How on earth should we think about Melania Trump? CNN reporter Kate Bennett has covered the First Lady since her husband took office, and Bennett’s new book, Free, Melania, builds a case that the Slovenian ex-model is not a personality-free trophy wife, a secret member of the #Resistance, or—as one popular conspiracy theory goes—a hostage.
As the closest person to the most scrutinized man in America, Melania is rich terrain for an anthropological exploration, and Bennett—who has previously chronicled the rich and glitzy of Las Vegas and Washington—gets closer than anyone outside of Trump’s inner circle to coming up with a unified theory of Melania.
Working around her CNN schedule, Bennett met with childhood friends of the First Lady’s and people who knew her when she was an aspiring model. She traveled to New York and Mar-a-Lago as well as Melania’s home country, where Bennett figured out why the First Lady rarely smiles.
“Ask a Slovenian if ‘resting bitch face’ is a thing in their country, and they will look blankly at you and say, ‘it’s just ‘face,’ ” she writes.
We met at Bourbon Steak, the DC restaurant where, coincidentally, the Obamas celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Bennett, a former editor at Washingtonian, discussed her new book between bites of tuna tartare.
So—Melania. What’s the deal?
That’s the question I get asked all the time. Some people think she’s miserable and angry and trapped in the White House. And there are people who will always think she’s complicit and don’t want to know any more about her. But I think there are people who are compelled by her story and how she ended up in this bizarre place. She seems to have not compromised her Melania-ness at all to take on this role. We felt like we knew Michelle Obama, like we could hang out with her and have a drink with her and go to SoulCycle.
There was something knowable about her.
Totally. Which I think was also in part an affectation. But that was her MO: to really be America’s First Lady. Melania has none of that. I think she’d rather have people be confused by her or mystified by her than have them pick apart every word or emotion or smile or thing or appearance.
How did going to Slovenia help you understand her better?
It’s a not-unfriendly but sort of, like, mind-your-own-business culture. That, for me, was really key—just how she deals with so many things that for Americans and other women might be like, what?
You write that her “I really don’t care, do u?” coat—which she got a lot of criticism for wearing on her way to visit migrant children—was a ham-fisted message to Ivanka, who she thought was trying to take too much credit for attempting to soften Trump’s immigration policy.
That jacket is the biggest mystery of Melania, and there are many, many mysteries of Melania. It was a terrible, terrible decision [to wear it] and will be part of her legacy.
I always say that there are no Melania Trump coincidences. If you were to ask her, “Did you wear that white pantsuit at the State of the Union as a symbol?,” she would say, “No, I just wore the white pantsuit.” But there’s no question that everything she does, especially nonverbally, is a thoughtful decision. Which was why the jacket was so strange.
She knows what she’s communicating, but she’s not necessarily making good decisions?
Some of them have horribly backfired. But some of them have landed. I know she follows her media and she follows her polling. So to underestimate her as some trophy wife who just stands there and pouts—that is not who she is at all. To be married to Donald Trump for 20 years, I think you have to have legit survival skills.
Which brings us to their relationship. Does she like him?
This answer always surprises people when I tell them. The answer is: Yes, she does. They speak throughout the day. On the phone. Constantly.
According to a widespread rumor, there’s a house in Potomac that Melania supposedly lives in with her parents and Barron.
I think it’s an urban legend. [A lot of media] outlets were looking. Somebody would have found the house.
She aligns with him politically more than people think.
A separate residence also wouldn’t track with what you’re saying about how they talk all day.
She weighs in a lot more on events of the day than people assume. She is a powerful influence on him. But she only weighs in [to her husband] when she is personally compelled to.
Then there’s her relationship with her son, which you explore, too.
It’s her driving force. That’s another Slovenian thing as well. I think the most important thing she’s done is made us all forget that there’s a young child who lives in the White House.
What else does she care about?
Well, right now she cares about [the issue of] vaping and kids.
Does Barron vape?
I don’t know. But I know from my kid that it’s rampant in Montgomery County and in schools. And I think it struck a chord with her.
She has adopted anti-bullying as a big issue. What do you make of her saying she’s the most bullied person in the world?
I think she really believes it.
That seems . . . nuts.
Well, you have to also remember she’s a Trump. She lives in that bubble—like, “We’re constantly under attack.” Sometimes she remarkably does the wrong thing. But I’ve gone with her to see detained [migrant] kids, and she really does get down on her hands and knees and gets dirty and holds kids and plays with them.
Now we get to the question of complicity. Kids are in cages because of her husband’s decisions.
The worst thing about the jacket was that it negated the impetus she had for making that trip, which I think came from a good place. [Donald Trump] didn’t necessarily want her to go; the last thing they want is more video and more news about this zero-tolerance policy. And she wanted to see it for herself. I’m not making excuses for the policy. I’m just saying she doesn’t sit back and say, “This is all fine.” We sort of want to be like, okay, now do guns; now do family separation. But like I said in the book, she aligns with him politically more than people think.
So she’s not a hostage?[Laughs] No. This is another thing that surprises people: She really digs living in the White House. I don’t think she would have chosen to be First Lady, but now that she’s there . . . . I’ve never thought she was trapped.
People find this hard to believe, but she’s very warm and very friendly. The things about Melania that people assume—that she’s cold and rigid and haughty, she doesn’t let us tell any other story. I think for years she’s watched Donald Trump and just does the opposite. Like with Ivanka: She watched Ivanka trot out her kids, Instagram about them, do this whole, like, Camelot 2.0. And it was like—bloop!—“I’m not doing any of that.”
You report that she and her husband never use the word “love” about each other.
People say to me, “How can she stay with him?” And I want to be like, well, the time to leave was maybe when he joked about you getting run over by a truck but if your boobs were okay he would stay with you. But here we are almost 20 years later.
Being First Lady sucks in so many ways that I almost appreciate the way she’s been like, I’m not going to hold his hand. We’ve watched so many political wives stand there in those awkward moments. She hasn’t commented on impeachment at all. Hillary Clinton went to Capitol Hill during [the Monica Lewinsky scandal] and said: I know what he did, it’s horrible, it’s terrible, but we’ve still got to support him. Melania’s like, I think I’ll talk about vaping today.
This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Washingtonian.