Melania Trump has kept silent as claims of her husband’s infidelity mount. But Toby Harnden points out that subtle signs of defiance have been there all along.
Earlier this month, on Easter Monday, Melania Trump stepped out onto the Truman balcony overlooking the south lawn of the White House flanked by her husband, Donald, their 12-year-old son Barron and – incongruously – a giant, bespectacled Easter bunny. She stood by in a powder blue coat as her husband welcomed the crowd gathered for the annual Easter egg roll, fulfilling her traditional role as first lady and taking her place in the tableau of Trump family unity.
Behind the facade, Melania is battling to retain her dignity amid allegations of the president’s serial infidelity. In the past month she has endured tell-all television interviews with a former Playboy model and a porn star that outlined in lurid detail the affairs they claim to have had with her husband while she was nursing the newborn Barron.
Enigmatic and stoic – New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has referred to Melania as “the Slovenian sphinx” – the former model has maintained a studied public silence about the allegations.
But her body language, stony expressions and subtle signals of defiance indicate that hers is a marriage in crisis.
As with everything Trump, American opinion on Melania, 47, is sharply and bitterly divided. Some regard her as deserving everything she gets. She signed up to be a trophy wife, the argument goes, marrying a known philanderer 24 years her senior in exchange for a life of wealth and pampered luxury.
Others see her as a victim, a devoted mother who never wanted – and was never asked – to be a first lady and who has been treated with contempt by her husband, who has been accused of sexual misbehaviour by at least 19 women in the past 18 months. He has denied it in every case.
Trump has even joked about the tensions with his wife, remarking at the recent Gridiron Club dinner that there had been such chaos in the White House that he didn’t know whether his top domestic adviser Stephen Miller or the first lady were next in line to depart. “Who’s going to be the next to leave: Steve Miller or Melania?” he quipped.
For her part, Melania appears to be responding to each big revelation with calculated gestures of independence.
After it emerged that the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels – real name, Stephanie Clifford – had allegedly been paid US$130,000 in “hush money” by Trump’s lawyer just before the 2016 election, Melania broke with her schedule to travel separately from the White House to the Capitol for her husband’s State of the Union address.
She even wore a cream Christian Dior “pantsuit” that seemed to be a nod to the female Democratic senators who just over a year earlier had worn all-white outfits to protest against Trump’s anti-women policies.
Instead of travelling with Trump to Davos in January as planned, she stayed behind and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The day after Karen McDougal, the former Playboy “Playmate of the year” for 1998, alleged a 10-month
affair with Trump, Melania drove separately to Andrews air force base just outside Washington rather than take the Marine One helicopter with the president as scheduled.
The First Lady’s press operation is in lockdown mode as it stonewalls all inquiries about the private lives of the Trumps, and Melania and Barron remain largely hidden. In the vacuum, wild rumours swirl.
One prominent blogger asserted that Melania and Barron were living with her parents in Potomac, Maryland, close to St Andrew’s Episcopal School, where Barron is a pupil. Another unsubstantiated report was that Melania was staying at “a posh DC hotel”. That triggered a condemnatory tweet from Stephanie Grisham, Melania’s spokeswoman, of the “laundry list of salacious and flat-out false reporting about Mrs Trump”.
What is the truth about the relationship between Donald and Melania Trump? Is she contemplating divorce, as US tabloids claim? How much time does she spend at the White House, even when she is in Washington? Will she continue to support her husband even as the mountain of indignities grows?
By all accounts the Trumps have used separate bedrooms for many years. In her CNN interview, McDougal told how Trump gave her a tour of his penthouse apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan: “We passed a room and he said, ‘It’s Melania’s room,’” McDougal recalled. “‘She likes to have her alone time or to get her way to read,’ or something like that. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s when I kind of thought, ‘Maybe they’re having issues.’ I didn’t ask.”
