By Callum Borchers, The Washington Post
When Melania Trump delivered a convention speech that included plagiarized sections of an address by Michelle Obama last month, the media handled the wife of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump pretty gently.
“Nobody blames Melania for this,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo told viewers the day after. The would-be first lady was generally portrayed as a sympathetic figure – a victim of lazy speech-writing by a sloppy campaign that lacked proper checks to prevent such embarrassments.
Two weeks later, Melania Trump is once again under the media microscope – a position as awkward for journalists as it is for the reclusive former model. This time the focus is on apparent inconsistencies in her account of immigrating to the United States from Slovenia in the 1990s. The subject is clearly relevant to the campaign, given her husband’s hard-line stance against illegal immigration and his use of Melania as an example of how to do things right. Yet it is inherently uncomfortable for the press to scrutinize a political spouse who is not running for office and so obviously prefers to remain in the background.
Here’s how we got to this point: After the plagiarism incident, the Huffington Post noted that a biography of Melania Trump published in April by two Slovenian journalists contains a different account of her educational history than what was listed on her official website. Trump claimed on her site to have earned a college degree in her native country, but biographers Bojan Pozar and Igor Omerza wrote that she dropped out after one year. CBS News confirmed that Trump never graduated after checking school records.
Last week, Trump took down her website, citing reasons unrelated to questions about her schooling.
Over the weekend, the New York Post published decades-old nude photos of a 25-year-old Trump and quoted a photographer who said he shot them in New York for a men’s magazine in 1995. Trump claimed on her now-defunct website that she did not move to the United States until 1996.
She has said in interviews that she came to America on an H-1B work visa. If that’s true, then her embellishment of academic achievements “might matter because a college degree can be an important credential for someone applying for a visa to work in the U.S.,” Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson wrote Wednesday.
An unavoidable question follows: Did the wife of a presidential candidate who rails against illegal immigration lie about earning a degree to bolster her application for a work visa?
There is another possible version of events, but it is no less problematic. Melania Trump also has described in interviews her compliance with a requirement to return periodically to Slovenia to stamp her visa. Politico’s Ben Schreckinger and Gabriel Debenedetti explained in a Thursday story why that doesn’t jibe with her claim to H-1B status.
“Trump’s tale of returning to Europe for periodic visa renewals is inconsistent with her holding an H-1B visa at all times she was living in New York – even if it was the lesser-known H-1B visa specifically designed for models – said multiple immigration attorneys and experts. An H-1B visa can be valid for three years and can be extended up to six years – sometimes longer – and would not require renewals in Europe every few months. …
“Instead, Trump’s description of her periodic renewals in Europe are more consistent with someone traveling on a B-1 temporary business visitor or B-2 tourist visa, which typically last only up to six months and do not permit employment.”
Trump did, of course, work as a model when she moved to the United States. So another question arises: Was she working illegally? The GOP nominee certainly would not approve of that.
Without providing details, Donald Trump’s campaign has maintained throughout the election that Melania followed all immigration laws to a T. And, to be clear, there is no irrefutable proof to the contrary. Maybe she was open about dropping out of college and got an H-1B visa anyway. And maybe when she occasionally traveled to Europe, she got stamps on her passport, not her visa, and she is just confusing the two now. Maybe.
What’s tricky here is there is no way to know for sure without some serious digging by the media – the kind of digging that would normally be reserved for a candidate. Hard as the press might try to make such an effort about Donald Trump – just as it tried to make Melania’s plagiarized speech about the campaign apparatus – it would be hard to avoid the appearance of targeting a spouse who won’t be on the ballot in November and clearly does not want to be a political figure.
Melania Trump’s immigration story is surely germane to the election, but covering it is a very delicate task.