"She didn't want this come hell or high water" / Inside Melania Trump's secretive East Wing
“SHE DIDN’T WANT THIS COME HELL OR HIGH WATER”: INSIDE MELANIA TRUMP’S SECRETIVE EAST WING
Understanding the most enigmatic First Lady—and unusual marriage—in modern political history.
By Sarah Ellinson
I. “NOT MY THING”
Back in 2014, when Donald Trump was considering yet again a run for president, he polled his friends and advisers about what he should do. He went through a lengthy process, toyed with running for governor of New York, and went back and forth on making any decision. Trump’s dalliance with politics dated back to 1987, when he was promoting The Art of the Deal. He generated publicity for the book (and himself) by buying space for “open letters” in major newspapers, criticizing American foreign policy. He then helicoptered to New Hampshire (which hosts the first presidential primaries) to give a well-attended speech at a local Rotary Club. Trump had seriously entertained a run in 2012, against Mitt Romney, whom he eventually endorsed, but then drew back. Roger Stone, a veteran Republican troublemaker and an early Trump adviser, told me recently that Trump had had “immediate seller’s remorse that he decided not to run” that year. In 2014, Trump was even more serious, and in the end he consulted one of his most discreet advisers—his wife, Melania. “She was very clearly the one who said, ‘Either run or don’t run,’ ” Stone explained. He went on, paraphrasing Melania: “ ‘Your friends are tired of this striptease. Every four years you talk about it.’ ”
It is unlikely that Melania Trump used this exact language. But another source has backed up Stone’s account: that it was in part Melania’s impatience with her husband’s dithering that helped push Trump to declare his candidacy. “She knew it was in his blood,” Stone said. “He always wanted to run. She is the one who pushed him to run just by saying run or do not run. I don’t think she was ever too crazy about it.” She knew her husband wanted to run for president. And she knew that, if he didn’t, he was likely to be knocking around their gilded triplex in Trump Tower, muttering about how he should have done so. “She said, ‘It’s not my thing. It’s Donald’s thing,’ ” according to Stone. “And I think she understood he was going to be unhappy if he didn’t run.”
Trump declared his candidacy, and the decision ultimately thrust Melania Trump into a role she had never sought.
“Behind every successful woman, there is a man in shock,” Ivana Trump writes in her recently released memoir, Raising Trump,about her 13-year marriage to the man who is now president, and about her experience bringing up their three children. She took an active role in managing the Trump Organization, and some of Trump’s associates told me that it was Ivana, not Donald, who was the brains behind the operation. “I was too successful to be Mrs. Trump,” Ivana writes in her book. “In our marriage, there couldn’t be two stars. So one of us had to go.” Trump and Ivana were divorced in 1990 while he was having an affair with Marla Maples, whom he married in 1993, and who is the mother of the much-overlooked (perhaps to her relief) Tiffany Trump. Then, in 2005, he married Melania. At a party in 2015, Ivana Trump was overheard talking about her ex-husband’s prospects as a presidential candidate. According to the New York Daily News, Ivana scoffed, “Yes, but the problem is, what is he going to do with his third wife? She can’t talk, she can’t give a speech, she doesn’t go to events, she doesn’t seem to want to be involved.”
Melania Trump is an unusual First Lady. She is only the second FLOTUS in history not to have been born in the U.S. (The first was Louisa Adams, John Quincy’s wife, who was born in England.) She is the only one to have been raised in a Communist country. She is the only First Lady to delay moving with her husband to the White House, in her case, until five months after the inauguration. She is the only one to be the third wife of a president, and the only one to have ever posed nude for published photographs. She is fiercely protective of her son, but, unlike other First Ladies, the mystery around her day-to-day movements gives rise to rumors that she spends less time than is typical in the White House.
To understand the First Lady and her East Wing operation, I spoke to current and former White House staffers, including former East Wing advisers, as well as friends and advisers to Melania and Donald Trump. Melania Trump declined requests for an interview, as did her press secretary. Taking stock of her role as First Lady is an exercise in subtraction. What she does not do is almost as telling as what she does. Her East Wing remains sparsely inhabited.
There may never have been a First Lady less prepared for or suited to the role. “This isn’t something she wanted and it isn’t something he ever thought he’d win,” one longtime friend of the Trumps’ told me. “She didn’t want this come hell or high water. I don’t think she thought it was going to happen.”
II. SEPARATE LIVES?
The East Wing of the White House, as it exists today, was built in 1942, during World War II, largely to provide cover for the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC, an underground bunker designed to protect then president Franklin Roosevelt and other key personnel in the event of an attack. It was to the PEOC that Vice President Dick Cheney famously fled on September 11, 2001. That the physical offices of the First Lady provide cover for her husband in an emergency is one of those historical facts that scream to be leveraged as metaphor.
