"Where's Melania?": Missing wife is why Trump's lawyers can't pull off the "family man" defense

National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified that Trump's wife was the last thing on his mind

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 25, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former US President Donald Trump, arrives at the home of billionaire investor John Paulson, with former first lady Melania Trump, on April 6, 2024 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Alon Skuy/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former US President Donald Trump, arrives at the home of billionaire investor John Paulson, with former first lady Melania Trump, on April 6, 2024 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Alon Skuy/Getty Images)

In his opening statement in the People v. Donald Trump, defense attorney Todd Blanche told the Manhattan jury to gaze upon the criminal defendant and see a devoted family man. "He’s a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father," Blanche said of the former president accused of election interference. "He’s a person just like you and just like me." Hamfisted as it may be, it was a play by Blanche to distance his cranky, often sleepy client from what promised to be days, if not weeks, of testimony detailing a tawdry conspiracy to pay hush money to an adult film actress in order to cover up what sounds like rampant adultery. 

There are many obvious pitfalls in this effort to recast Trump in the image of a suburban sitcom dad. The biggest might be one very noticeable absence in the courtroom. As a reporter who was pointedly ignored by Trump asked on Tuesday: "Where's Melania?" 

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It's not just the failed fashion model-turned-Mrs. Trump #3 who hasn't shown up in support. None of Trump's five children, or their spouses, have stood by his side in court, either. His two adult sons would rather spend time screening hypothetical future political appointments for "loyalty" than bother to show their father any in-person care at court. His eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, is posting photos of her fancy vacations rather than staying in New York with her father. 



Trump is so lonesome that he's dreaming up imaginary friends to comfort himself, claiming "thousands" of people are clamoring to be with him but are being stopped by invisible police officers. As Lawrence O'Donnell pointed out on MSNBC, even "Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents were there every single day" for his trial. 

Trump's alienation is both very funny and deeply satisfying, but it also points to a much bigger legal problem for him: The near-impossibility of pulling off what is often called the "John Edwards defense." The former Democratic presidential candidate was indicted in 2011 for having donors pay off his mistress to keep quiet not just about the affair, but the child the two shared. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed by the FBI during its investigation, as I briefly worked for the Edwards campaign. It was an uneventful interview since I knew nothing about the affair or the payments.) Edwards was ultimately acquitted, in part because he successfully argued the payments were more about hiding his secret from his dying wife than helping him win an election. 

Trump's defense is hoping to similarly paint Trump as an embarrassed adulterer simply hiding the truth from his family — instead of a corrupt politician trying to influence the election illegally. But they really have their work cut out for them. It's hard to sell Trump as a loving family man who regrets his adultery when the family in question is missing in action. The task became even harder after David Pecker, the National Enquirer publisher who was in on the conspiracy, took that stand on Monday and Tuesday.

It's hard to sell Trump as a loving family man who regrets his adultery when the family in question is missing in action.

Pecker, who regularly helped Trump bury damning stories by buying off sources, spoke at length about why Trump asked him to help pay people off for their silence. The big one, of course, was to "help the campaign," Pecker said. To do this, they didn't just bury negative stories but also ran false or misleading stories painting Trump's opponents in a negative light. Trump was allegedly also worried about a story that suggested he had sex with a woman who wasn't white. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times recounted, "Pecker appeared to be saying that Cohen indicated that a child with a Hispanic mother couldn’t be Trump’s." But mostly, Pecker said the focus was on any story that offered a "potential embarrassment" to "the campaign." 

As of press time, the transcript for Tuesday's hearing has not yet been published, but in scouring all the live blogging done by reporters of the testimony, it appears the name "Melania" did not come up, even in passing. On the contrary, Pecker at one point described Trump during the period as an "eligible bachelor" who "dated the most beautiful women." But, of course, Trump was not a bachelor. Trump married his current wife in 2005. Both the women whose stories Pecker was involved in silencing claim that they slept with Trump in 2006, the year that Melania Trump gave birth to the couple's only child. 

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But while Trump was technically not a bachelor, the comment speaks to a deeper truth evident in Pecker's testimony: Trump simply does not care about his wife or children. He wasn't worried about their feelings and didn't seem to think of them much at all during all this conspiring. During opening arguments, prosecutor Matthew Colaneglo underscored this point by noting that Trump and his fixer, Michael Cohen, even schemed to delay the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, one of the two women in question, until after the election. The idea was they could keep her quiet until the election and then refuse to pay her at all. Clearly, the goal was to keep this information from voters, and Melania Trump's feelings weren't a factor. 

For people who follow politics closely, there is nothing surprising about Trump seeming to have no one in his life that he loves or who loves him. Anyone who has watched the man closely can tell there's something deeply wrong with him, psychologically. He simply isn't like a normal person with normal attachments to other people. But the jury was carefully chosen, after an arduous process, to weed out people who pay enough attention to the news to have previously formed this opinion of Trump. The default assumption most people have is that other people have normal human emotions. So there was an opportunity to trick the jury into believing Trump is, as Blanche said, "a person just like you." 

Still, that would have required providing some reassurance to the jury that Trump, like a normal person, experiences love and concern for others. Especially as the prosecutor will present Trump, correctly, as a cold-hearted narcissist whose only concern is personal gain. That portrayal will be backed by testimony like Pecker's, and of course by Trump's own behavior in court. But the fact that during the first days of his first criminal trial, Trump can't scrounge up one person from his rather large family to stand by his side? Well, that alone will tell quite a bit of the tale. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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