Silence is one of the few definable traits of the former model from Slovenia, who has become one of the most famous and purposefully inscrutable figures in American politics.
Now returned to the insularity of her husband’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida — where the family made their permanent residence, rather than New York City, after leaving the White House — Mrs. Trump, 50, has been enjoying spa treatments and focusing on her son, Barron, as well as spending time with her parents, sources say.
As one Palm Beach insider recently put it to PEOPLE: “It is safe to say she plays the game for personal gain. Around here, that is not a bad thing.”
It is all too easy to be wrong about Melania Trump. But that’s no accident, according to those who have long observed the model-turned-mogul’s wife-turned-East Wing resident as she has appeared on ever-larger stages under ever-brighter spotlights.
“I think a lot of people thought she just wanted to be rich,” says Mary Jordan, author of The Art of Her Deal and a Washington Post correspondent. “And she wanted not just to be rich — I heard that several times from key people: ‘You don’t understand, she wanted to be known.’ “
So what next becomes of the former first lady?
PEOPLE spoke with four of her biographers over the course of a year, who have collectively covered her for decades: Kate Bennett, Kate Andersen Brower, Nina Burleigh and Jordan.
Their views, drawn from hundreds of interviews and years of research, corroborate but sometimes contradict each other — a tension in trying to completely understand any single person, let alone a president’s wife.
Together, though, these assessments add up to a more shaded portrait than might be guessed from Mrs. Trump’s rare public appearances as first lady, when she gave a speech and hugged children or stood next to her husband, armored in dark sunglasses and couture and heels.
For its part, the Trump White House repeatedly dismissed reporting about her, including calling Jordan’s book “fiction” and snapping back at Bennett’s book, with which they cooperated.
Despite Mrs. Trump’s reluctance to reveal her interior life, there is consensus among her biographers: The former first lady is “tough” and smart and knows what she wants out of life and out of her relationship with the former president, 74, with whom she has formed an enduring if unsentimental bond. (Even, or especially, when she famously rebuffed her husband’s hand — once, perhaps twice — and sent social media chattering.)
She was never the one on the ballot and she’ll continue to live her life as she chooses. Her priorities are to be a wife and mother; she keeps a small inner circle. And she enjoys the power and benefits of her elevated station. She also mirrors her husband’s values — prizing public image and loyalty — and nowhere was that parallel more stark than after the Capitol insurrection, when she did at last choose to speak.
Now out of the East Wing, add one more question to the list of Mrs. Trump’s mysteries:
How should we understand her time in office?
‘She Wants to Be Where the Action Is’
Rather than Rosalynn Carter or Nancy Reagan, the first ladies of yore, a young Melania Knauss (born Melanija Knavs) was inspired by smoky-eyed actresses like Sophia Loren. She realized that she, too, could be alluring and “mysterious.”
Jordan says that from that original dream of acting, the future Mrs. Trump pursued modeling. Why not? At the time, supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford were global names.
“She wants,” Jordan says, “to be where the action is.”
This desire connects to her early days as tycoon Trump’s girlfriend, her biographers say. In Free, Melania, Bennett writes how a young Melania, a Slovenian immigrant, was in part attracted to Donald Trump because of his “wealth” and “power.” His future wife also knew he’d give a boost to her modeling career, although she would have rather made it on her own.
“If I weren’t beautiful, do you think he’d be with me?” Mrs. Trump told a New York University student in 2005 after he asked if she would still be with her husband if he wasn’t rich.
It’s a retort that has stuck in Bennett’s mind. As with so many of her gestures, the quip still gets turned over and over. What does it mean?
That question, observers say, plays right into her hand.
According to Bennett and Jordan, the former first couple both value fealty and their personal brands, although they have gone about it in reverse ways: He is all reality-star pomposity and businessman braggadocio, while she built up higher and higher walls even as the White House made her internationally famous. (Her last significant interview, with ABC News, was in 2018.)
It’s a calculation, according to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.
Wolkoff, a former friend and aide, published a tell-all last year about her relationship with Mrs. Trump that drew an East Wing rebuke as well as a rare comment from the first lady herself.
“She is not an enigma. She is not mysterious,” Wolkoff previously told PEOPLE. “That’s why it’s so important — the perception people have of her. That iron curtain around her, that slapping of [her husband’s] hand, it’s all part of the game. It’s all part of keeping her mysterious.”
The ‘Most Reluctant’ First Lady in Modern History
Mrs. Trump’s comfort level in the White House is the matter of some debate — and her office is sensitive even to the suggestion of discontent — but the biographers agree that she shrugged off the traditional expectations of her position.
