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.

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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.

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