Even some critics of Melania Trump thought Bette Midler was out of line for making fun of the immigrant first lady’s accent when she delivered her speech at the Republican National Convention Tuesday.
After Midler tweeted, “Oh, God. She still can’t speak English,” Melania Trump’s fans blasted the entertainer for xenophobia. They also sought to defend the Slovenian-born first lady by repeating the popular claim that she is fluent in multiple languages.
“She speaks five languages,” right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and numerous others tweeted.
She speaks five languages. Bette Midler still has a ways to go with one https://t.co/9LTBL0hGbG
— Dinesh D’Souza (@DineshDSouza) August 26, 2020
One Twitter user even asserted that the wife of President Donald Trump is fluent in six languages.
Midler apologized Wednesday, tweeting that she was wrong to make fun of Melania Trump’s accent and saying “America is made up people who speak with all kinds of accents.”
But her tweet had already renewed debate about Melania Trump’s immigration history. It also spotlighted questions about whether the first lady really speaks five (or six) languages.
A Washington Post reporter’s biography of the first lady, published in June, and other reports have delved into whether Melania Trump actually is proficient in anything more than her native Slovenian and her acquired English. The first lady has said that she also speaks French, Italian and German.
Mary Jordan, the author of “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” wrote that she wasn’t able to independently confirm the extent of Melania Trump’s language abilities.
“I couldn’t find any videos showing her fluency in anything other than Slovenian and English,” Jordan wrote. “I asked the White House if they could point to any evidence, and they did not respond.”
Jordan reported in her book that Melania Trump was seen relying on interpreters during diplomatic visits to Italy and France. Videos of those visits show the first lady using a few basic and universally known words such as “bonjour” and “ciao” when meeting European dignitaries or when visiting children in hospitals and schools.
The White House biography of Melania Trump does not list fluency in multiple languages among her accomplishments, which otherwise include her being “a highly successful model,” traveling with her husband, visiting children and launching her Be Best campaign to promote children’s well-being.
The future first lady was born Melania Knauss in Slovenia, a part of the former Yugoslavia, in 1970. She moved first to Milan in the early 1990s to pursue a modeling career and then came to the United States in 1996.
The idea that Melania Trump speaks multiple languages goes back to at least 2000 when she was dating Trump and she posed as a Bond girl-type figure in a racy photo spread for British GQ titled “Sex at 30,000 Feet: Melania Knauss Earns Her Air Miles.” The accompanying copy for the GQ spread boasts that Melania is “fluent in four languages.”
The copy suggests that such talent could be “very handy for those summit meetings.” Trump was seriously considering a presidential run at the time, wrote CNN correspondent Kate Bennett in “Free Melania,” her biography of the first lady.
Melania Trump boasted about her language skills during the 2016 presidential campaign. In February 2016, she sat for an interview with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, during which she discussed her modeling career. She also stated that spoke English, Italian, French, German, as well as Slovenian.
Jordan said Melania Trump also told her in 2016 that she spoke all those languages. Since then, news reports and social media reports have continued to say that she is multilingual, with some reports adding that she also is proficient in Serbian.
In trying to confirm Melania Trump’s language abilities, Jordan said she spoke to people who worked with her during her modeling days. Melania Trump arrived in 1993 to work in Vienna, where the main language is German. But modeling agent Wolfgang Schwarz told Jordan that Melania knew so little German that they spoke English together.
Jordan said she also spoke with photographers and others who worked with Melania Trump over the years. Some are native speakers of Italian, French, and German, but they said they never heard her use more than a few words in those languages.
Melania Trump’s proclaimed fluency in Italian was not on display during her visit to the Vatican in May 2017 as part of her husband’s first official overseas trip, Jordan reported. When Pope Francis extended a hand to Melania, she said in English, “Thank you. Nice to meet you.”
The pope appeared to have been made aware that Melania Trump could supposedly speak Italian. He switched to that language and asked lightheartedly if she fed her husband potica, a traditional Slovenian pastry.
“She looked at him and said nothing,” Jordan wrote. “Francis motioned to his interpreter, who stepped forward and translated the pope’s words into English. Melania finally responded and laughed, ‘Potica, yes!’”
When a papal aide handed Melania Trump a rosary for the pope to bless, she again replied in English, “Oh I would love it, thank you. Grazie,” she said. She threw in another Italian word when she replied in English to the pope’s question about her next stop. “I’m going to visit a hospital, for bambinos. Thank you so much.”
Jordan wrote that Melania Trump could have been too starstruck by Francis to try her Italian, or she didn’t want to be rude and shut President Trump and stepdaughter Ivanka Trump out of her conversation with the pope.
Or, Jordan said, maybe Melania Trump had taken a page out of Trump’s playbook: “exaggerating if it builds the brand and polishes the image.”
The “narrative” of Melania Trump possessing extensive language skills fits in with Trump’s desire to build her up as the new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jordan said. After all, the cosmopolitan wife of President John F. Kennedy was able to converse in French with Pope John XXIII for 32 minutes when she visited the Vatican in 1962.
During her 2017 Italy trip, Melania Trump also spoke entirely in English when she sat next to an Italian mayor at a lunch with G7 leaders’ spouses, Jordan reported. Two months later, headlines of the first lady’s visit to a Paris children’s hospital in July 2017 trumpeted her speaking French to the young patients.
But even a Daily Telegraph video, is titled “Melania Trump speaks French,” doesn’t show the first lady saying much more than “Bonjour,” and “Je m’appelle Melania.” The video also shows her switching back to English when she asks one child, “What is your name?” She also compliments the child for speaking “very good English.”
Two years later, Melania Trump attended the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, and used translation headphones to listen to a speech by French president Emmanuel Macron, Jordan reported.
At least one journalist, CNN commentator Keith Boykin, finally spotted a problem, Jordan reported. “Wait,” Boykin said. “I thought Melania Trump spoke French fluently.”
This story has been updated to include Bette Midler’s apology for criticizing Melania Trump’s accent.