Is Melania Trump really looking forward to being rid of President Trump as much as tens of millions of Americans are? Or is it just another fantasy that Trump critics are projecting on a first lady who has succeeded in shrouding her true self in mystery?
Many who despise Donald Trump imagine that his wife does, too. They point to a few videos of her seeming to refuse to hold her husband’s hand as proof. They also notice that Melania spends a lot of time apart from her husband, and she’s not as publicly affectionate with him as, for instance, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama or Jill Biden are with their husbands. Some have baselessly claimed that Melania has a body double who stands in for her when (they imagine) she refuses to make appearances at her husband’s side.
“Never, not with any previous first lady,” has there been a rampant conspiracy theory like that, said Myra Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University in New Jersey and the author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
It’s easy to see where that idea came from. After a brutal election, many anti-Trumpers who are tired of the president calling others “losers” wouldn’t mind seeing him humiliated by his 24-years-younger wife leaving him, especially when he’s already down.
Melania Trump keeps a small inner circle, but two people close to her spoke to The Washington Post and said that she has shown no sign of leaving her husband, at least not any time soon. (They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they know Melania would not want them to speak to the press. “She believes her private life is no one’s business,” said one.)
The first lady has said several times over the past four years that she does not always agree with the president, but in the closing days of the 2020 campaign, she emerged as one of his most ardent cheerleaders. In forceful, highly partisan speeches, she slammed Biden, the Democrats and the news media, while urging people to vote for her husband, the one true leader and “optimist” in the race.
“I don’t think Melania leaves Donald. She’s very willingly complicit in his schemes and holds his beliefs as her own,” said Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former attorney who is under home confinement while finishing out a felony federal sentence for tax fraud and campaign finance violations. “Those two deserve each other.”
The Trumps are remarkably in sync despite their personality differences, said Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former friend and aide who wrote a book that was highly critical of the first lady. “It’s part of the show. She’s always been the quiet. He’s been the loud. She’s been the soft. He’s been the hard. They play off one another. It’s part of the relationship that makes it work.”
Asked for comment on the fact that people were speculating about the possibility of the Trumps splitting up, Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff, offered a stern rebuke: “This question is pathetic and exactly why people no longer trust the mainstream media. No legitimate journalist would ask this.”
The idea that Melania can’t wait to ditch Donald might be a natural extension of the same wishful thinking that led people to assume that the president’s reckless disregard for truth and the norms of presidential behavior would lead to a huge repudiation at the polls. And although Trump lost reelection, that karmic wave never materialized.
Maybe Melania is similar to America: A big part of her admires Donald Trump, even if another part of her is appalled by him.
Melania Trump’s four years as first lady began with “Free Melania” memes and “Saturday Night Live” sketches depicting her as the princess trapped in Trump Tower, an unwilling political spouse when all she wanted was to be a mother to their teenage son, Barron, and spend time at the Mar-a-Lago spa. (In one SNL sketch, Melania is portrayed as gentle and lonely, if a bit naive, and starts confiding in a Pakistani customer service representative for Gucci online orders.)
SNL writer Julio Torres, the mastermind behind that and other Melania sketches, said he stopped wanting to write them after the first lady wore her infamous “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” jacket on a trip to visit immigrant children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border — a message she has said was intended as a dig at her media critics, but which struck many as tone-deaf given her husband’s ruthless approach to families at the border.
“There was this shift. It wasn’t funny anymore,” Torres said in a 2019 interview. At first, Torres and his colleagues had felt somewhat sorry for Melania Trump. “We were like, ‘Oh, this poor lady. The American Dream gone bad,’ ” he said. “And then she started talking and it was like, ‘Oh, you’re not captive. You’re making choices. There is agency. You’re complicit. It’s not the princess in the castle anymore.’ ”
It’s been a trying year for a first lady who values her privacy. Late in the summer, Winston Wolkoff, the former friend and aide, released secret audio recordings in which Melania is heard expressing her views in an unguarded way.
