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President Donald Trump gave his first official State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress and the nation on Tuesday, Jan. 30. But the cameras momentarily panned away from the podium to catch a glimpse of the first lady making a notable entrance. It seemed to set the tone for the evening, and it was a big departure from her other public appearances. Melania Trump’s body language at the State of the Union gives some clues as to what the first lady was experiencing on this historic night.
This was an important night for both president and first lady. Trump, in his speech, sought to unify the country after a year of gridlocked Congress, protests, and high tensions. While Melania Trump opted for a cream-colored pantsuit, several Democratic Congresswomen wore black, an exact reversal of their respective color codings from last year’s annual address when Trump wore black and her fellow females went in white. (That merits its own lengthy analysis.)
I spoke with body language expert Susan Constantine to understand what dynamics and emotions the first lady seemed to be expressing on this all-important night. Her analysis gives some clues as to how to interpret the blue-eyed Slovenian enigma that is Melania Trump.
Overall, it was a controlled performance.
As we’ve seen with Trump in previous public appearances, the first lady on Tuesday was extremely aware and in control of her body and expressions. “She’s always hypersensitive of herself,” says Constantine. “She’s so intoherself, and her presentation of self, that she lacks authenticity, genuineness. She almost appears to be untouchable.”
Melania’s expression was stoic and controlled, Constantine notes, and while the first lady didn’t seem unhappy about being there, she didn’t seem excited, either. In fact, it appeared to Constantine that her presence was her duty, and that she was doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing.
She likened Melania’s entrance to a walk down the runway.
“It seems like everything still is a show,” Constantine says. “It’s an acting thing that’s going on.”
Melania didn’t seem to have the same tension toward Donald.
In the past, we’ve seen some tense dynamics between the president and first lady; from that cringe-worthy inaugural ball dance to the time she swatted his hand away (or that other time she seemingly refused to hold his hand). And their dynamic on this past New Year’s Eve? Experts called that “disturbing.”
Constantine didn’t notice any of that kind of tension or hostility from Melania on Tuesday night, but there may be reasons for that. Partly because the first lady, as mentioned, often doesn’t show her hand or give away many cues on how she’s feeling.
“Melania is great at pulling off the stump face,” Constantine says. “Her way of staying in control is, ‘I am going to control all of my movements and my gesturing and facial expressions so that it’s going to be really hard for anybody to read into it.'”
Another reason she didn’t seem to display the same sort of tension with her husband on Tuesday might have been her spatial distance from him.
“If you’re farther away, it’s easier to detach,” Constantine explains. “When you’re around someone you’re ticked off with, it causes a physiological response, but when they’re outside that space, you’re already detached.”
The first lady broke with decades of SOTU tradition by arriving in her own car, separately from her husband.
Mrs. Trump met her husband at the event just one minute before the speech was scheduled to begin, according to CNN. She entered the House of Representatives chamber after taking her own ride over from the White House. Her solo voyage marked a departure from the norm for first ladies attending the SOTU.
Stephanie Grisham, a spokesperson for the first lady, said in a statement, per CNN, that her choice to ride separately of her husband was done out of “honoring her guests for the true heroes they are.” Grisham added, “In addition to holding a White House reception and photo opportunity for them, along with their friends and family, she is accompanying them to the Capitol.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added, per CNN’s Jim Acosta, that the reasons behind it were logistical.
Tuesday was the first time Melania had been seen in public with her husband since New Year’s Eve, and it’s the first we’ve seen of her live in public since a Wall Street Journal report earlier this month that adult film star Stormy Daniels allegedly had an affair with Donald Trump in 2006, about which the actress was given a payout to keep quiet. (The White House and Daniels have denied allegations.)
Mrs. Trump has been especially independent of her husband this last week. She canceled a trip to accompany her husband to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, instead flying to Mar-a-Lago and making an impromptu stop at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
What the first lady’s separate arrival means is all speculation at this point. But her body language, and a controlled one at that, is its own kind of revelation about how Melania felt during one of the most important nights of her husband’s presidency to date.