Daniels, famous for “skin flicks” such as Sexbots: Programmed for Pleasure and Camp Cuddly Pines Powertool Massacre, said in her CBS interview that Trump had avoided talking about his wife and new child. “I asked. And he brushed it aside, said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, you know, don’t worry about that. We don’t even… we have separate rooms and stuff,’” she said.
Perhaps most hurtful of all, both women said Trump had compared them to his daughter Ivanka, who is 11 years younger than Melania. Daniels said, “He was like, ‘Wow, you are special. You remind me of my daughter,’” when recalling what Trump told her before they allegedly had sex in his hotel room at a Lake Tahoe golf tournament in 2006.
McDougal recounted: “He said I was beautiful like her [Ivanka] and, ‘You’re a smart girl’. And there wasn’t a lot of comparing, but there was some, yeah. I heard a lot about her.”
There is said to be frostiness between Melania and her stepdaughter. Last year Trump’s first wife, Ivana, promoting a memoir called Raising Trump, boasted that she had Trump’s direct number in the White House but said: “I [don’t] really want to call him there because Melania is there and I don’t want to cause any kind of jealousy or something like that.” She added, laughing: “I’m basically first Trump wife. OK? I’m first lady.”
This prompted a furious response from the First Lady’s spokeswoman. “She [Melania] plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books,” the statement said. “There is clearly no substance to this statement from an ex. Unfortunately only attention seeking and self-serving noise.”
Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, said: “If you’re Ivanka in that triangle, your loyalty would be with your mother, not your stepmother. It was amazing that Melania did that. You never see statements like that from first ladies. It was kind of catty.”
To begin to understand the Trump marriage it helps to recall where it all began – in the Kit Kat Club in Manhattan in September 1998. She was 28, he was 52 – only two years younger than her father, to whom Trump bore a striking resemblance. Born Melanija Knavs, she had grown up in Slovenia, then part of Marshal Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, before seeking her fortune in New York via Milan and Paris. Along the way she changed her name to the more Germanic Melania Knauss.
It had been in Milan that she met the playboy Paolo Zampolli, who ran a modelling agency and was a buddy of Trump. Either by fate or by design, Trump was at the Times Square club bash that night. When he saw Melania he waited until his date, the Norwegian cosmetics heiress Celina Midelfart, went to the bathroom and asked for her phone number. Melania did not give it to him but she took his and called him a week later.
The couple were soon an item in the gossip columns and Melania willingly played her part in boosting her man’s ego. On the ribald Howard Stern chat show, Trump spoke about what he admired in his future bride: “She has the perfect proportions – 5ft 11in, 125lb – and great boobs, which is no trivial matter.”
Trump arranged for Stern to call Melania. “Let me talk to that broad in your bed,” Stern said. “Are you naked? Are you nude?” he asked her.
“Almost,” Melania replied. She was asked if she went round to Trump’s apartment every night to have sex and said: “That’s true. We have a great, great time,” before adding “even more”.
Matthew Atanian, a photographer who shared a flat with Melania at the time, recalled in GQ magazine that she would wear ankle weights around the apartment and ate five to seven portions of vegetables and fruit each day.
“She went away for a two-week vacation, then came back and was more… buxom,” he said. “She admitted it to me. She just said it needed to be done to get more lingerie jobs.”
GQ has hinted that she has since had other cosmetic surgery – which she emphatically denies – leading her to “acquire the taut, Plasticine squint that makes it look as if cameras are forever catching her a second before a sneeze”.
The Trumps were married at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2005. Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the 350 guests, along with supermodel Heidi Klum, the now-disgraced news presenter Matt Lauer, the now-disgraced newspaper proprietor Conrad Black, and the British reality TV and music impresario Simon Cowell.
There was a 5ft-tall Grand Marnier wedding cake and Melania wore a US$100,000 Dior satin dress with 1500 crystals, a 13ft train and a 16ft veil. Billy Joel serenaded the couple with a rendition of Just the Way You Are and The Lady is a Tramp with a made-up lyric about the groom.