“She liked all the accoutrements that go with being first lady and living in the White House. I think she actually really enjoyed it. In fact, I know she did,” says Bennett, a CNN White House Correspondent. “But did she dream one day as little girl in communist Slovenia that she would be first lady of the United States? Absolutely not.”
Mrs. Trump was “the most reluctant first lady we’ve had in modern history,” Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women, tells PEOPLE.
“The first lady is supposed to act as the ‘consoler in chief,’ especially when you’re married to a man who is so inept at consoling people and has a real empathy gap there,” Andersen Brower says. “She should be the one who is speaking to the American people and reassuring Americans that things are going to get better and being positive, in the way Laura Bush did after 9/11. But we just don’t hear that from her.”
A White House source who worked closely with her pushed back on the idea that she resisted her work.
“The first lady has always said it is an honor to be first lady of the United States and has cherished the role. Her work with ‘Be Best’ has touched the lives of countless children all over the world,” this source said last summer, in the final months of the administration. “She has always been very independent in her role and has always put motherhood first.”
It was months after the 2016 inauguration before Mrs. Trump moved to the White House, because she was waiting until Barron finished school — and because, as Jordan later learned, she was renegotiating her prenuptial agreement.
Once in the East Wing, the first lady eschewed a busy schedule and announced her signature initiative only 16 months into her husband’s term.
That campaign, titled “Be Best,” championed children’s wellbeing, with a focus on bullying. But the work was bedeviled from the start by critics who said she was a hypocrite — given the president’s penchant for personal insults and other divisive policies — and that her platform was too lightweight to be effective.
By the end, she could not tour a hospital without a protest.
Wolkoff, Mrs. Trump’s aide-turned-nemesis, writes in her book of their work preparing “Be Best” — including preparing a presentation for the team and gathering experts to inform them, sketching out a platform addressing technological addiction, drug use and bullying through social media and emotional learning in schools to improve kids’ lives.
Wolkoff says the first lady chose a different direction.
“She had the scientific evidence-based research in her hands and her office took it, ripped it up, turned it into — I don’t know what they hell they turned it into,” Wolkoff told PEOPLE last year. “When she stood there in the Rose Garden speaking [about ‘Be Best’] and having people stand up of all the places that she visited … She could have been the voice about all these different programs as opposed to what it ends up being.”
Wolkoff says that Mrs. Trump “knew that everyone was going to critique her for it [the anti-bullying]. She knew that people were going to say it starts at home.”
She didn’t blanch, her former friend says: “I said to her, ‘Are you ready to take that on?’ She’s like, ‘Yes. They’re going to say it starts at home.’ Just like with everything else, she didn’t care because that’s what she wanted to focus on.”
In the White House and since, Mrs. Trump has not readily embraced — or been welcomed — into the loose club of former first couples. For example, she notably did not appear alongside Laura Bush and Michelle Obama in a TV special in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A source said then that she hadn’t been invited.
Mrs. Trump’s Priorities
If there was a litmus test for her decisions as first lady, it was this: What would be best for Barron, her only child.
Leading up to the 2016 election, news broke of President Trump’s alleged affairs and, amid audio of him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals during an Access Hollywood appearance from 2005, he faced claims from multiple women that he sexually abused them.
(He denounced the numerous accounts as lies.)
His wife chose not stand by him in a very specific way: Unlike other political spouses like Hillary Clinton, she didn’t do a joint TV appearance with her husband to respond to the women’s stories.
According to Jordan’s book, Trump’s aides understood the importance of her response and referred to an old 60 Minutes interview with the Clintons after allegations of an affair started to stain his 1992 presidential campaign.
The Trump team hoped Mrs. Trump, 50, would also show her support by going on air.
But she wasn’t having it, Jordan writes: “When Melania eventually joined the strategy session, she had a one-word reply: ‘No.’ She said she would decide on her own what to do. And right now she was not going on television with her husband.”
She had other things on her mind, according to Jordan’s sources.
“They told me over and over again,” the author remembers, “‘There was more in it for her to stay than to go.’ “
In Jordan’s book, she reports how Mrs. Trump renegotiated her prenup agreement with her husband after his election victory, with her delayed move to D.C. as part of her leverage. (It was during those discussions that she also gave him that “most famous hand swat,” Jordan says.)
The revised terms of the agreement weren’t really for her, though.
“Her main driver, according to the people that I talked to, she kept saying — ‘I just want an equal share for Barron,’ ” Jordan says. “Meaning an equal share to the older three who are always front and center, Eric, Don Jr. and Ivanka.”
