Melania Trump, a Mysterious First Lady, Weathers a Chaotic White House

Melania Trump prizes her privacy. But the first lady’s absence from the public eye has led to very different narratives about who she is.

WASHINGTON — Hours after Melania Trump moved into the White House in June of last year, she peered out a window and took in a stunning view of the Washington Monument: “Looking forward to the memories we’ll make in our new home!” the first lady cheerily wrote on Twitter in a snapshot of the tableau.

But Mrs. Trump understood even then that her efforts to forge her own role would be second-guessed and scrutinized at every turn, including by her spouse.

Mrs. Trump, a former fashion model who prefers clean, modern lines, had chosen some furniture for the White House residence in the months before she joined her husband in Washington. Yet in her absence, President Trump — whose tastes veer toward the gilded, triumphal style of Louis XIV — replaced her choices with several pieces he liked better. One of two people familiar with the episode cited it as an example of Mr. Trump’s tendency not to relent on even the smallest requests from his wife.

A little more than a year later, Mrs. Trump remains an intensely private first lady still adjusting to the demands of a new life. She has few friends in Washington, keeps a light public schedule and when not watching over her 12-year-old son, Barron, returns home to New York — at least once per month, two people close to her say — for meetings and to visit a small circle of associates, including her sister and her hairstylist.

Unlike other modern first ladies who wielded influence behind the scenes, friends say Mrs. Trump has insulated herself from the chaos and leaks of the White House by directing the East Wing to operate independently from the West Wing.

Her staff is small — 10 people, compared with more than 25 who worked for Michelle Obama or Laura Bush — and she has struggled to put substance behind a public service project, which the role of first lady now demands. The nascent progress of Mrs. Trump’s signature policy effort, a child-focused campaign called “Be Best,” was stymied this month with the departure of her policy director after six months on the job.



Who Is the ‘Real’ Melania Trump? Who Knows?

Melania Trump prizes her privacy. But the first lady’s absence from the public eye has led to very different narratives about who she is.

Melania Trump. Is she trapped? A reluctant first lady? Or is she poised, polished and a quiet, but supportive, first lady? Who is the real Melania? Very few, at least among those who are speaking publicly, will say. “I’m very strong. People, they don’t really know me. People think and talk about me like, ‘Oh, Melania. Oh, poor Melania.’ Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sorry for me. I can handle everything.” But as Donald Trump’s presidency has progressed, the first lady has become a versatile avatar, her image split sharply down political lines. In one version of the public imagination, Melania is unhappy. She dislikes her husband and disagrees with his policies. She may even be mulling a divorce. This Melania has shown up on late-night TV and in tabloids. “You’re beautiful, dutiful Melania. I can’t take it anymore.” Then there’s the other version of Melania, painted by conservative media as confident, fashion forward, graceful and adored. “I have been so impressed with, not just her quiet dignity, as you brought up, but also just this diplomatic use of fashion.” This version is closer to the official portrayal of Melania. Through her spokespeople, the first lady says she is supportive of her husband and focused on raising their son, Barron. “I support my husband 100 percent. But we have a 9-year-old son together, Barron. And I’m raising him.” She says she prefers to take a back seat to her husband, to keep his place in the limelight. It’s not the first time Melania’s been in the public eye. “You spin, baby, you spin.” She’s a former model and jewelry designer. “I love when idea comes to life. And I study architecture and design and it’s something very creative for me.” “I’m very passionate about what I design, and there are some beautiful pieces.” When they got together in the late 1990s, the Trumps say their chemistry was instant. “We were both at the same party and that’s how we met. He came to me...” “Like her right away?” “I went crazy.” Melania and Donald became synonymous with the New York social scene. “They’ve stood did together for a number of years now. New Yorkers have come to know them as a very solid couple.” And in 2005, they married. “Hi, fans. I’m going to Metropolitan Gala.” In the following years, Melania’s social media posts focused on fashion, travel, fitness and spending time with family. Now as the first lady, next to one of the most outspoken presidents in recent history, Melania’s silence has taken on a life of its own. “The most important thing is just to be you. That’s the end.”

