MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The hand swat seen around the world – that is how journalist Kate Bennett describes the moment in 2017 when Donald Trump reached for his wife’s hand and she was having none of it, slapped his hand away with the TV cameras rolling on the tarmac in Tel Aviv. Now, that hand swat prompted all kinds of questions about Melania Trump, about the state of their marriage, about a moment of very public defiance from a very private woman.
Kate Bennett takes on those questions in her new biography of the first lady. It is titled “Free, Melania.” Kate Bennett, great to see you.
KATE BENNETT: It’s good to see you.
KELLY: So that hand swat – let’s just start there. You argue that it matters because Melania Trump is not only the only person on the planet who could swat his hand away and get away with it; she’s the only one who can say what she thinks to his face. Does she?
BENNETT: Absolutely. You know, I think it’s a misperception about Melania Trump that she’s sort of quiet, and in repose we see her with those sunglasses. And she’s often, you know, relatively silent. But behind the scenes, she is one of the president’s most vocal advisers.
KELLY: Really? I mean, I guess I am surprised to hear that because we do not hear her voice that often on the record. How does that conversation play out?
BENNETT: They speak on the phone several times a day. I think that she is his eyes and ears outside of Fox News. She’s been involved in the immigration discussion. She’s been involved, obviously, in the opioid crisis happening in the country. I think she’s way more forthright with him than anyone else because she can be.
KELLY: Stay with immigration for a second, because this is an issue I have been curious about – how she reconciles her husband’s views on immigration with her own life story. We’ve heard the president, for example, slam what he refers to as chain migration. Melania Trump brought her parents over and her sister over from Slovenia. This is what the president says has to end.
BENNETT: For the most part, gathering the few times she has talked about immigration, she’s very, you know, I follow the rules. I did what I was supposed to do. Everyone else should do the same. I think where she actively got involved was during the family separation issue in Texas and at the border and put together a very quick trip to see for herself. And that happened whether or not the president really wanted her to.
Of course, she ended up wearing a particular jacket on the plane down.
KELLY: The I-Really-Don’t-Care-Do-You jacket…
KELLY: …Which ended up stealing all the headlines from that trip. You were on that trip, right?
BENNETT: I was on that trip, exactly.
KELLY: Yeah. How do you know what Melania Trump’s views are? And she’s given one on-the-record gaggle.
BENNETT: Right. So covering Melania Trump is a difficult beat because her…
KELLY: We should say you’re the only member of the White House press corps who covers her full time as your focus. Go on.
BENNETT: Right. So it’s become my job to figure out her nonverbal clues, understand from a few sentences a deeper meaning, sort of looking into her past to understand her present.
KELLY: How much access do you get?
BENNETT: Well, I’m on every trip. Wherever she goes, I go. But in terms of access, this is a first lady who has only really done a couple of sit-down interviews. She is not a fan of the press. She’s wary of the press. She doesn’t feel it’s her responsibility or that she owes the public interviews. I think that she’s not interested at all in doing that.
KELLY: Another thing that I am deeply curious about is how she handles the reported infidelities, the multiple women who have come forward and made allegations – credible allegations – of sexual misconduct, that “Access Hollywood” tape. How does she deal with all that?
BENNETT: Not like most political spouses before her. I mean, we have not seen her sit on a couch and do a deep interview about her marriage to try to sort of put a Band-Aid on things the way we’ve seen other political spouses do it. You know, she canceled a trip to Switzerland. Her office told me it was because of scheduling, but it was certainly during that time. She took a separate motorcade, which was unheard of, from the White House to the Capitol for his State of the Union address.
I remember going to the news desk when I got that tip that she was going separately and saying, the first lady’s taking a separate motorcade to the Hill, and being told, no, no, no, Kate. They go together. They go together. I said, no, no, no. You’re not hearing me. She is taking a separate motorcade to the Hill.
KELLY: You argue in the book that she is in many ways an unlikely feminist. Is this part of what you were talking about? Make the case.
BENNETT: Yeah, I do think that. I think that in so many ways, first ladies are given this very antiquated role, this job that there’s no real description. There’s no salary. You’re expected to be this and also this, but not too much this, and maybe a little more of this. And I think Melania Trump has held true to who she really is.
Right from the bat, didn’t move to the White House. I mean, that was a jaw-dropper, and people right away took that as she doesn’t like him. She hates Washington. She doesn’t want to be first lady. But she just did it on her own terms. I think she could block out the noise.
In many ways, she’s a very traditional wife – extremely so. But in other ways, she’s really shown us that she has feelings, and, you know, right from that hand swat on the tarmac.
KELLY: Yeah. Let me take you back to the last presidential campaign, her big moment at the Republican National Convention 2016. She steps up to the podium.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MELANIA TRUMP: My parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise.
KELLY: It was a terrific speech, very well-received, big applause – Kate Bennett – except portions were almost verbatim from a speech that Michelle Obama had given eight years before. How does Melania Trump explain that?
BENNETT: Melania Trump, in that moment, really thought that she was giving an original speech and was devastated afterwards to learn, as the rest of us did, that the speech was plagiarized.
KELLY: And to be clear, you reported it out and you are confident that she thought this was original and this was a speechwriter who had inserted that.
BENNETT: A hundred percent. The speechwriter eventually sort of wrote a letter, mea culpa, saying that she had unintentionally put in Michelle Obama’s words and ended up being another series of headlines. And I think each time she sort of stepped forward on the campaign, something would step her back, whether it was the “Access Hollywood” tape or the nude photos of her that were released or the speech moment.
KELLY: Given all that, do we know if she wants to live through this again? Does she want her husband to get a second term?
BENNETT: Yes. I think the other surprising part about Melania Trump in covering her for three years and writing this book is that she really is quite happy where she is. She has learned to make the most of it. She…
KELLY: On what do you base that, if I might ask?
BENNETT: Well, you know, she’s engaged very fully in the staff, in the workings of the White House. She’s taken a real interest in restoration. And she redid parts of the Blue and Green rooms. She has redone the bowling alley. She’s very involved in the history and the historic nature and the responsibility that a first lady has to the people’s house.
You know, to think that she’s trapped somehow and in need of a rescue makes for a good meme. But if you speak to anyone who knows her and those around her, you just quickly realize that’s just not the case.
KELLY: Kate Bennett, CNN journalist and author of the new book “Free, Melania.” Kate Bennett, thank you.
BENNETT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, “BLOODLESS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.