Arriving in Rome, on his way to visit the Holy Father, of all people, President Donald Trump stood at the door of Air Force One and reached for first lady Melania Trump's hand. She avoided his grasp, reaching up to brush her hair away from her eyes instead. He then appeared to put his hand -- wait for it -- on her behind
The internet caught fire with commentary about Trump's move, which, if it wasn't what it seemed to be, was recklessly close to a crude display of male ownership. It might have gone unnoticed, or at least less noticed, had the Trumps not been the subjects of a similar episode two days earlier at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport. As the couple walked away from Air Force One, the President strode ahead of his wife (a display of marital disconnection so familiar to us all by now that it could be a fun cue for a drinking game).
On Sunday, though, the President seemed to think better of it, and as his host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, grasped his own spouse's hand, Trump reached back for Melania. She rebuffed him with a flick of her wrist, never breaking her stride.
To say that the media has reacted to these incidents would be an enormous understatement. The press (and social media) have gone a little nuts over them. This is partly out of pent-up demand to see the first lady, who has kept out of the spotlight for months and is now making a high-profile grand tour with her husband -- but perhaps more importantly out of a fascination with the way this marriage functions (or doesn't).
How might she feel about being married to Donald Trump?
British newspaper The Independent invited a body language expert to offer her assessment. "Melania Slaps President's Hand Away to Say She Won't Be Treated As a Child
," read the news site's headline, telling you all you needed to know about what followed. Vanity Fair described it as a gesture "ripe for reading into."
Even Pete Souza, Barack Obama's official White House photographer, couldn't resist a little trolling, posting a photo of Obama and Michelle Obama comfortably holding hands at a Selma event, as a contrast.
Predictably, while much of the world recognized the flick for its dismissive power, the ultra-partisan Gatewaypundit.com creatively dubbed it
a "low five." If you say so.
But I'm not buying it. The flick was a rebuff that has been preceded by innumerable acts of presidential and spousal unkindness, and the grab suggests that the President and first lady are locked in a war of signals and symbols.
On the President's part, the goal is always to project power and dominance. Never interested in the kind of subtlety shown when men demonstrate their strength by daring to show a soft side, Trump does not comfortably display affection and has a long record of making disparaging comments about women.
This is the man who has talked about women as a body part
that responds best to being treated shabbily. He has
joked about his daughter's sex appeal and mused publicly about whether he could have had sex with Princess Diana.
At the same time, he is generally willing to sacrifice those around him -- even his wife.
His performance at the Al Smith political dinner last fall, when he made Melania the butt of his best jokes
, is a case in point. (Trust this husband's word on this. No man should ever do this to his spouse.)
Trump reportedly asked
Melania to promise she would get her figure back before he agreed to have a child with her. And he famously walked away from her on Inauguration Day, rushing up the steps of the White House
while she was still getting out of the car.
Trump's ungentlemanly style has inspired lots of "Free Melania" posts on the internet, as many people feel the urge to support her as she suffers indignities and disrespect in full view of the world. The assumption by many is that she is getting the short end of a bargain that she never thought would take her out of her glamorous life in New York and propel her into the public eye. And debate rages still over whether she is a victim or an enabler of the poorly behaved Trump.
The fact is, every first lady is examined closely and subjected to great amounts of "projection" as the American public tries to get a fix on who she really is. In Melania -- who remains close-mouthed and generally out of view -- we have less than we usually have to work with. Where Michelle Obama was outgoing and engaged, ready to dance with Ellen DeGeneres or play carpool karaoke with James Corden, Melania often looks pained at the attention she receives.
People naturally wonder if she reacts to Trump in the way they would. Is she appalled by his behavior? Was her announcement that she was interested in bullying as a cause an intentional tweak of the President? After all the ways that he has publicly disrespected her, is she now completely over him? Is that what the flick was all about? The couple's every gesture and glance becomes a clue -- a Rorschach test for left and right.
Understanding the President is a lot easier. The grab at the Rome airport seemed to be a matter of one-upping his wife. She flicked, then he had to grab, demonstrating that he, as ever, will go further than his opponent to win any contest.
Disgraceful as Trump's behavior may be, not everyone sides with Melania. No one who marries Donald Trump can be considered a naïf, and this is especially true of anyone who chose to become his third wife. But surely what this first lady has experienced goes beyond what one might call fairness.
Between her husband's awful talk captured in the infamous Access Hollywood tape -- "You can do anything" -- and his lurching performance thus far as President, she must feel angry and disappointed. And unlike most women who find themselves stuck with a boor, she's saddled with the responsibility of an unpaid job that binds her even more closely to her husband.
Stuck in a tight spot, Melania must, out of respect for the American public, grin and bear it. But she has ways of resisting. By staying in New York, keeping a very low profile when she's in the same house with him, and rejecting his attempt to hold her hand, it's hard to believe she's not sending signals. She may not be ready to join the ex-wives club -- but she's clearly not happy.