Last week, Melania Trump managed to avert a potential P.R. disaster by contracting Covid-19. On Thursday, CNN released audio secretly recorded by Melania’s former friend and adviser Stephanie Wolkoff, in which the first lady complained about her treatment by the media; claimed that immigrant children lied in order to gain asylum; and griped, maybe fairly, that decorating the White House for Christmas was bullshit. The story received some early pickup but was soon swallowed by the news that the first couple had both tested positive for the virus.
While the president spent a whirlwind weekend enacting increasingly bizarre and dangerous performances meant to demonstrate his apparent rugged health, from Walter Reed Hospital, Melania convalesced quietly at the White House. She was, as chief of staff Stephanie Grisham told USA Today earlier this week, “doing well in the residence and had stayed in contact with the president by phone.” In the days since, we’ve witnessed a familiar cycle of coverage that positions her as a foil to the president—a first lady making responsible choices in contrast to her husband’s recklessness.
Melania has a committed right-wing fan base, but as Vox’s Anna North recently wrote, she has also always enjoyed a certain degree of sympathy from liberals who have clung to the fantasy that she’s simply a hostage of her evil husband. While the “Free Melania” mania cooled a bit after her “I really don’t care” jacket incident, more recently she’s enjoyed some positive press for (sometimes) donning a mask while her husband has railed against them and for choosing to confine herself to the White House. “Melania is aware of the dangers of Covid-19,” a White House source told CNN. “Potentially exposing others is not a risk she would take.” But her bare-minimum response to the coronavirus—wearing a mask, staying isolated after testing positive—doesn’t offset her complicity in an administration that’s consistently downplayed the pandemic, botched wide-scale testing early on, and attempted to bully states into rash reopenings.
She’s also, as it happens, able to self-isolate in five-star accommodations. As Town and Country noted earlier this week, the Trumps have the option of spending their quarantine in a “picturesque solarium” in the White House. “It’s this beautiful big room overlooking the south lawn, and it’s very open and airy and has beautiful views of the Washington Monument,” author Kate Andersen Brower told the magazine. Meanwhile, a second stimulus bill containing extended eviction protections for the rest of America continues to idle in Congress, and Trump has said that his administration won’t negotiate further on a new stimulus until after the election.
The Trumps’ dual Covid-19 recoveries—and, in fact, the entire outbreak among the extended Trump camp—demonstrate the absurd disconnect between the people in charge of the coronavirus response and those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Trump, of course, received top-notch medical care and experimental treatments unavailable to nearly anyone else (not least of all the 12 million people who may have lost health insurance during the pandemic), and so naturally tweeted upon his discharge, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who had gone maskless during a number of press events, announced that she had tested positive, called herself an “essential worker,” and vowed, “I will begin the quarantine process and will continue working on behalf of the American People remotely.” When millions of other people with white-collar jobs have been working remotely for over half a year—and actual essential workers have been in harm’s way over the same period—it’s difficult to find the decision particularly commendable.
The point isn’t that Melania or anyone else in the Trump camp should be ejected from a luxury convalescence but, rather, that their cushy recoveries offer an instructive look at just how few resources most Americans have when it comes to weathering Covid-19. On the same day that Melania went into isolation, the Labor Department released a jobs report that showed that some 800,000 women had dropped out of the workforce, likely as a result of increased caregiving obligations during lockdowns and the persistent wage gap. “Throughout the year, there have been signs of women buckling under the burden of unpaid labor while juggling full-time jobs,” The New York Times reported. Add to that the millions of people still trying to navigate unemployment, struggling to pay utility bills, or working unsafe frontline jobs, and the president’s triumphant “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” sounds almost as if he’s trying to tank his own reelection.
And Melania, despite some tepid attempts at tact, is unwilling to offer anything more substantial than “prayers” to less fortunate Covid patients. It would be one thing if the Trumps attempted to leverage their highly irregular pandemic experiences to generate support for universal health care, guaranteed housing, or national paid leave policies. But in the absence of that, when Melania recently tweeted “Please be sure you are staying safe & we will all get through this together,” it hardly seemed possible that she was addressing anyone outside of the other members of the Trump camp. We’ve heard how she talks when she thinks the public isn’t listening, after all.