Books

Melania Is Living Her American Dream

A new book reveals how the first lady used her poker face to outplay Donald Trump.

A close-up of Melania Trump's face wearing sunglasses.
Melania Trump at the White House in 2017. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

“What is she thinking?” Melania Trump tweeted all the way back in 2012, along with a photo of a cheerful-looking beluga whale popping its head out of the water. Little did she realize how many people would be wondering the same thing about her four years later. Mary Jordan, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post, managed to secure one interview with Melania, and only a phone interview at that, for her new book, The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump. Melania intended to clarify a few points. “I am not shy,” she said, and “I’m not reserved.” Yet, “not a lot of people know me.” Sure, there are people from her past who once met her for “five minutes” and claim to know her, but “only I know my story.”

When Jordan pressed the first lady for “the correct description of you,” Melania responded, “I know what I want, and I don’t need to talk, and to, you know, be an attention seeker. I’m not that way.” Baffled by this largely negative self-definition, Jordan asked what Melania does want. Her subject hesitated, then dodged. “I live meaningful life,” was her reply, before switching back to her previous defensiveness, “I know that talking every time, blabbing something around isn’t good. That’s not my style.” She is surely unaware of how much that makes her sound like a well-trained mob wife, but to judge by much of The Art of Her Deal, a lot of what seems most ominous or even sensational about Melania Trump can easily be attributed to more mundane motives.

That jacket she wore during an official visit to a Texas detention center for migrant children in 2018, the one with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” painted on the back?* That was directed at Ivanka, several White House sources told Jordan. (Oh, and also ostensibly at the “left-wing media,” although I find it almost impossible to believe that Melania really cares about that.) Her defensiveness about her own reticence is probably a retort to the spotlight-seeking Ivanka as well: Trump’s daughter nicknamed Melania “the Portrait” when her father started dating the Slovenian model because Melania spoke so rarely.

What does a beluga whale want? Fish. What does Melania Trump want? Money. Like many of the qualities that lead people to declare Melania a cipher, an enigma, or even a ghost, the reality is likely as simple as that: She is a highly focused utilitarian who likes nice things and whose spoiled stepdaughter gets on her nerves. A childhood in a working-class family in the former Yugoslavia did not offer her many paths to couture wardrobes and private jets.* Her father, Viktor, was a chauffeur, and her mother, Amalija, sewed children’s clothing in a factory. Amalija craved elegance, making stylish clothes for her daughter and instilling in her a penchant for design. Melania attended a secondary school with an emphasis in the visual arts and photography, where she is remembered by her classmates as very beautiful, very disciplined, and very quiet. These qualities would continue to describe her for the rest of her life. Melania got into a competitive architecture program at the University of Ljubljana but dropped out before the end of the first year, determined to try her luck as a model in Milan, Paris, and eventually New York, the profession’s promised land.

The biggest break of Melania’s pre-Trump years was a gigantic billboard promoting Camel cigarettes, posted over Times Square in 1997. The advertiser, a spokesman told the New York Times, wanted an image “embracing night life and sophistication and an urban feeling.” The ad has a menacing, Helmut Newton–ish type of performative sexiness that looks hopelessly dated now, and it epitomizes Melania’s approach to the camera to this day: eyes narrowed in apparent contempt and embedded in an impassive and exquisite but unsmiling mask.

Dating Trump got her more gigs in New York, including some photos in the 2000 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but without him, her career would have stalled. She’d arrived in the city at age 26, too old to launch the “supermodel” career Trump loved to claim for her. As a photographer and onetime roommate of the future first lady put it, she was, despite her beauty, merely one more specimen of an interchangeable type. She was a “commercial,” not “editorial,” model, and was never going to be photographed for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. “A true editorial model,” this photographer told Jordan, “has a certain relationship with the camera lens, in her face and the way she moves, as if the model gives life to the photograph.” A talented model projects a self onto film; Melania projects a surface, the result of diligent efforts to produce a marketable commodity. One reasons why her glossily produced White House Christmas videos are so spooky is this uncanny valley effect—not of a robot that looks too much like a human being, but vice versa.

