Secretary Pompeo and First Lady Melania Trump present the International Women of Courage Award to recipients from around the world “who are human rights advocates in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.” (March 4)
“Not a lot of people know me,” Melania Trump is quoted as saying in April 2016.
This is one of the more obvious understatements in “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump” (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., on sale June 16), the new unauthorized biography that attempts to plumb the mysteries of America’s most enigmatic first lady.
It’s no easy feat to dismantle the wall of mendacity and PR puffery erected over decades around the Slovenia-born former model, whose talk-to-the-hand attitude about explaining herself long ago became her signature, but kudos to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mary Jordan of The Washington Post for trying.
It’s not that this unconventional FLOTUS rejects all of the traditional customs of a first lady; it’s just she picks and chooses. Overseeing the annual Easter Egg Roll? Yes, delighted. Moving into the White House immediately after President Donald Trump’s inauguration? Nope, not doing that. She waited six months until son Barron, then 10, finished his school term in New York. She didn’t even like being called “first lady” immediately after the election, Jordan reports.
This is the second Melania Trump bio to debut in recent months: “Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography,”by Kate Bennett, a CNN White House reporter, came out in December; it covers much the same ground and gets about as far.
As Jordan depicts her, Trump, 49, (born Melanija Knaves) is guarded, deliberate, disciplined, focused. She is a careful planner and a long-game player who projects icy control in public. She is unsentimental about jettisoning people from her past (except her parents and older sister) who helped her along the way. And she doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I know what I want, and I don’t need to talk, to be an attention seeker,” she told Jordan in a preelection 44-minute phone interview.
“Finding out more about Melania – her past, her motivations, her daily life – has been an unprecedented challenge,” Jordan writes. Photos from her commercial modeling career have disappeared from archives; others require high fees paid to her. People who do or did know her won’t talk or are vague about details.
Even some who did talk were flummoxed. Jordan tracked down Dejan Marcovic, who met her in 1992 when she worked briefly for his modeling agency in Milan. “There is something about her that you cannot explain,” he said .”
Here’s some of what Jordan found out:
The president listens to Melania Trump
The book asserts the first lady is more influential in the White House than most people realize, that she may be the president’s single most important adviser, the one voice he listens to and whose instincts he respects.
As one example, Jordan cites unnamed insiders who say she is the reason Mike Pence was picked as vice president – because she thought he’d be “loyal,” the quality both Trumps value above all others. And it appears she was right.
She’s not reluctant
The “Free Melania!” image created on social media by Trump critics is a straw-woman that Jordan knocks down.
She’s the one who encouraged Trump to run for president when they met in the late 1990s, writes Jordan, quoting then-campaign advisor Roger Stone. Her instincts about people are acute; the president calls her his “best pollster.”
And she’s all-in for 2020, including planning to campaign in a way she didn’t in 2016 now that Barron is a teen. “She knows that as she becomes a more visible campaigner in 2020, she will likely become more of a target,” Jordan writes. “Still, she has told people she wants to win reelection.”
She’s not a secret critic
Jordan also dismantles the notion that she disapproves of her husband. She may differ in tone and language she uses, but she shares some of the president’s key pet peeves, including a practiced contempt for the mainstream media and the false “birther” claim that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. She’s just not as bombastic as her husband.
One of her few public disagreements with him was over his policy of separating migrant parents and children in detention centers at the border, which she said in an interview was “heartbreaking.” She let him know she thought it was “unacceptable.” Days after her rebuke (along with daughter Ivanka’s similar view), he signed an executive order ending the policy, Jordan notes.
But the first lady is content to ignore a lot: She campaigns against online bullying, advocates for wearing pandemic masks and endorses America as a nation of immigrants such as herself and her own family. She simply carries on when critics huff about the president’s online bullying habits, his refusal to wear a mask or his condemnation of “chain migration” that allowed her to sponsor her family’s citizenship and green cards.
She has opinions – and leverage
After the 2016 leaking of the “Access Hollywood” grab-women-by-the-genitals tape, candidate Trump was “terrified” to face her; both knew she had the power to kill his campaign for president. But she was affronted by the idea that people felt sorry for her as “poor Melania.”
“That irked her. She was not fragile. She was strong and in control. ‘I am putting out a statement,’ she said. ‘I am not going to sit here and pretend that I don’t have an opinion. I have an opinion and people need to know my opinion,’ ” Jordan wrote. Trump’s statement urged people to accept his apology, “as I have” and move on.
Jordan reports Trump had enough leverage to successfully renegotiate in 2016 her prenuptial agreement with her husband – a man who knows prenups – to get a better deal and “take care of Barron” so he rightfully shares in the Trump estate with his four older half-siblings.
Donald Trump, Melania Trump lead separate, parallel lives
It’s part of “their deal,” and both like it that way. Separate bedrooms do not mean their marriage is a sham. “In private, they preferred separate spaces and routines,” Jordan writes, quoting housekeepers at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., where the Trumps and her parents spend summers.
“We like to do what we like to do, and we give ourselves and each other space,” she told Jordan in the preelection interview.
Tensions with Ivanka
No surprise: Stepmom and stepdaughter, Ivanka, her father’s favorite and a White House aide, are not besties. Melania Trump has been heard calling Ivanka “The Princess;” Ivanka once referred to Melania as “The Portrait” because she spoke as much as a painting on the wall.
Jordan’s sources among the Bedminster housekeepers describe “strained relations” that led to competition between the two about whose house on the estate was cleaned first.
Does she really speak five languages?
The Trumps tell reporters Melania speaks five languages, likening her to their favorite FLOTUS, the multilingual former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Jordan says the evidence suggests Trump is truly fluent only in Slovene and English. When the first lady met Pope Francis, and he spoke to her in Italian, she seemed not to understand him and had to wait for a translation, and she donned translation headphones to listen to a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Maybe she has taken a page out of Trump’s playbook: There’s nothing wrong with exaggerating if it builds the brand and polishes the image.” Jordan observes.
Why did Trump spend five days in the hospital in 2018 for an unspecified kidney ailment? Jordan can’t say for sure, but even first ladies are entitled to medical privacy.
Readers may be more disappointed there was no resolution of the puzzling question of why a couture-loving first lady would wear a $39 Zara jacket with the snarky message, “I DON’T REALLY CARE, DO U?,” on a surprise visit to the Texas-Mexico border in June 2018. The Trumps later claimed it was a slam at the “fake news media,” but the original statement from her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, is probably the right one: There was “no message,” it was just a jacket.
A first lady who usually considers her every move carefully didn’t take care to think about how a fashion choice might undermine a humanitarian mission. And either no one on her tight-lipped, super loyal East Wing staff warned her, or she didn’t listen. She hasn’t made that mistake again.
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