The New York City mother known for sending emoji-filled texts was now being invited to give speeches around the country. For years, she and her husband had a bodyguard, but now she was being protected 24 hours a day by Secret Service agents. There was always someone standing guard outside her door, and the animosity directed at her husband worried her.
“At the core, I think she’s a private person who’s spent a lot of time adjusting to public life,” said one person who worked with Trump on the campaign and has remained close to the family.
Other first ladies have found the sudden adjustment difficult as well, and Melania, a careful planner, likes to take her time doing things. No matter how intense the pressure during the campaign, she refused to be hurried. The election night win came as a surprise even to Trump, according to many on his campaign, and little preparation had been done for what came next. Trump had even talked about going to one of his golf courses in Scotland immediately after the election so he didn’t have to watch Hillary Clinton bask in her success. One campaign aide recalled that candidate Trump had “told the pilot [of his private jet], ‘Fuel up the plane.’ ”
He didn’t receive as many votes as Hillary, but he won key states and the electoral college tally that made him president. Trump and his team scrambled to write an acceptance speech and begin a White House transition.
Melania wasn’t prepared to move to Washington, either. It did not help that the campaign revelations of Trump’s alleged serial infidelities still stung. She learned many of the reported details along with the entire nation. While she very much wanted Barron to finish his academic year in New York and not be yanked from his friends, staying in New York also bought time to prepare for her new role as first lady. She needed her own staff. Trump’s staff had already pushed back on her desire to focus on online bullying, and there was huge interest in what she might do.
And, according to several people close to the Trumps, she was in the midst of negotiations to amend her financial arrangement with Trump — what Melania referred to as “taking care of Barron.”
Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements are as standard as wedding rings in Trump’s marriages. His first wife, Ivana, renegotiated hers three times; Marla, who separated from Trump after four years of marriage, walked away with such a relatively small sum that even a Trump lawyer said he felt she should have gotten more. Trump wrote about prenups and boasted about them and said any rich man who didn’t have one was “a loser.” During the presidential campaign, Melania felt that a lot had changed since she signed her prenup. She had been with him a long time — longer than any other woman. She believed she made crucial contributions to his success.
There was talk that Trump likely wouldn’t return to overseeing the Trump Organization after running the country, and Melania wanted to ensure that Barron got his rightful share of inheritance, particularly if Ivanka took the reins of the family business.
While she sorted out her plans as first lady and a new school for her son, she also worked on getting her husband to sign a more generous financial deal for her and Barron. It was smart timing.
“The best thing you can do is to deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.”
While in New York, Melania had new leverage. The vacant first lady’s office annoyed him. He wanted her with him. A few of Trump’s pals were upset with Melania, not only because her decision to remain in Trump Tower fanned rumors they were not getting along. They also wanted her in the White House because when she was around, Trump was calmer. They believed that if she were with him, he would not have been tweeting as often and acting as impulsively.
The opening weeks of his administration were marked by personnel clashes, embarrassing leaks, and a controversial travel ban that caused major protests at airports. Trump held a 75-minute press conference on Feb. 16, repeatedly denying any chaos and saying, “this administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” and adding, “I’m not ranting and raving.”
“That woman! She will be the end of him,” Thomas Barrack, Trump’s friend who chaired his inaugural, was overheard saying at a meeting, as he talked about Melania remaining in New York. “She is stubborn. She should be with her husband. He is the president of the United States.”
As the weeks passed, more people around Trump began to appreciate Melania for what she brought to their relationship. At least one of Trump’s older children even called her, urging her to spend more time with their dad, telling her that he needed her balance. Melania knew that some people in New York dismissed her as a gold digger, but now, finally, others were starting to realize her worth.
But staying in New York carried a high price. Melania hadn’t realized the overwhelming cost and inconvenience caused by the security measures needed for Barron and her in a large urban area — it was costing millions of dollars a month. The Secret Service sought more funding. The New York Police Department said a conservative estimate for its costs alone was $125,000 a day.
Simply getting Barron to his classes unleashed massive traffic problems around his school, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Many of the other parents were busy, wealthy people and some began to seethe over the disruption and inconvenience, including delayed drop-offs and pickups and being told to “hold” for Melania and Barron. Parents also worried about the safety of their own kids, even with the constant presence of the Secret Service. Not to mention that many of them were progressive New York Democrats who had voted for Hillary Clinton and couldn’t stand Trump.
Melania knew protesters stood in front of Trump Tower every day holding signs and shouting that her husband hated immigrants and women. Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition demanding that the Trumps pay the “exorbitant” costs of her choosing to remain in New York. And the longer she stayed, the greater the speculation that her decision to remain in New York meant that their marriage was on the rocks. On Valentine’s Day, Melania did not return to Washington.
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the senior adviser helping her set up her White House office, had just told CNN that Melania was “committed” to preserving Michelle Obama’s First Lady’s Kitchen Garden. Her husband was in the White House, tweeting about “illegal leaks.”