Of course she had to marry a rich man—what else could she do? But why Trump? Jordan quotes many friends and acquaintances who insist that the couple, who dated for six years before marrying, seemed to love each other. “She was always looking at him like he was God, and he was looking at her like she was a goddess,” says Antoine Verglas, who photographed her nude on Trump’s plane for GQ. Jordan also interviewed Michael Streck, a journalist from the German publication Stern, about a meeting he had with Trump at the couple’s New York penthouse, during which Trump summoned Melania, ordered her to turn around so that Streck could have a 360-degree look at her, and asked, “Isn’t she stunning?” Streck told Jordan the scene reminded him uncomfortably of “a cattle show, award-winning cows are presented to farmers or something like that.” Yet Melania seemed “comfortable” with this. Her husband is a boor and a pig, but unlike supermodeling, with its demands for ineffable charisma, he and his requirements were straightforward. Melania approached her relationship to Trump as she has so many other tasks, with hard work and professional commitment. She is above all a grind. Melania read all 17 of the (ghostwritten) books Trump published about himself, studying the failures of his past wives and girlfriends to please him. She is careful never to upstage her husband, or to demand that he change his ingrained habits.

This policy is surely made easier by the fact that the couple mostly live separate lives outside of their public appearances. Waiters and housekeepers who worked for the family at Trump’s Westchester and Bedminster golf clubs offered Jordan accounts of their domestic life that she describes as “remarkably consistent and painted a portrait of a marriage that seems to thrive on husband and wife maintaining parallel lives that barely intersect.” Or, as Melania put it, “We give a space to each other.” Several sources also told the author that his wife is the first person Trump calls after a rally or speech, so highly does he value her opinion, but this only underscores the fact that their relationship seems to be conducted primarily by phone. He scarfs cheeseburgers in his baroque, TV-lined quarters while she nibbles salads in all-white digs where she hangs out with Barron and, often, her parents. In 2018, less than a week after Trump denounced “chain migration” at a rally in Ohio, Melania obtained just that: naturalized citizenship for Viktor and Amalija. Together, the four speak Slovenian. Barron is fluent, and like his mother, retains dual American and Slovenian citizenship.

The big reveal in The Art of Her Deal is that Melania delayed moving into the White House after Trump’s inauguration not because she dreaded the role of first lady or to prevent a disruption in Barron’s schooling but to flex her leverage and renegotiate her prenup. In the early days of Trump’s presidency, rumor had it that his election was Melania’s worst nightmare, that she was on the verge of divorcing him and had to be cajoled into keeping up the appearance of a functional marriage instead. (These were the days of dissected video clips and “Free Melania” signs.) But maintaining façades is and has always been Melania’s job, a job she takes seriously and executes meticulously, even if—as with her modeling—rather lifelessly. She knows how to do what she needs to do; she just doesn’t know how to look like she enjoys doing it. (Perhaps this explains why she wasn’t able to land a better class of billionaire.) Her husband’s election gained her a tremendous advantage. Trump has a track record of getting bored with his current wife after a few years, then shopping around for a new model. He’s notorious for neglecting his younger children, and once described Barron as Melania’s son, as if the boy were a dog he’d permitted her to adopt but had no particular interest in himself.

As president, however, Trump was obliged to present a plausible semblance of family life, and that required Melania’s cooperation. Marla Maples, his second wife, was the woman Melania replaced, and Melania witnessed firsthand how skillfully Trump lowballed her predecessor in their divorce settlement. Because Trump didn’t want to have another child, it’s likely Melania had to offer concessions on their initial prenup to get him to agree. However, at a stage in their marriage when Trump’s previous wives had seen their power diminish, the American electorate handed Melania a very big stick. She bargained not only for more money for herself when the couple splits up but also to secure Barron’s future with guaranteed stakes in the Trump family business and properties. It was always in Melania’s own best interest that he run, and that he win, and so it comes as no surprise that she has encouraged his political career.

Melania Trump played the long game in her marriage, successfully. What she got—wealth, her immediate family around her, protection for her child—are prizes most Americans can appreciate. What she sacrificed—the chance at a companionate marriage to a man who genuinely respects her, a meaningful career, a clean conscience—may only seem too high a price to pay to people who didn’t grow up pledging allegiance to Marshal Tito. Like so many immigrants, Melania did what she had to do to secure her version of the American dream. It looks a lot more like a nightmare to me—and probably to you, too—but of this at least we can be sure: She really doesn’t care.

Correction, June 18, 2020: This article originally misstated that Melania Trump grew up in “Soviet Yugoslavia.” She grew up in the former Yugoslavia, which was not party of the Soviet Union.

Correction, June 22, 2020: This article originally misstated that Melania Trump was accompanied by her husband on a visit to a detention center for migrant children in 2018 during which she wore a jacket with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” painted on the back. Donald Trump did not accompany her on that trip.