Four years later, Mrs. Trump’s focus was once again her son when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. (President Trump, who was hospitalized when he got sick with the virus, routinely faced criticism of his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans so far.)
“With most things Melania her first concern was Barron, right?” says Bennett. “He tested positive as well, and he did not have any symptoms, according to two people I spoke with, but Melania did. She was pretty sick.”
Bennett says that Mrs. Trump “doesn’t necessarily have a significant circle of friends. We used to get sightings of Michelle Obama out with her girls when she was first lady … But we’ve never had one of those with Melania Trump.”
Some of her inner circle include her parents, her older sister, Ines, and her stylist, Hervé Pierre, as well as designer Rachel Roy. (Paolo Zampolli, a longtime friend, concurred, telling PEOPLE in 2018: “Melania is very strong, she has big family values. She is very close to her family, she knows exactly what she wants.”)
“While Donald Trump will talk to dozens of people in a span of a few days, Melania Trump really doesn’t talk to a lot of people,” Bennett says. “She keeps her world small by design.”
Speaking with ABC News three years ago, the first lady said she had “the same group of friends I had before. And I always prefer quality over quantity … I stay in contact with them through the phone and text messages.”
The interviewer prompted: What was that old saying about relationships in D.C.?
“If you wanna have a friend in Washington,” Mrs. Trump said, “buy a dog.”
‘She’s Aligned with Him’
From the beginning of their relationship, Mrs. Trump has known how to handle her husband’s explosive personality — and express her own opinions.
Since they began dating in the late ’90s, the then-model understood “all you do is butter [Donald Trump] up and make him feel like a man all the time because that’s what this kind of guy needs,” explains Nina Burleigh, author of The Trump Women.
She argues that this ability is what separated Melania from her predecessors: Ivana Trump, with whom he shares Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump, and Marla Maples, mom to their daughter Tiffany.
Burleigh has this theory of Trump world: “You have to toe the line in terms of this sort of toxically masculine person at the center of it all and make him feel secure as a man. That’s what [Melania Trump] has been good at from the very beginning. That was her special superpower.”
Mrs. Trump also doles out advice. During his administration, President Trump often sought out her counsel in part because they share a similar worldview.
“She’s the most powerful ally you can get if you’re attempting to influence Donald Trump. No one, I know him for a long time, no one influences Donald Trump more than Melania Trump,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told ABC in 2018.
Mrs. Trump downplayed her power, however. “Oh, I wish,” she said that same year. “I give him my honest advice and honest opinions. And then he does what he wants to do.”
While she isn’t actively political, she is “conservative,” her biographers say.
“She’s aligned with him [President Trump] on immigration. She was aligned with him when the #MeToo movement came out. It was really hard to decipher what she was saying,” says Bennett, referencing Mrs. Trump’s interview with ABC News’ Tom Llamas.
“I support the women,” Mrs. Trump told Llamas then. “They need to be heard. We need to support them. And also men, not just women.”
But, she said, “We need to have really hard evidence that if you’re accused of something, show the evidence.”
On immigration, she sympathized with families separated by the Trump “zero-tolerance policy” but said, “I believe in the policies that my husband put together. Because I believe that we need to be very vigilant who is coming to the country.”
Asked then about the allegations of her husband’s affairs and misconduct, she said she was unfazed.
“It is not concern and focus of mine. I’m a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do,” she said. “I know people like to speculate and media like to speculate about our marriage.”
She went on: “It’s not always pleasant, of course. But I know what is right and what is wrong and what is true or not true.”
‘I Don’t Believe in Melania Trump Coincidences’
Aligned as they may be, the former first lady isn’t afraid to publicly disagree with her husband — or push out staffers.
In November 2018, her office openly called for the removal of a National Security Council aide. The next day, they were gone. In late 2019, her office acknowledged her difference of opinion with the president after he mocked teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
And “with the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd, she was calling for peace and healing, almost in the same breath as [President] Trump was tweeting, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ ” Bennett says.
Like first ladies before her, she also used clothing to send a message.
So-called fashion diplomacy has a long history, but Mrs. Trump’s choices were even more unusual still — including her notorious “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket at the Mexican-U.S. border (which Bennett thinks was a jab at her stepdaughter Ivanka, though Mrs. Trump said it was directed at the media); as well as her safari-like outfit while in Africa in 2018 and her pussy-bow blouse at a 2016 presidential debate after the Access Hollywood revelations.
Some of these looks were interpreted as messages of anti-Trump resistance. Others were used as evidence to prove she was no less craven than the worst of her husband’s White House.