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Melania Trump prizes her privacy. But the first lady’s absence from the public eye has led to very different narratives about who she is.CreditCredit...Al Drago/The New York Times

Mrs. Trump “is staying true to the independent woman that she is by doing things her own way,” Stephanie Grisham, her communications director, wrote in an email. “This should be celebrated, not criticized. Her priorities remain her family, her personal health and her role as first lady.”

Allies describe Mrs. Trump as warm, engaging and witty, traits at odds with the totemic stance she often takes in public. Just like her husband, she often ignores guidance from aides in favor of her own instincts, and directs her staff to fight back against news media coverage she dislikes. (Ms. Grisham insisted that the White House furniture replacement was a joint husband-and-wife effort. “They both chose the décor,” she said.)

But Mrs. Trump remains a Rorschach test for public perceptions of Mr. Trump’s White House: People tend to see in her what they already believe about the president. To conservative supporters of the president, she is a quietly loyal helpmate. To Mr. Trump’s critics, she is an enabler trapped in a gilded cage, occasionally breaking out to express a divergent opinion or make a high-profile gaffe before retreating again into silence.

In June, the Slovenian-born Mrs. Trump, 48, was the only senior administration official to visit multiple detention facilities near the United States’ border with Mexico after thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents as part of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies. But any good intentions were overshadowed by her decision to wear a jacket emblazoned with the phrase “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” on an official trip to Texas. It was widely seen as inappropriate, insensitive and unbecoming of her office.

Mr. Trump seized on the moment to say his wife was addressing the news media, but a person close to Mrs. Trump said the jacket was actually directed at anyone — both outside and inside the White House — who wanted to criticize her decision to visit the children in light of the administration’s aggressive immigration policies. The East Wing insisted the jacket had no underlying message.

“No one tells the first lady what to do,” Ms. Grisham said. “Our office has nothing to do with what clothing choices she makes and this situation was no different.”

In other matters, Mrs. Trump has made her opinions pronounced. This month her office issued a statement supporting LeBron James’s work with children — hours after the president insulted the athlete’s intellect on Twitter.

“It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation, and just as she always has, the first lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” Ms. Grisham said in a statement.

Credit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Several friends and aides of the Trumps insist that the dynamic of the first couple’s marriage has not fundamentally changed from their days in Trump Tower. One friend of the Trumps in Palm Beach, Fla., said Mrs. Trump entered the relationship with Mr. Trump with her eyes open, and has weathered 13 years of scandal-plagued marriage and a rocky transition into the White House primarily for the benefit of keeping life stable for their son.

She has faced constant questions from critics who want to know why — or how — she can remain with Mr. Trump. In January, Mrs. Trump was said to be infuriated by reports of her husband’s attempt to pay off the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, with whom he is accused of having an affair shortly after Mrs. Trump gave birth to their son. The president’s allies say he remains concerned about her reaction whenever headlines about his extramarital behaviors crop up, and he has told friends he feels guilty about the criticism she has faced.

In private, a former White House official said, Mr. and Mrs. Trump give the impression that they like one another, but their rapport is not particularly warm. One person who has spent a considerable amount of time around her said Mrs. Trump was far more relaxed outside the presence of her husband than when he was around.

The president does not often accede to anyone’s influence, but those close to the family say Mrs. Trump is the strongest voice in the president’s life. Several people in the president’s orbit have relied on Mrs. Trump to try to get back in Mr. Trump’s good graces when they have found themselves criticized or on the outs.

“He listens to her more intently than anyone and respects her advice and counsel not only because she is his wife, but because her loyalty, grace, trust, elegance under fire, intellect and instincts are time tested and proven,” Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a friend of the president, said in an interview.

The sort of Twitter fisticuffs that tend to recharge her husband’s batteries exhaust Mrs. Trump, who has political views different from her husband’s on some issues, one friend of the family said, and has at times been frustrated by his inability to compromise. But, unlike other people close to the president, she is not afraid to share her unvarnished thoughts with him.

“He’s ‘Donald’ to her,” Mr. Barrack said.

At the White House, Mrs. Trump tends to stay in the residence, where she has worked with the kitchen staff to arrange more-healthful meals for her husband — though he still prefers two scoops of ice cream for dessert. She does regular Pilates workouts and consults with the White House Historical Association on residence renovations and upkeep.

