On January 22, 2005, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu arrived at Donald Trump’s Florida estate, Mar a-Lago, to participate in a glittering event along with another 350 or so guests: The wedding reception of the then-58-year-old mogul and Melania Knauss, a 34-year-old model from Slovenia.
Most of the guests were politicians and celebrities from Hollywood and the U.S. media scene, including former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary (who was a Democratic senator for New York at the time); former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; actor and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. Elton John and Billy Joel entertained the guests with their greatest hits.
“The guest list shows the change in Trump,” said Washington Post political correspondent Mary Jordan. Her recently published book, “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” is attracting a great deal of media interest in the United States. “Such an event would not have happened today. Very few of the wedding guests would agree to be seen in [Trump’s] company. Netanyahu is probably one of them,” Jordan said in a phone interview with Haaretz.
The unofficial biography of the woman who immigrated to the United States about a year after the Balkans War ended, becoming the wife of one of the world’s most famous capitalists and later the first lady, includes quite a number of juicy details. But it’s not a gossipy book.
Jordan, formerly a foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, devoted a great deal of time and effort to the book, interviewing some 120 people who know Melania well – including family members, models, agents, photographers and senior government officials past and present. The research lasted about four years and took Jordan from Melania’s childhood home in Novo Mesto to Germany, France, Italy and New York.
Some reviewers claimed Jordan was too easy on her subject, but she doesn’t see it that way at all. She has been running from one TV studio to another promoting the book, and between meetings agreed to give a first interview to the Israeli media.
When I asked her what she saw as the book’s greatest achievement, I thought she would emphasize the revelations that have garnered the most media attention. For example, the fact that Melania refused to move into the White House in January 2017 after her husband’s inauguration. Or her lies about her past.
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But Jordan pointed to the bigger picture reflected by the book and noted that, contrary to her image, Melania Trump has a great deal of influence over her husband. She may not influence policy and decision-making, but she is very involved in all the nitty-gritty details of the couple’s life – especially when it comes to choosing, hiring and firing people.
For example, Jordan cites one of the key decisions made by Trump during the 2016 election campaign: the decision to pick Mike Pence as his running mate. This surprising decision was made at the end of the Fourth of July weekend while Trump and his then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort (now serving a prison sentence for tax fraud due to his connections with Ukraine), were seriously considering two other candidates: New Jersey’s then-governor, Chris Christie, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Melania had met Gingrich and knew Christie well from summer vacations she spent with her son Barron and her parents at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, another of the Trump Organization estates.
Trump realized he needed someone who could help him navigate Capitol Hill, which triggered speculation among pundits that Gingrich had the edge. Pence was very conservative, deeply religious and from the Midwest. Trump arranged the entire weekend so that Melania could get acquainted with Pence and his wife, Karen.
Melania and the Pences ate meals together and she spoke at length with both of them. “Afterward, she gave Trump her assessment, telling him that they were good people, and that Mike Pence had a big advantage over Gingrich and Christie: he was not too ambitious. She believed that he would be content in a number-two spot and not gun for the top job, which was something she could not say about the other two,” Jordan explained. “She played a big role. It was beyond consulting. She thought he would be a loyal adviser, not an alpha male.”
Melania also proved to be loyal. About a month before the 2016 election, the Trumps were hit by the greatest crisis in their relationship, with a leaked recording of an old “Access Hollywood” tape catching Trump say of women, “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.” The revelation left scars, but they eventually healed and, according to Jordan, Melania even took advantage of the situation in a manner that confirmed her sophistication and guile.
The writer said that Melania began a kind of “strike” when she decided not to move into the White House and to reduce her duties as first lady to a minimum. She was also caught on film refusing her husband’s request to hold her hand after they arrived in Israel in May 2017. Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu were there to greet them.
At the time, pundits believed that Melania’s distancing stemmed from her fear of being in the political spotlight, a basic lack of confidence and her murky relationship with her husband. But Jordan reveals in the book that Melania behaved like this because she wanted to renegotiate her financial arrangement with Trump, “to ensure the financial future of herself and their son, Barron.”
After a while, apparently after getting what she wanted, Melania returned to her full-time duties. The details of the amended prenuptial agreement, like those of the original one, were not publicized.
It seemed like a form of blackmail, I tell Jordan. “And maybe like a smart move,” Jordan responded. “His two previous wives fought with him. People said he was stingy. Now people give Melania credit for being good with her art of the deal. She said it was for Barron. She is with him for 22 years, more than any [other] woman.”
“The relations are not close. Ivanka is younger by 11 years. When Ivanka came to the White House, she wanted to rename [Melania’s position] from the Office of the First Lady to the Office of the First Family. Melania said ‘No way!’ Both women are strong and sometimes Donald has to be the referee.”
Another interesting issue Jordan discusses are Melania’s “little lies.” The book reveals that, contrary to her sworn testimony, she did not complete her architectural studies degree, did not receive huge salaries for her work as a model, does not speak German, Italian and French (as she and her husband often boast), and only speaks Slovenian and heavily accented English. Nor are her reasons for immigrating to the United States in 1996 clear.
Jordan said the Trumps refuse to present documentation to the public that would confirm her history. “None of the people I spoke to, except for her family, knew anything about her past before she met Donald. She simply made it disappear.”
Jordan added that, in this sense, the couple is much more similar than people think: they are passionate creators of their own history.
“He refuses to reveal his tax returns and she compartmentalized her past and never talked about it,” Jordan said. “She’s a kind of lone wolf who acts quietly and maintains secrecy, and that was useful for him. She is very smart and savvy. She flatters him, but she also tells him the truth when something is not working.”
Do you like her?
“My purpose in writing the book was to find out who she really is. The real Melania Trump is much more interesting than the image people have. People claimed she didn’t want to be a first lady. But I found her to be more politically ambitious than people thought.”
Jordan wrote that in 1999, when Melania was only 29 – about a year after meeting Trump and when he was toying with the idea of running for the Democratic Party – Melania knew what kind of first lady she wanted to be. “I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy. I would support him,” she is quoted as saying in the book.
“The normal talk was that she wanted to marry a rich guy and that she was frightened when [Donald Trump] entered the campaign in 2015 and disrupted her comfortable world,” Jordan said. “But there is plenty of evidence to point out that from the first moment, Melania encouraged and supported him and his political ambitions.”
What do you think will happen in the coming presidential election?
“Before the coronavirus she prepared herself to be more active in the campaign. The impeachment process was a trigger for her. It strengthened her bunker mentality. She wants to win no less than her husband.”