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DC Divorce Lawyers Weigh In: What Would Happen if Melania and Donald Trump Split?

Say Stormy Daniels was one controversy too many. How might a First Divorce play out?
Donald and Melania Trump in November 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Melania Trump has put up with a lot. Nineteen women have accused her husband of sexually harassing or assaulting them. She watched along with everyone else as he bragged on the infamous Access Hollywood tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Through it all, she has defended him. But could Stormy Daniels be one humiliation too many?

Since it was first reported that Donald Trump paid the adult-film star $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about their alleged affair, Melania has seemed more distant than usual from her husband. She canceled plans to accompany the president to Davos, rode separately to the State of the Union, and wore an outfit to the speech that some construed as a silent SOS. According to Michael Wolff‘s salacious (and disputed) book Fire and Fury, the Trumps sleep in separate quarters. Neither spouse publicly acknowledged their recent wedding anniversary.

Ronald Reagan was the first divorced person to be elected President, and many occupants of the office have had affairs, but no US President has ever divorced while in office. (Among the foreign leaders who’ve split with their spouses while in office: Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.) Melania’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham has pushed back on rumors of trouble in the Trumps’ marriage. Still, we got to wondering: How might a First Divorce play out?

Two of Washington’s most prominent divorce lawyers, Sandy Ain and Cheryl New, envision contrasting scenarios.

Ain imagines a discreet split. “I suspect if they got divorced, he would pay her a lot of money, and it would be done in an appropriately dignified way,” he says. “You don’t say ‘you’re fired’ to your wife.’ You say ‘here’s a really nice severance package—and it’s gonna be more than $130,000.’”

New says she doesn’t think discretion is Trump’s style . “[Trump] would not be able to do this in a way that would be quiet. I don’t think he’s constitutionally capable of that. He’s so cocksure that he would put this out there for everybody to see,” she says, adding, “I think he underestimates Melania totally. She is a chess player. He is a checkers player.”

As Trump did with his first two wives, he and Melania reportedly have a prenuptial agreement. But one thing Ain and New agree on is that Melania might have something even more powerful—dirt on the president.

“What she would be entitled to, I’m confident, is spelled out pretty carefully,” says Ain. “Would he be prudent to pay her more than that, for her silence and for the sake of dignity? Very likely.”

Two issues that cannot be dictated by a prenup are child custody and child support, so the Trumps could still go to court over those matters since they share a son. Any judge would likely agree to seal such court filings to protect the privacy of the First Family.

However, New points out that Melania doesn’t have to wait for an actual divorce to begin negotiating. “If he wants to keep her around for the remainder of his presidency,  she could say ‘you want me to be quiet? We need to do a little postnup.’”

In other words, Melania could ask Trump to amend the terms of their prenup, so that a future divorce settlement would be more favorable to her. It’s hard to imagine she’ll ever have more leverage than while her husband is in the White House. “This would be her time,” says New. “And I’d be happy to assist her.”

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Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She was previously a reporter for Legal Times and the National Law Journal. She lives in Northeast DC with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.