Melania Trump: ‘A sphinx with a rubber eraser in place of a tail’

A new book, The Art of Her Deal, tries to shed light on the enigmatic US first lady

To the Secret Service, he is "Mogul" and she is "Muse." Donald Trump and Melania Knauss met in Manhattan, New York, in 1998 and married seven years later. He was a real estate guy and she had curb appeal. In a new book about Melania Trump's life, The Art of Her Deal, Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan suggests Melania kept her mogul's flickering interest by being an apt pupil of his literary output, which now runs to nearly 20 titles.

In The Art of the Comeback (1997), written with Kate Bohner, Trump said about women: "There is high maintenance. There is low maintenance. I want no maintenance." Melania took notes. She is a sphinx, with a rubber eraser in place of a tail. She didn't keep friends as she moved through the stages of her life: her childhood in the former Yugoslavia, her years as a model in Milan, Paris and New York. There were no bridesmaids at her wedding. She has declined to talk about her past except in generalities. She is so camera-ready at all moments that a friend tells the author, "I don't even know if she goes to the bathroom."

Melania’s remoteness prompts a cri de coeur from the author. “In three decades as a correspondent working all over the world, I have often written about the reluctant and the reclusive, including the head of a Mexican drug cartel and a Japanese princess, but nothing compared to trying to understand Melania,” Jordan writes.

"Most people I spoke to would not speak on the record. Many in the Trump world are governed by NDAs (nondisclosure agreements). Some had been warned by lawyers, family members and others close to Melania not to speak publicly about her, and many would talk only on the same encrypted phone apps used by spies and others in the intelligence community. Old photos that were once an easy Google search away no longer pop up online."


As a result, The Art of Her Deal, a well-reported book, can't help but seem lopsided. Trump-world stalwarts such as Corey Lewandowski ("She has amazing political instincts"), Roger Stone ("There's nothing dumb about her"), Chris Christie ("If she's developed a trust for you, she is an extraordinarily warm person") and Sean Spicer ("She lets the president know what she thinks") are quoted fulsomely. The less obsequious comments mostly come from unnamed sources.

Jordan has drilled down, though, and brings new information about this unconventional first lady to the surface. Jordan writes that Melania was renegotiating her prenuptial agreement during the 2016 campaign, and her husband's "Access Hollywood" debacle almost surely gave her leverage. These negotiations, Jordan says, and not the need to remain in Manhattan for their son's schooling, were why Melania and Barron delayed moving to the White House.

There is news on the tensions between Melania and Ivanka Trump. Melania has been overheard referring to Ivanka as "The Princess," Jordan writes. Ivanka, when younger, called Melania "The Portrait" because she spoke as often as one. Jordan underlines how fiercely Melania embraces her Slovenian roots. She spends much of her time with Barron and her parents. Barron speaks Slovenian and, like his mother, is a dual citizen – he carries a Slovenian as well as a US passport. "Trump has complained to others," Jordan writes, "that he has no idea what they are saying."

About Melania's own visa and citizenship issues, and how she brought her parents and sister to the United States while her husband railed about "chain migration," there is much we don't know. It irks Melania to be considered fragile, Jordan writes. She encouraged Trump to run for president; she was not merely a leaf sucked along by the wind. She has been an influential adviser to him on certain issues, such as choosing Mike Pence as his running mate. She encouraged Trump to back down from the "zero tolerance" policy that had separated many children from their parents at the Mexican border.

She has not always been a voice for moderation. She joined her husband in his "birther" attacks on Barack Obama. She has impugned the integrity of women who have accused her husband of sexual harassment and worse. Woe to anyone, the author suggests, who crosses her.

While she was growing up, Melania’s father was a trained mechanic who sometimes worked as a chauffeur. Her mother was a seamstress who clothed her daughter impeccably from the day she was born. Melania briefly studied in the prestigious architecture programme at the University of Ljubljana before dropping out.

Jordan pays attention to the many interviews Melania gave as a model and afterward, and catches her in many exaggerations, including the fact that she speaks many languages. She appears to speak only two. Jordan never quite finds a voice with which to tell this story. She doesn’t have a strong point of view, and shies away from acute analysis. The Art of Her Deal reads like a very long newspaper article rather than a tightly wound book. The author bends so far backward to be fair to her subject that, at times, you fear she may need chiropractic help.

Has Melania had plastic surgery? The author quotes one of her former New York roommates as saying she returned from a 1997 Christmas trip to Europe looking more buxom. That same former roommate told the author that Melania, in those pre-Trump days, liked to watch Friends, ate seven fruits and vegetables a day, didn't drink alcohol and walked with weights on her ankles to keep toned. Jordan confirms that the first lady and her husband sleep in separate bedrooms. He likes darkly coloured walls and rugs; she prefers light ones. They rarely seem to interact. He uses Irish Spring soap. Jordan quotes Jay Goldberg, one of Trump's lawyers during his playboy days, as saying that Trump often spoke romantically about business but never about women. What made him happy, Goldberg said, was chocolate: "Give him a Hershey bar and let him watch television."

When someone once hazarded a joke about Trump’s penis size, the author writes, Melania replied, “Don’t say this – he’s a real man.” Donald Trump appears to dwell in the White House, for the most part, like a sultan among his pillows. Melania is self-exiled with her parents and son. On many days, Jordan writes, her press office doesn’t answer questions about where she is.

Perhaps they're happy. Or perhaps each has so much kompromat on the other that they live like Mr and Mr. Smith, the married assassins in the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie, each waiting for a chance to fire a kill shot. Melania played a kind of satirical James Bond girl in a famous photo shoot for British GQ. I thought of her situation recently while watching the Bond film Live and Let Die. That's the one in which Roger Moore, stranded in the middle of a pond filled with crocodiles, manages to get to the safety of shore by using their heads as steppingstones.– The New York Times

The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump’ By Mary Jordan Illustrated. 341 pages. Simon & Schuster