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Solitary Confinement: Seriously, Where—and Who—Is Melania Trump?

The “missing” first lady conspiracy theory raises fascinating questions about the nature of her role in society and this administration

Melania Trump’s face on a missing person flyer Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For three weeks, Melania Trump—seemingly—disappeared. The first lady’s last public appearance was on May 10, when she and the president welcomed three U.S. hostages, freed from North Korea, at Andrews Air Force Base. Reportedly, she was hospitalized shortly thereafter to undergo surgical treatment for “a benign kidney condition.” Melania Trump’s expected recovery time was a few days. It’s been 25 days since she made a regular public appearance, though she did appear at a closed-press White House event Monday afternoon.

After May 10, Melania Trump’s brief medical leave became a longer, inexplicable reclusiveness. On Wednesday, the first lady sought to dispel the speculation about her whereabouts with a startlingly uncharacteristic tweet. “I see the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I’m doing,” she wrote. “Rest assured, I’m here at the @WhiteHouse w my family, feeling great, & working hard on behalf of children & the American people!” The statement reads rather conspicuously like a @realDonaldTrump tweet; and so it reads like a cover-up. The first lady’s five other tweets published between May 10 and June 4 read like generic press copy. “Not that this will deter the conspiracy theorists,” CNBC correspondent Eamon Javers reported May 30, “but I saw the First Lady walking with her aides in the West Wing yesterday afternoon.” Indeed, the confirmation from Javers did little to dampen concerns and speculation about Melania Trump over the weekend. On Sunday, the celebrity gossip website Hollywood Life reported growing concern among Melania Trump’s closest friends and associates. “Nobody has heard from Melania over these past few weeks, and her cell phone has been switched off,” one anonymous “source close to Melania” told Hollywood Life. “To have radio silence for this long is just strange, something is going on, but nobody knows what, it’s definitely concerning.” Within hours of the report’s publication, the White House confirmed that the first lady would avoid this week’s G7 conference in Quebec, which she was previously expected to attend.

The first lady is an odd, unsalaried public figure with great ceremonial significance but no real, defined job. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first presidential spouse to engage with reporters independently; she hosted women-only press conferences where she discussed the administration’s agenda and other, prevailing political concerns. In the century since FDR’s presidency, the first lady has scrambled the distinction between a purely ceremonial role and a quasi-political appointment. Hillary Clinton was an aspiring politician in her own right, and so her relationship with the press was constructive, if also contentious. If Clinton was an activist, then Melania Trump is a wallflower. Rumor had it that Melania Trump intended to remain in New York with her son Barron—the youngest of Donald Trump’s children—while the president governed from Washington, D.C. She succumbed to the tacit understandings that would compel her and Barron to reside at the White House, alongside the president. Thus, Melania Trump lives according to the rebellious dictum: I’m just here so I don’t get fined.

Melania Trump is inaccessible. She’s enigmatic. Her soul seems to hide behind her wide sunglasses, which she wears year-round.

The first lady is the only Trump family member who speaks and behaves with a prevailing commitment to self-discipline instead of self-promotion; her position is precarious, her role too constrained to speak (or leak) to the press as heedlessly, and selfishly, as her stepchildren and her son-in-law do. And yet, her peaceable, cooperative demeanor is more so alarming than relaxing; her observers always seem to be wondering what, exactly, her great escape plan might be. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, his critics have speculated—mischievously—about whether Melania Trump was at some point replaced with a body double, her authenticity obscured by her reserved demeanor and the aforementioned sunglasses. In public appearances, Donald and Melania’s awkward interactions have only further underscored the first lady’s apparent discomfort within the presidential context. At a press event in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump referred to his wife in the distant third person, implying her absence from the stage, as if she weren’t standing directly beside him. Seemingly, Melania Trump is always in this position—speaking, appearing, but never fully registering. Thus, the discourse dehumanizes the first lady to a surreal degree, abstracting her individuality and discounting her agency, rendering her as a smiling cyborg or some other inscrutable agent of uncertain motives and origins. Her personality is no personality. Her agenda is silence. In the popular imagination, her primary role is captive. Hence, her disappearance from public view doesn’t suggest a vacation; it suggests solitary confinement, or worse.

Melania Trump’s disappearance underscored so many different manners of dysfunction in the Trump administration’s relationship with the press. The first lady’s absence wasn’t as worrisome, per se, as the White House’s strange, hostile communications about her well-being. The misdirection invigorates the great, bipartisan pastime of the Trump era—fantastical conspiracy-mongering. Melania Trump has already appeared at a photo-documented White House event and soon, she will step unambiguously into public view. Yet she will remain as unknowable, and untraceable, as she’s always seemed, even as she stands behind mirrored aviator lenses, right before our very eyes.