On the tapes, Melania could be heard using strong language when referring to her White House decorating duties (“Who gives a f--- about Christmas stuff and decorations?”), and saying she delighted in “driving liberals crazy.” She also sounded heartless when talking about children at the border who had been separated from their parents. Those children had a bed in detention, she could be heard saying, and the United States took better care of them than Mexico did. The release of those tapes, along with other criticism, has contributed to a bunker mentality in the White House, with both Trumps feeling besieged. Some of those working in the White House attribute that solidarity to why they have appeared closer in 2020 than they did in 2016.
As her husband’s reelection effort entered the homestretch, she became more vocal in her support of the administration and its talking points.
In all, she gave four lengthy speeches in a whirlwind tour of battleground states, more than her 2016 campaign activities. In Huntersville, N.C., she referred to Biden as a “career politician” whose word could not be trusted: “You deserve a president with proven results, not a career politician with empty words and broken promises.” At a barn in West Bend, Wis., she slammed Biden as a “socialist,” attacked the press as “propaganda” and railed against the “sham impeachment.” It was strong stuff, especially for a first lady who rarely gives interviews and has often signaled that she has more measured political views than her husband.
“Joe Biden says he could do a better job leading our great nation,” she said as the crowd of 250 people in masks and wearing MAGA hats roared their approval. “Apparently when you hide in a basement, you feel safe communicating your wishful thinking.”
On Election Day, with the president in the D.C. area, the first lady walked to her polling place in Palm Beach, Fla. — without her husband, in a break with tradition — and cast her vote.
In the aftermath of Biden’s victory, President Trump has clung desperately to the idea that the courts might somehow overturn the results. Melania has made one public appearance since Election Day, appearing with the president at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day (and raising eyebrows by walking not with her husband, but arm-in-arm with a Marine and, again, not wearing a mask). She recently tweeted from her official @FLOTUS government account that, “Every legal — not illegal — vote should be counted.” She has not yet contacted Jill Biden to offer congratulations — unlike Michelle Obama, who had invited Melania Trump to the White House for tea by this time four years ago, despite bad blood between the families.
“As far as I know, the president has not conceded the race yet, so it sounds about right,” said Michael LaRosa, spokesman for Jill Biden, who is nevertheless building her transition team.
Grisham, Melania Trump’s chief of staff, suggested that the election results are not yet final. She said the first lady believes “we need to protect our democracy with complete transparency, and that is the focus at this time. ”
Many expect Trump to be the first outgoing president to skip the inauguration since Andrew Johnson did so 150 years ago, which means Melania Trump probably won’t be there, either.
“I think Melania will be under pressure not to do the typical things, like inviting Jill Biden to the White House for tea,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
“Unfortunately,” said Brower, “we’ve descended into such partisanship that Trump has made that kind of civility that we’re used to during a transition period impossible.”
After the Trumps move out of the White House, Melania is expected to spend more time in Palm Beach, Fla., than New York City, which erupted with cheers and dancing in the streets at the news of Biden’s win.
President Trump, who during the campaign called New York a lawless “ghost town,” switched his official residence to Florida last year. Ultimately, Melania Trump will settle close to wherever Barron decides to attend high school, her friends have said. Some have suggested he might like to go to an overseas boarding school.
Last week, Dave Mason, an oddsmaker at BetOnline.ag, a popular offshore betting company, said most gamblers making a wager on the Trump marriage are putting their money on a divorce. In fact, so many people are betting on divorce that the potential payout has been shrinking. This week, a $10 bet on “Yes, she will divorce” before Nov. 3, 2021, would pay out $26 if it happens — down from $65 on Election Day.
“A lot of people want her to leave him as some kind of a payback, but I don’t see Melania Trump to be that type of a person,” said Elizabeth J. Natalle, an associate professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has written books about Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama.
“She’s consistently said in her interviews that she’s a big girl,” said Natalle. “She knows what she’s doing.”