Melania Trump expressed sympathy to the Americans who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledging the grim toll of a public health crisis the president has failed to contain during a keynote address on the second night of the Republican convention.
Speaking from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, the first lady offered her condolences to the loved ones of the more than 178,000 Americans who have now died from the virus and the millions more who have been infected, casting her husband as the nation’s best hope to move past this grave chapter, despite widespread criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed dramatically,” she said, before an audience seated, without regard for social distancing, in folding chairs, her husband in the front row applauding. Almost no one in attendance wore a mask.
“I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless,” she continued. “I want you to know, you are not alone. My husband’s administration will not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment for a vaccine available to everyone. Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted in this pandemic.”
Her remarks were a jarring reminder of the trauma and turmoil still ravaging the nation, after an evening of misleading testimonials that sought to minimize, rewrite or entirely overlook the public health crisis. At one point, the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, referred to the ongoing pandemic using the past tense.
Tuesday evening’s address was a rare public appearance for Melania Trump, who is only the second foreign-born first lady in US history. In her remarks, she recalled growing up in Slovenia and dreaming of becoming a US citizen, a theme that was punctuated earlier in the evening when her husband oversaw a naturalization ceremony for several immigrants in the middle of the prime-time program.
Melania Trump made a dramatic entrance for her speech, which concluded the second night of a norm-shattering convention dominated by members of the Trump family and his administration. She walked alone from the White House colonnade to a podium staged in the Rose Garden she recently renovated. The decision to use the White House as a backdrop for an expressly political event has drawn sharp criticism from ethics experts and Democrats.
During her remarks, she reflected on the national unrest over racial injustice and policing, which has flared again after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man whose attorney said he was paralyzed after being struck multiple times.
“Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country,” she said, after recalling an official visit to a slave port in Ghana as first lady. “It’s 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.”
In a sharp break from the angry, grievance-riddled remarks delivered by Trump’s children on Tuesday, Melania was reserved as she sought to soften her husband’s appeal and cast him as a leader committed to improving race relations, as polling shows him trailing Joe Biden with just 10 weeks left until election day.
“My husband’s administration has worked to try and effect change around race and religion in this country,” she said.
Yet her attempts to reframe Trump’s rhetoric on race and immigration are complicated by her own history on the issues. In the past, Melania Trump defended her husband’s racist claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, saying in a 2011 interview that the American people deserve to see his birth certificate. In another shocking episode, she wore a jacket that said “I really don’t care, do you?” as she boarded a flight to visit a migrant child detention center.
In her remarks, Melania admonished the news media for focusing on “gossip”, a comment that came hours after it was reported that she had made “disparaging remarks” about her husband and his adult children that will be published in a forthcoming book written by a former confidante of the first lady.
She also lamented online bullying and the downside of technology, the focus of her Be Best campaign as first lady. Her initiative has sparked criticism for ignoring her husband’s own conduct on social media, which includes attacking a teenage climate activist and telling four congresswomen of color – all Americans – to go back to their countries.
In a similar fashion, on Tuesday, Melania Trump said she would not use her remarks to assail her husband’s political opponents, blaming Democrats for a divisive convention last week. Yet she made no reference to the dark and apocalyptic vision laid out by Republicans on the first night of their convention, which had been billed as an upbeat affair.
“That kind of talk only serves to divide the country further,” she said of the Democrats’ attacks.
There were also a few misleading statements in her remarks, including that Trump was the first president to discuss the importance of religious freedom at the United Nations. Barack Obama had spoken on the topic, as had other presidents before him.
She also claimed that the number of high-ranking women in Trump’s administration was “unprecedented”. In fact, the percentage of women appointed by Trump to key executive positions is lower than that of Obama or Bill Clinton, according to media analyses.
The speech marked a dramatic turn from her first Republican national convention appearance four years ago, when she repeated exact phrases and themes from a speech delivered by Michelle Obama, at the time the first lady, at a previous Democratic convention. A speechwriter for the Trump Organization took the blame.
Making the case for her husband’s re-election, Melania Trump said her husband was “an authentic person” who “wants nothing more than for this country to prosper”.
With a smile, she added: “As you have learned over the past five years, he is not a traditional politician.”