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    JOAN VENNOCHI

    The power of Melania Trump

    First Lady Melania Trump participates in NORAD Santa Tracker phone calls at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on December 24, 2017. "NORAD Tracks Santa" is an annual Christmas-themed entertainment program, which has existed since 1955, produced under the auspices of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KammNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
    Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
    Melania Trump participates in NORAD Santa Tracker phone calls at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach on Christmas Eve.

    Melania Trump must be feeling the power. On Christmas Day, she posted a selfie where she’s wearing a Santa hat and a festive pout.

    According to Gallup, the first lady’s favorability rating is 54 percent and rising — while President Trump’s unfavorability rating is 56 percent. No wonder the White House put out word that it was Melania’s decision to remove part of a historic magnolia tree that has long graced the South Portico. She has wiggle room to weather the pushback. He has none.

    Special counsel Robert Mueller will have a lot to say about how things go for Trump in 2018. But the person Trump really needs to keep in his corner is his wife. As Melania goes, so goes Trump’s tenuous grasp on the shrinking percentage of Americans who have any positive thoughts at all about their president.

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    The woman who reportedly never wanted to be first lady is one of 2017’s “most fascinating people,” according to US Weekly. “Criticized for everything from her Slovenian accent to the 4-inch stilettos she wore boarding a flight to hurricane-ravaged Houston, the first lady stood strong,” declared the magazine.

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    The FLOTUS criticism persists. She’s ironically against cyberbullying, while married to a cyberbully. Her clothes are critiqued to the point that her dress sleeves undergo deep psychoanalysis. She and her odd White House Christmas decorations were spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” And the Christmas Day selfie of Melania was, of course, savaged by grinches, who deemed it inappropriate. Just guessing here: She anticipated the fallout when she posted it.

    Despite the critics, Melania has power, more than she ever did before. And it all comes from her body language around her husband. A video of her facial expression on Inauguration Day launched #FreeMelania. That was followed by the swatting away of Trump’s hand on his first major trip abroad. When she stands next to him, with those mysterious, squinting eyes and a slightly bemused look crossing her face, it’s hard not to wonder what she really thinks about the real estate huckster turned president of the United States. When Trump endorsed Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama and questioned the credibility of the women who said he molested them when they were teenagers — what did Melania think? What does she think every time Trump is asked about the women who accuse him of groping and worse? Imagine the political damage Melania Trump could cause her spouse with a hurt look and an arched eyebrow. The former model knows the camera is always on her and, in her camera-savvy way, plays to it.

    Every first lady endures the harsh scrutiny of life in the White House, and through it all they stand by their man. Rosalynn Carter humanized Jimmy. Ronald Reagan basked in Nancy’s adoring gaze. Barbara Bush was a no-nonsense ballast to George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton took flak for playing the role of Tammy Wynette while also seeking respect as Bill’s policy adviser. Laura Bush gave George W. a veneer of respectability. Michelle Obama brought Barack down to earth and could even out-wow him when it came to speech-giving.

    Now Trump needs Melania just like his predecessors needed their loyal spouses — maybe even more, given his own unpopularity.

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    “They’re loving Melania,” Trump said at a private dinner last fall.

    For a narcissist like Trump, that must be painful to acknowledge. The president’s shrinking base may like some of what he does politically, but not many like him as a person these days.

    Melania Trump’s popularity gives Trump’s third wife the power to shape public opinion about her husband.

    How she uses it could make her even more fascinating — or scary, if you’re Trump.

    Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.