After two demanding, ambitious wives, Trump seemed, as Vanity Fair put it, “to have chosen as his third a woman who would be both bombshell and cipher, a physical testament to his manhood and amazingness”. Melania emphasised in interviews that she was not “needy” or “nagging” and Trump explained to CNN that he appreciated this: “I work very hard from early in the morning till late in the evening. I don’t want to go home and work at a relationship.”
No one knows the exact nature of the couple’s arrangement but Trump assented to her desire to have a child – his fifth – but made it clear he would not be changing nappies or taking strolls with the baby. There was a prenuptial agreement, which presumably still stands and limits the millions that Melania would receive in the event of a divorce.
“It’s a hard, painful, ugly tool,” Trump told New York magazine for an article about prenups. “Believe me, there’s nothing fun about it. But there comes a time when you have to say: darling, I think you’re magnificent and I care for you deeply but if things don’t work out, this is what you’re going to get.’”
Melania is like no other first lady before her. She is the first third wife to occupy the role, the second foreign-born (192 years after the English-born Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams), the first to pose nude and, last year, the first to win damages by suing a newspaper, the Daily Mail, which had claimed untruthfully that she “provided services beyond simply modelling”. She has a dozen staff – Michelle Obama reportedly had 24 – and didn’t
She was at Mar-a-Lago when the Stormy Daniels interview was aired. He watched it alone in the White House residence.
arrive in Washington until Trump had been president for five months.
She is by no means the only first lady to have had to cope with her husband’s alleged infidelity. The wives of Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton all knew that their husbands were serially unfaithful. The difference with Melania is that the sordid particulars have been revealed so extensively in the 24/7 news cycle that is Trump’s lifeblood.
She was at Mar-a-Lago when the Daniels interview was aired. He watched it alone in the White House residence, remaining – to his lawyers’ relief – uncharacteristically quiet afterwards.
Her first priority seems to be to shield Barron. Members of staff at the White House have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. “They’re terrified that if one person says something, everyone will be fired because of the way Trump operates,” said one informed source.
All the parenting of Barron seems to have been subcontracted to Melania, with the help of her parents, with whom Barron is reported to have spoken Slovenian. “The weird thing is you don’t see Trump playing with Barron, you don’t see him hanging out with his son in any way. I feel badly for him,” said the source.
A former White House aide said something seemed to have changed between the Trumps in recent weeks. “They have never been a couple in any conventional sense but after she arrived in Washington there seemed to be a kind of truce – he had his role, she had hers. But that sense of at least minimal co-operation has gone now. It’s a cold war between them.”
There are signs, though, that Melania is in it for the long haul. “I have thick skin,” she told Fox News in 2016, months before she defended Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about sexual assault, explaining how he would “grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In what could be a nod to her role model Jackie Kennedy, Melania is this month hosting a state dinner for Emmanuel Macron, the French president, at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. No state dinner has been held there since the Kennedys welcomed the president of Pakistan in 1961.
Jackie Kennedy was often away from Washington at her estate in Middleburg, Virginia. “There are parallels between these two women, who were fashion icons and very stylish,” said Brower.
“Jackie was very much involved in her children’s lives. She spent minimal time in the White House and you see that with Melania, the idea that she’s at Mar-a-Lago at every opportunity. Also, Jackie Kennedy knew about her husband’s cheating but looked the other way.”
Jackie Kennedy once said her life would have “all been a wasteland” without her husband and Melania has indicated that she sees a value in her marriage, although maybe not on a romantic level.
She has recently stepped up her campaign against cyberbullying – perhaps another shot across her husband’s bows.
“I am well aware that people are sceptical of me discussing this topic,” she said with a hint of steel at a White House round table last month.
“I have been criticised for my commitment to tackling this issue and I know that will continue. But it will not stop me from doing what I know is right.”
Melania Trump wore a stony expression during her appearance at the White House over Easter.
Melania is increasingly choosing to travel – and live – separately from her husband.