“I don’t believe in Melania Trump coincidences,” says Bennett, who argues in her biography that this influence is a kind of “unlikely” feminism: For good or ill, Mrs. Trump adapted little to the role of first lady.
Speaking with ABC News in 2018, she said one of the hardest adjustments in the White House was “losing the privacy, that’s maybe the part that you always under the microscope. And I cannot freely move anymore.”
But “I don’t feel like a prisoner, no,” she said. “I enjoying it, and this will not last forever.”
‘That Will Change the Course of Her Legacy’
By the end of the administration, however, Mrs. Trump became “extremely detached,” Bennett says.
She was “very, very quiet, unaffected, sort of more aloof and more aligned with the president and the narrative,” Bennett continues. It culminated with the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Mrs. Trump didn’t publicly respond until five days later even as aides fled, including her longtime spokeswoman.
In her initial statement after the insurrection, Mrs. Trump pushed back on what she called “salacious gossip” alongside acknowledging the deadly violence — a seeming response both to Wolkoff’s statements (and leaks their secretly recorded conversations) and to a report by Bennett that she was overseeing a photo shoot in the White House during the attack.
“This time is solely about healing our country and its citizens. It should not be used for personal gain,” Mrs. Trump said then.
She also spoke generally of being “disappointed and disheartened with what happened” at the Capitol and encouraged Americans to “stop the violence, never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin or use differing political ideologies as a basis for aggression and viciousness.”
Bennett says her response to the insurrection was a turning point.
“For a first lady, who for the past four years really didn’t have a problem speaking out if her opinion was different from that of her husband, who was very vocal saying, ‘I don’t always agree with him, and I tell him so,’ ” says Bennett. “[For her to] chose those moments in American history and America’s democracy to remain completely silent — I think that that will change the course of her legacy, to be quite honest.
“History will remember her silence.”
‘They Both Believe in Comebacks’
As the Trumps departed the White House early on Jan. 20, the soon-to-be former first lady stood by her husband in a Chanel skirt suit, teamed with matching gloves — all black — and a croc embossed Birkin bag. She emerged from their plane hours later in Florida in a brightly patterned Gucci caftan, smiling behind her same sunglasses.
Jordan says that when Mrs. Trump first met her husband, he was a very different man than he is now: “It’s not like she married this guy that now is known for building a wall and mocking rivals with nicknames on Twitter.”
Despite this, and however their term had ended, Mrs. Trump “still stays by him,” Jordan says.
While Bennett’s sources believe the former first lady would be the hardest one to persuade in the family if her husband decides to run for president in 2024, Jordan thinks Mrs. Trump won’t be as difficult to convince.
“She is upset, I hear, of the way it ended with the Jan. 6 riot,” says Jordan. “It put a huge dent in her own legacy, because she didn’t come out and talk about it quickly enough.”
So it wouldn’t be surprising if Mrs. Trump decided “to come back and change the narrative.”
For now, she is surrounded by fans and far away from the controversy of politics. Jordan says that a source recently told her that when the Trumps walk out at Mar-a-Lago, “people applaud them.”
“They’re isolated,” Jordans says. “They’re only seeing people who like them.”
“Donald and Melania are different people — from she’s as quiet as he is loud to how they look, their ages — everyone knows how they’re different,” Jordan says. “But they’re also very alike. They both believe in comebacks. They both believe that the Trumps will rise again.”
Now that Mrs. Trump has exited the White House, observers say it may be many months before the public sees her in any notable way. Her husband, by contrast, has already appeared on Fox News and gave a speech at a political conference in February.
Mrs. Trump, who keeps separate quarters at Mar-a-Lago from her husband, is known to have retained a few staffers for her post-White House office; late last year, was also looking at schools in the area for Barron, sources said. But few if any details about her plans are trickling out beyond the sense that “Be Best” should continue.
“She’s young, she’s 50. Donald Trump is 24 years older,” Jordan says. “She has a big life ahead of her.”
Palm Beach sources told PEOPLE that, in recent weeks, Mrs. Trump has appeared to be in somewhat of a sour mood and has not been seen as much.
“Melania acts as if she is not truly happy but has accepted what is required of her to live the lifestyle she relishes,” a social source says. Not so, a spokeswoman insisted, telling PEOPLE: “Mrs. Trump is enjoying life at Mar-a-Lago. She is focused on being a mother and putting her family first, while working on various projects that will take time to finalize.”
Silence doesn’t always equate to inaction.
“When I was in Slovenia, it kept coming up — also in Italy, when I was talking to people — she acts like a chess player,” Jordan says. “Several people would say that she’s there, doesn’t say anything and then comes out with her moves.”