Ambitious and single-minded – turns out Melania Trump has more in common with her husband than anyone realised. That's what a new book by Washington Post journalist Mary Jordan claims. She talked to more than 100 White House insiders to reveal the private side of the first lady.
Donald Trump and his advisers were gathered around campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks as she clicked play to start a video on her laptop. It was Friday, October 7, 2016. In one month, voters would choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump and his aides had been strategising before a Sunday night debate on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. But now all eyes were riveted on the video.
It showed Trump and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, nephew of the 41st president, engaged in a lewd exchange on an NBC Studios lot. Nothing about the tape was flattering. After a voice off-screen said, "She's still very beautiful," Trump was heard boasting, "I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I'll admit it."
After someone off-camera said, "Whoa," Trump replied, "I did try and f*** her. She was married."
There was some back and forth with Bush. Then Trump said, "You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything." Bush replied, "Whatever you want," to which Trump spoke the now-infamous line, "Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."
The room was stunned into silence.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie zeroed in on the video's date stamp: September 2005. That meant that Trump was 59, and had recently married his third wife, Melania, then nearly three months pregnant with their son, Barron, when he said those words.
Trump was quiet. Christie knew what Trump was dreading: facing Melania. "She was the elephant not in the room," Christie says. Trump was so embarrassed that, as one person in the room recalls, "He turned red; red was coming up his neck to his ears. I think he understood early on that it was going to create ramifications for him at home too."
If Melania walked out, the campaign was all but over.
"Everybody was saying, 'You should go upstairs and see Melania.' And he was not rushing to go up there," Christie remembers. "I said to him, 'It ain't going to get any easier. The longer you wait, it's not going to get any easier.'" It took Trump two hours to step into the lift.
Melania does not yell or throw lamps. She shows her fury quietly and deliberately. "Now you could lose," she said to him, according to someone who heard the account of what she told Trump. "You could have blown this for us." Melania had been one of the few around Trump who had been telling him he would win. Others thought he would lose but believed the campaign would be a win for the Trump brand. But Melania was a believer. Now she told him his mouth had jeopardised their chance at the White House. Trump apologised. She left him to stew.
Melania's handling of the Access Hollywood tape was telling. She may not like what it said about her or her husband, but she has an exceptional capacity to shrug it off, or at least say nothing. She never feels the need to explain herself, her marriage, or even what drove her to wear a jacket with "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?" scrawled on its back. Her press office doesn't answer questions about where she is on many days.
The Secret Service calls the couple "Muse" and "Mogul". Only she and those close to the President truly know the strength of her influence behind the scenes, but it has been felt in her support for his political ambitions, how he campaigned in 2016, his choice of a running mate and in many personnel and policy decisions in the White House. Those who dismiss her as nothing more than an accessory do not understand her or her influence.
'She lets the president know what she thinks, and he takes her views very seriously. He tends to agree with her.'
"This is not some wallflower; this is somebody who is self-confident and self-assured," Christie says.
He adds that people who speculate that Melania doesn't love Trump are "misreading the signs". "She understands that she's married to a very big personality, and someone who is impulsive at times – in his personal life as well as in his policies – and she gets that," says someone who has known the couple for years.
"People say, 'Oh, she's a model, therefore she must be dumb.' There's nothing dumb about her," Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, who was later convicted for lying and witness tampering, told me in 2016. Stone had known Melania since the late 90s, when she started dating Trump. "She's a balancing influence on him," he said.
According to Stone, Melania encouraged Trump to run. "She's the one who ultimately said, 'You know, Donald, stop talking about running for President and do it… And if you run, you're going to win.'"
When she didn't immediately move into the White House after he was elected, a few of Trump's pals were upset with Melania, not only because her decision to remain in Trump Tower fanned rumours they were not getting along. They also wanted her in the White House because when she was around, Trump was calmer. The opening weeks of his administration were marked by personnel clashes, embarrassing leaks, and a travel ban that caused major protests at airports.
"That woman! She will be the end of him," Thomas Barrack, Trump's friend who chaired his inaugural committee, was overheard saying. "She is stubborn. She should be with her husband. He is the President of the United States." As the weeks passed, more people began to appreciate Melania for what she brought to their relationship. At least one of Trump's older children called her, urging her to spend more time with their dad.