Melania Trump seems to be very much alone in her position. Her East Wing has only nine employees, fewer than half the number employed by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. Public tours of the White House begin in the East Wing, through the glass triple doors of the Visitors Entrance. But despite her proximity to the public, much of Melania Trump’s life has remained in the shadows. She is the keeper of many of her husband’s secrets, and one can imagine that what binds the two of them together is that he may very well be the keeper of some of hers.
On the ground floor of the East Wing, inside the main entrance and next to the Visitors Office, is a room for the president’s military aides who carry the “nuclear football.” Next to that is a reception room, which is outfitted with sofas and portraits of previous First Ladies. Upstairs is the First Lady’s office as well as offices for her chief of staff and for the calligraphers who handle invitations that come from the First Lady’s office. Because the East Wing is open to the public five days a week, it is a logistical feat to manage the space, according to a former East Wing staffer. Morning tours start at 7:30 A.M. and, depending on the day, run to either 11:30 A.M. or 1:30 P.M., at which time the Executive Residence staff “flips the house,” closing out the public tours and preparing for whatever official events will take place in the East Wing.
During the transition, according to a former Obama adviser, East Wing personnel sat around waiting for the phone to ring. “We really had very little to do,” this person said. Melania and her son, the youngest Trump child, Barron, did not move into the White House until June, when the school year for him came to an end. They were accompanied to Washington by Melania’s parents. Three former Obama staffers told me that the permanent staff of the White House adores the First Lady. Part of the affection may be due to the fact that, unlike the Obamas, Melania is accustomed to dealing with a staff. She also seems genuinely thoughtful in her everyday interactions with them. Allies defend her early tentativeness as simply a matter of taking time to find direction. But it is hard not to see it as discomfort with her position. Whatever her strengths, Melania is not a skilled communicator. Her English is imperfect, and she has never sought a high profile in public life (outside of her modeling years). In New York social circles, she was hardly a fixture, unlike the much more public Ivana Trump. Some of her philanthropic activities from her life in New York (Boys’ Club of New York, the American Red Cross, Love Our Children USA, the American Heart Association) are outlined in her White House biography. The list of them on the White House Web page comes after a list of her magazine-modeling covers.
Friends say she is slowly warming to the job. But she has had to state so frequently that she is independent from her husband that it is hard not to see her as distancing herself from his positions, or even from him. That is not to say that she has ever taken any proactive stance against him. An immigrant herself, she never found a voice to stand up for the immigrants that Donald Trump was bashing. A First Lady has always been able to choose the cause that will occupy some of her working hours. For Michelle Obama, it was childhood obesity and girls’ education. For Laura Bush, it was literacy. (Stockard Channing’s First Lady, Dr. Abbey Bartlet, on The West Wing, volunteered in a clinic in an underprivileged neighborhood in Washington, D.C., giving vaccinations.) For Melania Trump, the cause of choice is—improbably—cyberbullying. It has become almost too easy to point out the irony, given her husband’s habit of using Twitter to bully not only political opponents but also members of his own party and even his own Cabinet. Cyberbullying cannot have been Donald Trump’s idea. It’s unlikely but possible that she chose the cause by way of trolling her own husband. (“Wouldn’t that be great?” one former Obama adviser commented.)
In Melania’s East Wing, staff offices are somewhat drab and governmental until one ascends the stairs to the First Lady’s domain. Then “it’s absolutely stunning and gorgeous,” one recent visitor, a longtime family friend, told me. “It’s a corner office, very elegant, with antique furniture.” This description contrasts with what the former East Wing staffer told me about Michelle Obama’s office, that it was “very warm, and in some ways very casual.” On the same floor are the offices for Melania’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. So ignorant was Donald Trump about the job he was about to take that he believed he would inherit a government with every position filled. Hundreds of key posts remain open. Melania Trump did not name a chief of staff until February 1, when she selected Lindsay Reynolds, who had worked as associate director for the White House Visitors Office in Laura Bush’s East Wing. The unhurried timing of her choice was chalked up to her being “thoughtful” about the selection.
The longtime family friend of Melania’s told me that in the aftermath of a political campaign during which Barron’s father was heard bragging about assaulting women, and photos of his mother naked appeared on the cover of the New York Post, Melania has been interested mainly in sheltering her boy from an unfriendly environment in Washington. Melania has also confided to the longtime family friend that she is unnerved by the constant Secret Service detail. She was accustomed to “drivers and security, but now you have the Secret Service outside your door,” the friend told me.
“SHE DIDN’T WANT THIS COME HELL OR HIGH WATER,” SAYS A LONGTIME FRIEND OF MELANIA’S.