She maintains a separate bedroom from her husband, and when the two travel, they stay in separate hotel suites.

Outside of the White House, Mrs. Trump stays in touch through emoji-laden text messages with friends in New York, including Suzanne Ircha Johnson, whose husband, Woody Johnson, owns the New York Jets; Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a friend with deep ties to New York’s philanthropic and fashion worlds and briefly an unpaid White House adviser to Mrs. Trump; Karen LeFrak, the wife of the real estate developer Richard LeFrak; and Mrs. Trump’s older sister, Ines Knauss, who lives a few blocks from Trump Tower.

“She is a woman of grit, never afraid to speak her mind,” Mrs. LeFrak wrote in an email. “As a friend, I’ve seen how she handles her role as first lady with the same finesse and care as she uses in her friendships — always quality over quantity.”

Very few people are privy to the inner details of her life. Her aides regularly deny a widespread belief that Mrs. Trump lives outside the White House with her parents, near Barron’s school in Maryland. A White House official said her parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, split their time among an apartment in Trump Tower, Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and the suite in the White House once used by Mrs. Obama’s mother.

The Knavs recently became American citizens after Mrs. Trump sponsored them for green cards — the kind of “chain migration” that Mr. Trump has repeatedly and publicly denounced.

At first, Mrs. Trump relied on Ms. Wolkoff to help her assume her new role. Aside from overseeing inauguration events, Ms. Wolkoff assisted the first lady in setting up the East Wing, which included making key hires, writing speeches and developing a child-focused platform with a serious mission.

But in February, Ms. Wolkoff left the East Wing, along with other unpaid advisers, as a result of an administration-wide security clearance review. While operatives say her departure had to do with reports that her event planning firm received $26 million for work on the inauguration, she has vehemently denied this, and has said that every cent her firm spent on the inauguration was accounted for.

“It unfortunately brought an abrupt end to the efforts and partnerships we’d developed to improve the well-being of children, which Mrs. Trump genuinely cares about,” Ms. Wolkoff said in an interview. “The end outcome was not what I expected, but this had more to do with other factions of the White House.”

In the months that followed, more ambitious ideas were whittled down to “Be Best,” a name the first lady chose, with the broad goals of encouraging good online behavior and exploring solutions to the opioid crisis. At its rollout, the program was greeted with fanfare in the White House. Attendees were given a pamphlet and cookies decorated by White House chefs.

The president suggested that Mrs. Trump choose a different topic to avoid questions about how the wife of a notorious Twitter bully could lead a campaign to spotlight anti-bullying and other child wellness efforts, and he warned her that she was opening herself to such jeers, people familiar with the conversations said. She rejected his advice, and publicly said she was willing to face the criticism.

Despite a tightly controlled rollout and assurance from her aides ahead of the event, one White House official said, Mrs. Trump was still upset by accusations of plagiarism surrounding the launch of the initiative, and was frustrated by the president not backing her up, in public or in private.

Shortly after the rollout in May, she was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a five-day hospital stay to treat what her aides called a benign kidney condition. She did not appear in public for nearly a month, and since then has not participated in a dedicated “Be Best” event. Instead, Mrs. Trump has mentioned her program during five tightly controlled solo appearances since.

The East Wing disputed any notion that “Be Best” has not been carried out as the first lady envisioned.

“It is exactly what she wants it to be, and has been a success,” Ms. Grisham said. “We look forward to continued success in her mission of helping children.”

The president has offered glowing reviews of his wife’s work as first lady, and brings her up frequently in public and in private. At rallies, Mr. Trump has told the crowd that she supports the work he has done as president, and that she is watching from home.

“In many conversations, the president frequently references Melania, sharing her opinions with me on people and things,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a friend of Mr. Trump’s. “She’s smart and has good intuition. He knows that.”

While the Trumps vacationed in Bedminster, N.J., last week, Mrs. Trump appeared by his side at a dinner the president hosted with supporters, including Mr. Ruddy: “I just want to thank the president for doing an incredible job,” she said to her husband, “and for all of your help.”

Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.

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