Late on Saturday night, amid Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the New York Post, which endorsed Trump in April, published several nude photographs of the candidate’s wife. “THE OGLE OFFICE,” the Post’s Sunday edition punned.
The pictures were taken in Manhattan in 1995 by a French ex-con named Alé de Basseville, shortly after Melania Knauss arrived in America. They appeared in the January 1996 issue of Max, a now-defunct French men’s magazine, and the Trump campaign has made a very big show of being unbothered by the photographs’ publication.
“Melania was one of the most successful models and she did many photo shoots, including for covers and major magazines. This was a picture taken for a European magazine prior to my knowing Melania. In Europe, pictures like this are very fashionable and common,” the Republican presidential candidate said in a statement to the Post. “They’re a celebration of the human body as art,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said in an appearance on CNN on Sunday. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he continued. (The photos are very classy and tasteful.) “She’s a beautiful woman.”
The Post’s cover tells us that we’ve “never seen a potential First Lady like this.” Actually, we have! In March, an anti-Trump super PAC supporting Ted Cruz’s campaign promoted images of the former model from a taken from a shoot she did for British GQ in 2000. “Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady,” the superimposed meme text read. “Or you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” The campaign was targeted at conservative Mormon voters who, strategists thought, would be put off by Melania’s nudity. Rather than responding with practiced magnanimity—we’ll see how long it lasts—Trump answered by threatening to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi.
De Basseville, the photographer, calls himself “Jarl Alexandre Alé de Basseville,” and claims to be descended from the 1st king Harald of Norway. “He is one of the last direct descendants of the lineage of Viking and Norman kings,” his website says. Jarl Alexandre no longer works in fashion, and has instead become involved in politics, and even ran for European Parliament in 2014. “I want to change Europe the way my family ruled it for 1,000 years,” he told the Post. (You know who else wanted to rule Europe for 1,000 years?)
He’s such a character that the Post ended up running a short profile on him, separate from the publication of the Melania nudes. “I am completely against this world, and I don’t understand why the girls fuck with old guys to afford a Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès bags,” he said. “The fashion industry has become the biggest pimp ever.” Also, in 2007, he pleaded guilty to money laundering and buying ecstasy after telling undercover federal agents investigating his film production company that he could acquire, among other things, AK-47s from Russia.
Anyway. If they’ve been around since 1995, why are these just coming out now? And why in a paper owned by conservative powerbroker Rupert Murdoch? The least convoluted—and therefore probably most true—interpretation is that de Basseville wanted to raise his profile, and the Post needs to sell newspapers. (De Basseville did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
But what if there’s more to the story? Miller, the Trump spokesman, is right: There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Still, more socially conservative voters—like the people Cruz was going after in Utah and other evangelicals—might disagree. Why run the risk of alienating those voters with such a blasé response? (Well, actually, the response has not been totally blasé: The photographs, Trump’s statement notes, were “taken for a European magazine prior to my knowing Melania.” Things are different in Europe, the statement implies, and also, if Melania and Donald had been together at the time, he never would have allowed something like this to happen. This is obviously a lie.)
Another interpretation—which probably gives Trump and his staff more credit than they deserve—is that not only were they aware of the photographs and their impending leak, but they encouraged Jarl Alexandre to leak them to the Post (a friendly outlet that would cooperate with the campaign’s tactics) in order to distract from Trump’s ongoing, utterly disastrous spat with the Khans.
I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2016
At the DNC last week, Khizr Khan, whose son, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomber while fighting in Iraq in 2004, said that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” in his life. Trump said that yes, he has made sacrifices, and he works very hard, and also why didn’t Khizr’s wife speak at the DNC, is it because she is a Muslim woman and Muslim women are not permitted to speak? No, actually, it is because she is a mother overcome with grief. Trump’s comments, Khizr said later, were “typical of a person without a soul.”
This, coming on the heels of a pretty terrible Republican National Convention, makes for a rather inauspicious start to the general election for Donald Trump. Still, is it any wonder that his campaign might want to create a diversion? It’s also the second time in two weeks that Melania has gotten thrown under the bus for the Trump campaign’s ineptitude and routine mediocrity. So much for being “really good” for women!
Everybody knows that Melania is a former model, although that never seems to stop Trump from missing an opportunity to mention it. (Perhaps the most convincing argument that they were purposefully leaked is the fact that Trump hasn’t tweeted about it.) To use her past now as a political plow only feeds into his self-conception as a Strong Man and a Great Leader, further exoticizing and eroticizing his (largely silent!) mysterious European wife.