But there may have been other reasons why Melania delayed moving to Washington. After the release of the famous Billy Bush tape, it was almost conventional wisdom that Melania was going to leave her husband. One need not conduct too extensive a Google search to find rumors of an impending divorce. And one can find rumors about much else. Something about the relationship between Donald and Melania Trump—due in part, perhaps, to the fact that even the most ordinary elements of it have been shrouded in secrecy—seems to get the Internet going. An Internet rumor that went viral—this one based on a photograph of the president standing next to a woman in sunglasses whom he referred to as his wife—argued that the real Melania had been replaced by a body double.
Despite suggestive public evidence—frowns during the inauguration ceremony, a wooden posture during the inaugural balls, and more than one video clip showing Donald attempting to hold his wife’s hand only to be swatted away—Melania’s friends are divided when it comes to how she feels about her husband. One told me that it is “old news” that she and her husband live essentially separate lives.
And how does he feel about her? The time the couple spends apart may be one reason for Donald Trump’s poor behavior. “The one who has the most control over Donald is Melania, 100 percent,” says Thomas Barrack Jr., one of Trump’s oldest friends. “And he listens to her and adores her.”
III. “THE OGLE OFFICE”
What does Melania do with her days? In September—almost a year since the election—she gave her first public comments in her long-awaited anti-bullying campaign when she visited the United Nations and hosted a luncheon for the spouses of world leaders at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. “By our own example, we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit,” she read haltingly from the teleprompter. “We must remember that they are watching and listening . . . . As adults we are not merely responsible. We are accountable.” Melania, in a $3,000 neon pink Delpozo dress, delivered her comments during the same trip to the U.N. in which her husband called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Compare Melania’s schedule with the push-ups Michelle Obama did with Jimmy Fallon and her repeated appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and many others, or with Laura Bush’s launch of the first National Book Festival, in 2001. Hillary Clinton, much to the detriment of her popularity ratings, threw herself into a contentious health-care debate. Barbara Bush supported the Equal Rights Amendment, putting her at odds with the conservative wing of her husband’s political party.
Melania has always been a private person, according to friends. She was born Melanija Knavs, in 1970, in a small town in Sevnica, Slovenia, when it was still part of Yugoslavia. Her parents, Amalija and Viktor Knavs, led a privileged life compared with their peers. Amalija, a stylish woman who grew up on a farm, had a career at a clothing factory while her husband, Viktor, a member of the Slovenian Communist Party, sold cars for a state-owned automobile company.
Melania’s parents relocated to the United States to live in Trump Tower. They are close to Barron, their grandson, who speaks Slovenian as well as English. (“He has an accent?,” Larry King asked the Trumps in 2010, when Barron was just four years old.) Melania’s parents spend time in the area where Barron attends private school, according to a former West Wing aide. The idea is presumably to provide Barron with the kind of stability the Obamas sought for their daughters by inviting Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, to live with them in the White House. The aide also told me that since Melania moved to D.C. her “focus” has been on Barron’s school. “I think it would be better for [Trump] if she were around more,” the former aide said. But an East Wing aide told me that, aside from her son’s school events, Melania does not spend much time away from the White House.
She has not always been a political asset. Melania burst into the political news in 2016 when an anti-Trump super-PAC featured a photo of her from the January 2000 British GQ, lounging naked on fur aboard Trump’s private plane wearing only handcuffs and diamonds. Later in the campaign, the New York Post published nude photos of Melania, from her modeling years, on the newspaper’s cover, with the headline THE OGLE OFFICE. (Jason Miller, the senior communications adviser for the campaign, called the photos “a celebration of the human body as art.”)
She seemed unprepared for some of the scrutiny leveled at her, as when she wore four-inch stilettos on her way to visit storm-ravaged Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, or when she dressed in a $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana flowered coat on a trip to Italy. On the Trumps’ visit to Israel in May, Sara Netanyahu was overheard by a local broadcaster comforting Melania with these words: “You know, in Israel all the people like us. The media hate us, but the people love us. Like you.” Still, on that same overseas trip, it was Melania who received the warmest reception from Pope Francis, whom Donald Trump has called “disgraceful.” Francis had only kind words for Melania. He asked her if she fed Trump potica, a Slovenian nut bread—possibly referring to Trump’s widening girth. “He was very friendly with her and not with the rest of the family,” someone briefed on the trip told me.