Melania did not like what was being written about her. For years her experience with the media was fielding softball questions from fashion magazines; now, instead of receiving questions about her beauty regime or fashion choices, she was being asked what, as an immigrant, she thought of her husband’s tough border policy. She had little control over the script or photos being published. She told people that no matter what she did, she would be criticized, and that she would do what she wanted. Melania had said that she would stay in New York until the school year ended, and she stood her ground.
That didn’t sit well with everyone around Trump. Barrack, who was in close touch with Trump, began asking Melania’s friends to get involved in “domestic issues,” which to them was interpreted as urging her to “lay off the prenup renegotiations” or, as another put it, “get down to Washington.” Barrack was seen as closer to Trump’s elder daughter Ivanka than to Melania.
While Melania stayed in New York, Ivanka continued to establish herself in the West Wing, notorious for its cramped and limited working spaces. According to several people, she was eyeing real estate in the East Wing as well, the domain of the first lady. Among other proposals, Ivanka suggested renaming the “First Lady’s Office” the “First Family Office.” Melania did not allow that to happen. It was tradition, and she was not going to let her stepdaughter change it.
Ivanka’s office remained in the West Wing. Melania’s delay in moving from New York initially put her at a disadvantage. Even some of the staff positions and budgets that would have been available to support the first lady’s office were gone, diverted to support those in the West Wing, including Ivanka.
Especially in the first two years of the administration, some in the White House felt that the West Wing was actively putting up roadblocks and purposely not lending support to the first lady’s office. But others believed that it was just an oversight in the chaos. Ivanka is both especially close to her father and spent far more time around him than his other children. Not only did father and daughter work closely at the Trump Organization but she also had played a key role in his campaign, and now was the child with the most active role inside the White House. With Melania away, Ivanka used the private theater, with its plush red seats, and enjoyed other White House perks. Some said she treated the private residence as if it were her own home. Melania did not like it. When she and Barron finally moved in, she put an end to the “revolving door” by enforcing firm boundaries.
All the while, Melania stayed out of the news, away from the microphones, while others were busy promoting themselves. Melania didn’t need to trumpet that she had the president’s ear, because she already did. In fact, when Trump heard a TV commentator talk about the outsize influence of his children, he laughed and said, “Do you think I became successful by listening to my kids? They listen to me.”
People working in the West Wing say they have heard Trump criticize Don Jr. and Eric and even Ivanka for doing or saying something that the president thought was not helpful, but none could recall hearing him say anything negative about Melania. He appreciated that she didn’t need publicity, and that she didn’t boast about her influence, saying little more in interviews than “sometimes” he listens and sometimes he doesn’t. At the White House, Trump felt he was surrounded by people who were constantly jockeying for position and focused on their own self-interest, and he valued Melania’s loyalty and insights more than before he entered politics.
Sean Spicer, the president’s first communications director, explained the dynamic this way: “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,” Spicer said.
Often, if Melania was present for a discussion and spoke up, “The president would say, ‘She is right,’ and that was the end of the discussion.”
More than a dozen past or current White House officials interviewed attributed Melania’s influence to the fact that Trump believed that just about everyone else had an agenda, except Melania. He believed she had no ulterior motive and just wanted him to succeed.
Trump’s wariness of others has grown during his presidency, as people he hired for high-profile jobs have left his administration and then criticized him publicly. Melania tells him what she believes is resonating with voters and what is not.
According to 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 explained her style as being dramatically different from others’ in and out of the West Wing. “There are people who go to the president and say, ‘Here is what we should be doing.’ ‘Here is what the country should be doing.’ ‘Here is what the party should be doing.’ ”
That is not Melania.
“She knows exactly who he is as a person, what he believes and what his brand is about. She really understands positioning him. 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 recalled a phone 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.”
Melania would not weigh in on many issues, but when she did speak up, her words mattered.
“The idea that she is not a big influence in the administration is just dead wrong,” said Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has known Melania and Donald Trump for years. “She picks her spots when she wants to speak assertively, but when she does, the president listens. He absolutely consults her on personnel matters.”
Over time, it became clear to those working in the West Wing that Trump placed significant value on those Melania liked (such as counselor Kellyanne Conway) and those she didn’t (including chiefs of staff Reince Priebus and, eventually, John Kelly). It also became clear that one of the most lethal places to find oneself was in Melania’s crosshairs. As one former White House official said: “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.”
Melania moved into the White House on June 11, 2017, with almost no fanfare. She is not nearly as active on social media as her husband. But on moving day she posted a picture out a White House window with a view of the Washington Monument. She had just replaced the White House chief usher, who had worked for the Obamas, overseeing a residence staff of nearly a hundred people and everything from family dinner menus to the residence’s budget.
Instead, she selected Timothy Harleth, who had been the director of rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Donald J. Trump might not be able to live at his local Trump property, but that did not mean that the Trump property could not, in many ways, be brought to him. And his wife, the newly arrived first lady, would be the one to do it.
In the end, her arrival was not much of a story. Melania was now in the White House, quietly beginning the latest remarkable chapter in her highly improbable life.