s “Melania Hates Christmas,” but for the most part, media attention has been elsewhere. The airtime and media discussion has been almost entirely taken up with Trump being diagnosed with COVID-19 and his rapid (but questionable) recovery.

Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has not only largely overshadowed the Melania tapes (as well as Melania’s own illness), but it has all but pushed The New York Times bombshell tax story out of the news too. On September 27, the Times reported that Trump had paid little-to-no taxes over the previous two decades, including only US$750 in his first year as president.

With the Times saying it has more Trump tax information yet to be released, the story could possibly still be damaging for the president leading into next month’s election. But it remains to be seen if Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis will allow any air for other stories to breathe.

It also isn’t clear yet if Melania will face any backlash for her recorded comments, but she has generally enjoyed greater favorability than her husband. Following her speech at the Republican National Convention, Melania’s approval ratings in Gallup polling were 47%, the same rating she had received in April. However, her disapproval ratings had increased to 43%.

The Bob Woodward recordings

In many ways, the Melania recordings resemble the Bob Woodward recordings that were released last month. In early September, renowned American journalist Woodward released recordings of exclusive interviews with the president, which were conducted for the journalist’s latest book, “Rage.”

In the recordings, from 18 interviews from December 2019 to July 2020, Trump admits to downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. One of the most oft-quoted portion is from March 2020 in which Trump discusses his public approach to COVID-19: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In defending his comments, Trump has doubled down on his insistence that it was merely to keep people from panicking. At the same time however, Trump was telling supporters at his rallies that the coronavirus wasn’t any more dangerous than the flu, even after admitting to Woodward in February, “It’s also more deadly than … even your strenuous flus.”

Though the Woodward recordings received considerably more airtime than the Melania tapes have, there is little evidence they hurt Trump, even as he himself has been diagnosed with COVID-19. His approval ratings have improved throughout the month of September and the first week of October, while his disapproval ratings have steadily declined since July.

Teflon Don?

Trump has repeatedly been called “the Teflon president,” in reference to the way bad news just doesn’t appear to stick to him. Since Trump first launched his campaign in 2015, the press has routinely speculated that various public remarks or uncovered secrets could sink his campaign or presidency. So far, those predictions have yet to come to fruition.

Wednesday, October 7 was the four-year anniversary of The Washington Post’s publication of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which Trump can be heard bragging of kissing and fondling women without consent. It briefly appeared as if that report, almost exactly a month before the election, would end his campaign.

More recently, while Trump was facing his impeachment trial in the Senate, a video was released of him discussing the forced removal of US Ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch. Prior to the video’s release, Trump had denied having any part in her removal, yet the recording showed him discussing the matter with Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Yovanovitch’s testified in the House impeachment hearings that Trump had undermined her work in Ukraine for his personal political gain. Her testimony was a major piece of evidence leading to the vote to impeach the president. Despite the video providing evidence that supported Yovanovitch’s version of events, though, Trump was acquitted by the Senate.

Trump acknowledged his apparent untouchability during the 2016 campaign when he famously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Gallup polling throughout Trump’s presidency suggests there is some truth to that: despite being impeached and multiple scandals, his approval has averaged 41%, never dropping below 35%. While average approval ratings for past presidents have all been higher than Trump’s average, many presidents, including George W. Bush, have had their approval ratings dip well below 35%.

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