"Melania is very behind-the-scenes but unbelievably influential. She is not one to go in and say, 'Hire this person; fire this person.' But she lets the President know what she thinks, and he takes her views very seriously." Rather than tell Trump what to do or not do, Melania's style is to give her opinion and, in the end, "he tends to agree with her".
Melania tells him what she believes is resonating with voters and what is not. According to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the first lady is a "voracious consumer of news and information" and has "her finger on the pulse of not just what is going on issue-wise, but what is in her husband's best interest". She focuses less on policy than on positioning him in front of an audience. Spicer says, "She knows exactly who he is as a person, what he believes and what his brand is about. She says, 'This is who you are. You don't need to do that.'"
Others' agreement with Melania has become something of a loyalty test for Trump. In conversations, he will sometimes ask, "This is what Melania thinks. What do you think?" Spicer recalls a conversation he had with Trump after leaving the White House. Spicer made a comment and Trump replied, "You know what? Melania says the same thing. You are right."
Talking to people who know her, it becomes clear that one of the most lethal places to find oneself is in Melania's crosshairs. As one former White House official says, "People cross Melania at their own risk – and that risk is, 'Off with your head.' I'm not kidding… You are gone if she doesn't like you."
Those who know Melania say her independent streak has helped her survive, and at times thrive, next to Trump. Her modelling career and her efforts to have her own projects after they started dating and later, after they married, "was her way of saying, 'I don't need a man to define my sense of self-worth. I'm special. I'm my own person.'"
The most difficult moments have come around Trump's alleged infidelities, particularly the claims of former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels that they had sexual encounters with Trump (allegations he has always denied). At one point, according to someone who worked on the Trump campaign, she checked into a hotel to get away from her husband.
A few months before his wedding to Melania, Trump jokingly recalled his history with prenups with gossip columnist Liz Smith, saying that both exes had sued him but that he had prevailed: "And had I not had those prenuptial agreements, I wouldn't be talking to you today. Other than talking to you from the standpoint of a loser, perhaps. And even then we'd be having lunch at McDonald's instead of Le Cirque."
'Trump is very concerned about his appearance, and Melania has tried to help improve how he looks. She has shared modelling tips.'
Smith asked if he and Melania had a prenup. "Yes, we do. And the beautiful thing about Melania is she agrees with it. She knows I have to have that. Nobody gets married thinking they're going to get divorced. But 55 per cent of the people who get married do get divorced. You have to protect your life. Because the court system is unpredictable, and you can't have unpredictability and be a successful person. You have to have a prenup. But I would be shocked if I had to use it. I'd be very surprised if something went astray with this."
But Melania is a sharp negotiator. According to people close to Trump, in 2018 she reached a new and significantly improved financial agreement with him, which had left her in a notably better financial position. Those sources do not know precisely what she sought but it was not simply more money. She wanted proof in writing that when it came to financial opportunities and inheritance, their son, Barron, would be treated as more of an equal to Trump's oldest three children. Among the items under discussion was involvement in the family business, the Trump Organisation, and ownership of Trump property. One person aware of the negotiations noted that Barron has Slovenian citizenship, so he could be especially well-positioned if he wanted to be involved in a Trump business in Europe. Melania wanted – and got – options for him.
Especially after Access Hollywood and Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal spoke publicly about their affairs with Trump right after Barron was born, Melania's non-negotiable was that her son would be treated more like Trump's oldest children. Melania, a long-game player, could not have picked a better time to push for an improved financial agreement. The fact that Trump was in the White House instead of Trump Tower, and needed her to play a particularly public role, strengthened her hand.
First Ladies have often said that living in the White House is like living in a fishbowl. Melania's way of dealing with it is by spending large amounts of her day in the White House's private quarters. The First Lady is in charge of a White House staff of 100 people, from the chefs to the housekeepers and butlers. Melania involves herself in the minute details of running the house, but often from her residence rooms rather than the First Lady's East Wing office.
Her parents often stay in the family residence too. Melania, her parents and Barron often speak Slovenian to one another when they're together. This gives them a private language, so they can continue to speak freely even in front of residence staff or Secret Service agents.
