BERWYN, Pa. ― Melania Trump returned from political exile on Thursday by making a rather eyebrow-raising claim: as first lady, she would combat bullying. That anti-bullying campaign, however, likely wouldn’t extend to her husband.
“Our culture has gotten too mean and too violent,” the wife of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told a crowd here in the suburbs of Philadelphia. “It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground and it is unacceptable when it’s done by someone with no name hiding on the internet.”
Melania Trump has kept a low profile since it was revealed that parts of her 2016 Republican National Convention address were lifted from Michelle Obama’s address to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Since that time, Trump, who was regularly by her husband’s side during the Republican primary, has been largely absent.
Her absence made the peculiar focus of her address all the more perplexing. Her husband has become infamous for his bullying ― both online and in person ― of virtually anyone who appears to oppose him. In fact, the National Education Association recently began a campaign to raise awareness of a “Trump effect,” in which children feel emboldened by the candidate’s behavior to engage in bullying.
“We’ve seen this already,” Melania Trump said Thursday. “As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies.” (This very week, a social media campaign, #ImWithTur, has sprung up as a defense of NBC News reporter Katy Tur, whom the Republican nominee singled out for mockery during a speech in Miami on Wednesday.)
Trump also bemoaned that children are often picked on for their “looks or intelligence” ― even though her husband frequently attacks people based on those characteristics. Indeed, in addition to his regular comments about others’ appearances, including broadcasting demeaning things about an opponent’s spouse, he once joked about a nearby child: “I’ll be dating her in 10 years. Can you believe it?”
Earlier, it appeared that Trump would perhaps address both her husband’s behavior and the numerous accusations of sexual misconduct made against him.
During the invocation before the address, Gwenne Alexander, head of Chester County Action, a local Christian organization, beseeched God to grant the crowd and the campaign “the kind of grace you showed to David, who was an adulterer and a murderer.”
It was a remarkable and politically tantalizing prayer, suggesting Trump intended to discuss her own husband’s sexual misconduct, which, by his own admission, includes assault. Indeed, the campaign’s description of the event as one where Trump would discuss “family, her marriage, the campaign experience and the goals she has as First Lady” only served to fuel such speculation.
However, the speech stuck to the boilerplate remarks common to addresses from the spouses of far less controversial politicians. Trump discussed her childhood in her native Slovenia and her rise through the world of modeling and fashion, and praised her husband for being a “fighter” and for being “concerned” about America’s economy.
“He certainly knows how to shake things up, doesn’t he?” Trump asked, which elicited laughter from the crowd.
The Trump campaign seemed interested in little more than reintroducing Melania Trump to the public. When The Huffington Post asked campaign manager Kellyanne Conway whether Trump would address the accusations against her husband, Conway replied that “the nice thing about the First Amendment is you can ask rude questions,” and moved on to inquiries from other reporters.
Attendees at Thursday’s rally seemed to share Conway’s disinterest in the subject, focusing instead on their admiration of the GOP nominee’s wife and displeasure with Obama’s tenure as first lady.
“I don’t think she should make a big deal out of it,” said Patrick McFadden of Chester Heights, Pennsylvania, of the Republican nominee’s claims about sexual assault and the accusations against him. “I think her being here today says a whole lot.”
“I think she’s going to bring a class and dignity that we haven’t seen in the last eight years,” McFadden added. “She comes off to me as very honest and very sincere.”
“She has poise, she has dignity,” contended April from Philadelphia, who asked that her last name not be published. “One of the things I feel we’re missing in the White House right now is a sense of respect for the office.”
“Anybody who would invite Beyoncé and an ex-crack dealer doesn’t deserve to be first lady,” April added, a reference to the regular appearances at the White House by the R&B singer and her husband, rapper Jay Z, who has incorporated his time dealing drugs as a youth into much of his work.
Attendees were also quick to dismiss the controversy surrounding the plagiarized sections of Trump’s address to the RNC.
“Seriously?” exclaimed Jeff Richardson from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “Like, that was an original thought by Michelle Obama? It’s not a big deal.”
Anna Peron, of Berwyn, said that Trump has shown “tremendous grace under pressure” amid the various controversies.
“I think she’s a class act,” Peron said. “I think she’s shown hard work, grit and perseverance.”
Huffington Post reporter Eliot Nelson’s book, The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing and Sometimes Hilarious Government, is out now.