In a rare campaign speech for her husband, in April 2016, Melania Trump took to a stage in Wisconsin. “It is wonderful to be here today with you and with my husband,” she began. “I’m very proud of him. He’s [sic] hard worker. He’s kind. He has a great heart. He’s tough. He’s smart. He’s a great communicator. He’s a great negotiator. He’s telling the truth. He’s a great leader. He’s fair.” According to Donald, Melania wrote that speech herself. She seems to have since elected to use a speechwriter for those occasions when she makes public comments of any kind, in person or in writing. In one recent instance, she tussled with her husband’s first wife, Ivana Trump, who was promoting her book. In an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, Ivana said that, while she has a direct private number for the White House, she doesn’t call her ex-husband, “because Melania is there, and I don’t want to cause any kind of jealousy or something like that.” She went on: “Because I’m basically first Trump wife, O.K.? I’m first lady, O.K.?” It was a fairly lighthearted comment. Melania elected to respond through her communications director, who issued the following statement: “Mrs. Trump has made the White House a home for Barron and the President. She loves living in Washington, D.C., and is honored by her role as First Lady of the United States. She plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books.”
IV. WHAT SHE WANTS
Paolo Zampolli had just spent two hours in the East Wing when I spoke with him in early November. Now Dominica’s ambassador to the U.N., the former modeling-agency proprietor was pleased to catch up with his old friends Donald and Melania Trump, whom he had famously introduced nearly 20 years ago at a Fashion Week party he hosted at the Kit Kat Club, in New York. The Trumps had invited him and his young son to the annual White House trick-or-treating event. Never mind that two former Trump campaign officials had been indicted that morning and a third, a former campaign adviser, had pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Just that morning, Trump had stayed upstairs, watching television news reports of the indictments and seething at the way he was being covered. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Melania greet costumed children later that day on the South Lawn.
“The media has been tough on her,” Zampolli told me. But he sensed a shift under way. “People appreciate, and the poll numbers also show, that she’s more appreciated than the president or the First Daughter.” A recent CNN poll found that Melania Trump is more popular than her husband, with 44 percent of respondents holding a favorable view of her, versus her husband’s 41 percent approval rating. Moreover, President Trump has a 57 percent unfavorability rating, whereas Melania’s stands at only 35 percent. Ivanka Trump was flat, at 41 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable. Jared Kushner ranked last—only 20 percent of respondents had a favorable view, and 39 percent had an unfavorable one. For Melania, being more popular than her husband is an increasingly easy task.
Zampolli’s modeling agency provides a famous piece of Melania’s backstory. It was this agency that found itself at the center of a lawsuit that Melania Trump filed against two outlets, the Daily Mail newspaper’s parent company, in the U.K., and a Maryland-based blogger, Webster Tarpley. In August 2016, Tarpley, 71, published a story on his Web site reporting on rumors that Melania Trump had once worked as a high-end escort. A Daily Mail story made the same allegation. Melania Trump hired Charles Harder, who had become famous for a Peter Thiel-backed lawsuit against Gawker Media, on behalf of his client Hulk Hogan. In September she sued Tarpley and the Daily Mail for $150 million.
The lawsuits eventually landed in separate jurisdictions. Her suit against the Daily Mail’s parent company claimed that the articles hurt her chance to establish “multimillion dollar business relationships” during the years in which she would be “one of the most photographed women in the world.” The suit, filed in the commercial division of New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said the article caused Melania’s brand to lose “significant value” as well as “major business opportunities that were otherwise available to her.” The suit said the article had hurt her “unique, once in a lifetime opportunity” to “launch a broad-based commercial brand.” The Daily Mail’s parent company agreed to pay a reported $2.9 million to Melania Trump, and it issued a statement as part of the settlement. “We accept that these allegations about Mrs. Trump are not true and we retract and withdraw them,” the statement read. “We apologise to Mrs. Trump for any distress that our publication caused her.” (A separate settlement was reached with Tarpley, which included a similar retraction.)
Zampolli declined to discuss the case. But he was happy to outline the chaste nature of Melania’s arrival in New York. “She arrived and she came to model,” he told me. “She didn’t come to party. Some girls come and are attracted to New York City and they are trapped in the New York nightlife.” Not Melania. “She came for a reason, to model and to work. She was not going out.” Zampolli knows this because, back in the day, Melania was friends with his girlfriend, who was from Hungary. “They were going to the gym a lot and to swim and to the movies. They were doing what girls do.”
Zampolli batted aside any intimations that Melania is not happy, reasoning that “to be the most famous person in the world is not that bad.” He went on: “I don’t think you can come up with a conspiracy theory that she is not that happy. She is the First Lady of the United States. Come on!” Still, he acknowledged that it had taken her some time to get used to the role. In what he characterized as “personal speculation,” he told me that “in the beginning it was not pleasant,” owing to the scrutiny of the campaign. Now, Zampolli concluded, she is warming to the role. “She knows what she wants.”
But does she? Melania may well have wanted a very different life from the one she is currently leading. In that path not taken, she would be out of the harsh glare that her husband’s campaign and presidency have cast upon her. She might even be living a sumptuous but quiet life with her son, Barron, in Manhattan, where he could still attend his old school. Instead, as things are, when she’s not seeking solace with her parents, she is sitting above the nuclear football, perhaps wishing she could use it.