Trump is very concerned about his appearance, and Melania has tried to help improve how he looks. She has shared modelling tips: when someone is taking his photo, he can tighten and define his facial muscles by placing his tongue on the roof of his mouth, and if he stands slightly back in a group photo, he will appear thinner. Before a photo shoot, she has been heard telling Trump to lift his chin slightly. At the 2018 state dinner she organised for French President Emmanuel Macron she was overheard "stage-managing" Trump's movements, as one person described it.
At first she laughed about the Free Melania signs and the comedy skits in which she was portrayed as being trapped. But it also bothered her that anyone thought that she was a hostage. She knows that as she becomes a more visible campaigner in 2020, she will likely become more of a target. Still, she has told people she wants to win re-election.
'They both feel under constant attack. They feel everyone is out to get anyone named Trump. That is a bond.'
A second term would also give her more time to make her own mark. "She is very happy being First Lady," says the Italian businessman Paolo Zampolli, who is said to have introduced the couple to one another. According to Zampolli, all those people who say she couldn't wait to go back to her old life are wrong. "I am telling you she is happy in the White House."
"Neither of them wants a one-term presidency," says a person who knows the couple. "She sees this as their legacy. She wants to win." "It's the bunker mentality," adds a White House official. Another uses similar words: "They both feel under constant attack. They feel everyone is out to get anyone named Trump. That is a bond."
In February, when Trump filled the East Room of the White House with those closest to him to celebrate the Senate vote to acquit him of impeachment charges, Melania sat in the front row and listened to his hour-long speech, in which he called the investigations against him "bullshit", a word not normally heard at the microphone in the ornate East Room. "I want to apologise to my family for having them have to go through a phony, rotten deal," Trump said. "This was not part of the deal. They stuck with me." He mentioned Barron, something he doesn't often do. Trump called Ivanka up to the podium and they hugged. Then Trump looked at Melania, gazing up at him admiringly, as she has for more than two decades. "Come on, baby," he said, motioning her up to the stage, where they received a standing ovation.
Within weeks, impeachment would fade from the national conversation as the coronavirus become a global pandemic. On TV, her husband talked about the country "opened up and just raring to go" by Easter, but Melania cancelled the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll and donated its 25,000 commemorative wooden eggs to children's hospitals and frontline workers. As daily life in the United States ground to a halt, she recorded public service announcements about social distancing. She talked about resilience and unity, saying, "Stay safe and remember, while many of us are apart, we are all in this together."
Her husband would frequently tweet more in one day than she would all month, but during the crisis Melania ramped up her use of Twitter to amplify advice from health officials. Her messaging was often the opposite of her husband's. After the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear a mask in public places, Trump announced he would not be. But Melania posted a photograph of herself wearing a mask.
After a bruising impeachment process and in the midst of a health crisis, she seems to enjoy being a player on the global stage. As long as she is married to Trump, she will be associated with his polarising behaviour. But the #FreeMelania signs are gone.
Extracted from The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump by Mary Jordan (Simon & Schuster)
Melania and me – on the trail of the First Lady
Mary Jordan tells Will Pavia how she uncovered Trump's secret weapon (his wife).
Imagine that you have been invited to a state dinner with the leader of the free world. Not only that, they've put you next to Melania Trump.
"I've heard so many stories about people sitting next to her saying, 'Oh my God, I thought I would get the scoop,'" says Mary Jordan, author of The Art of Her Deal – the first close-up portrait of America's confounding First Lady.
Traditionally, first ladies are fabulous hosts and raconteurs. You think of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan. Now here you are shoulder to padded shoulder with Melania, who grew up in a small town in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the daughter of a car mechanic/salesman and a factory worker, who became a model, the third wife of a New York playboy and then the First Lady. She must have some stories?
Well, apparently Melania can sit in perfect silence from the first sip of soup to the last draught of coffee. "There are some people, like the wife of President Macron, she can chat with," Jordan says. But usually, it's a total nightmare. She is known as "a tough one to sit next to". In this, as in so many other things, Jordan says, "she's broken the mould for expectations".
All of which tends to make her more interesting, if not at dinner.
Jordan has wormed out some extraordinary details, all very hard-won. Before she interviewed Melania, back in 2016, The Donald insisted that he speak with her first. There's "a solidity" to Melania, he told Jordan. "She's very solid." This seems right: the First Lady can seem almost intransigent. At Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, the President wanders about asking people if their club sandwich was any good, while Melania sits by the pool reading and no one dares to bother her, Jordan writes.
But when Jordan interviewed her, she found her "absolutely delightful, normal to talk to", she says. She's also seen Melania more recently, at events. "I saw her backstage," she says. "Then I saw her go on stage. It's like two different people."
The director of a televised Slovenian fashion show Jordan spoke with recalled seeing a young Melania winning a career-making trip to Milan. She seemed "either emotionless or maybe a little disappointed", Jordan says. "You don't really see joy coming out of her face. I think that's another reason that people have said, 'Oh, she's trapped' – the hashtag 'Free Melania.'"
There's a famous story, told by the gossip reporter Michael Wolff, that Melania wept tears of despair on election night, as she saw her pleasant life in New York vaporised by her husband's victory. Jordan doesn't believe it. "Nobody has ever seen her cry that I talked to." Melania almost never betrays what she is thinking, Jordan says. "She's not showing her hand."
Just after Trump was installed in the White House, Melania disappeared for about three weeks. "We were used to having a first lady's office that you would send a note in and say, 'What city will she be in? When is the next public event?'" says Jordan, a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post, who lives in DC. "It was just blank, blank, blank. Nothing." This was when she got properly interested in the First Lady, Jordan tells me.
She interviewed all the President's men, more or less, for the biography, as well as everyone from Melania's childhood friends to the maid who cleaned her bathroom of smudges of the tanning spray Melania apparently applies whenever she goes outside. "So many people would say, 'The Trumps will kill me. I can't talk,'" Jordan says. She once interviewed the boss of a drug cartel in a maximum-security prison in Mexico. That was a cakewalk in comparison. "This was just the hardest thing I've ever done," she says.
She made some striking discoveries. At the start of the Trump presidency, Melania lingered at Trump Tower, rebutting pleas from her husband's advisers that he was so much calmer when she was around. She claimed that it was so their son, Barron, could finish his school year in New York.
Jordan says Melania was renegotiating their prenuptial agreement to give Barron a larger share in his estate, using her absence as leverage. She cites three sources who say the moment that Melania began to seem happier in public, with her husband, in mid-2018, corresponded with the conclusion of "a new and improved financial agreement".
Around the same time, amid outrage over the separation of migrant children from their parents at the southern border, Melania took a trip to see one of the camps where kids were interned. She wore a jacket from Zara with big white letters on the back that read, "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?"
"The fact that she put it on her back and wore it shows how weak the support around her is," says Jordan. In any other first lady's office, someone would have told her it would look as if she were saying she didn't care about the kids. Melania had actually issued a statement condemning the Trump administration's child separation policy; Jordan was told she got cross that her stepdaughter, Ivanka, seemed to be trying to take credit for stopping it. Jordan was told that the jacket was partly a message to Ivanka.
In the White House, Melania's parents often stay. They also visit Trump's New Jersey golf club, where they summer. He and Melania's father do not always see eye to eye, according to former housekeepers there. When Trump threw away a red cap he often wore, Melania's mother thought it might suit her husband, unaware of an unwritten rule at the club that only Trump could wear a red cap on the grounds. Trump demanded that Viktor take it off.
Trump and his wife had a "strange marriage", the housekeeper thought. The family was often in the same room but seldom seemed to interact.
Jordan thinks, however, that in many ways the relationship is tight. Melania was the one who wanted Trump to get serious about a political run, she writes. She always wants him to succeed: often she seems the only person he can turn to who always has his best interests at heart. Jordan says Trump picked Mike Pence as his vice-president on Melania's recommendation, reasoning that the other candidates would be vying for Trump's job. "To be clear, she's not weighing in on economic policy, Middle East policy," says Jordan. "But she does weigh in on personnel issues."
Often, when it looks as if she is "trolling" her husband, she is actually working with him, to help him change direction on something, Jordan says. "Over and over again, I would say, wow, the theme there is not what it first appears. Just like when you see her looking unhappy, it's not always what it appears."
Written by: Mary Jordan
© The Times of London