Melania Trump: Keeping the former president calm

Although she rarely campaigns, Melania's presence is valued by the Trump core team

Melania Trump with Donald

On September 11, 2023, at an Iowa State football game where Donald Trump was in attendance as part of his primary campaign for the Republican nomination for president, somebody hired a small plane and flew a banner to taunt the former president. “Where's Melania?” it asked, a question which many Americans have been keen to raise as Trump jumped into the fray for a second term as president. At the game, there were also posters with Melania's photos and some interesting captions: “Have you seen this woman? Where is our first lady? Why is Trump hiding her? We miss her.”

The absence of Trump’s third and present wife, Melania,  is one of the abiding features of his presidential campaign, and his team does not want to talk about it. She has been completely absent, both in times of triumph, like when Trump swept state after state in the primaries and in times of trouble, like when he became the first former president to appear in a criminal trial as a defendant in the Stormy Daniels hush money case.

The hush money case has particularly rattled Melania as it involved Trump cheating on her just about a year and a half after their marriage and when their son, Barron, was only a few months old. When the news first broke, Melania walked out of the White House in a huff and flew to Florida. Upon returning to Washington to attend Trump's first state of the union address, she declined to drive with the president and opted for a separate car, making it clear that she had not forgiven her husband.

Melania has not publicly commented on the issue, but she has long spoken about it as her husband's problem, not hers. However, she may have to make a court appearance as judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the case, has indicated that she could be a potential witness.

The Trump campaign, despite putting up a brave face, is uncomfortable about Melania's continued absence. She is keeping away from not just Trump's court appearances, but also from his campaign events, something unheard of in American politics. Melania has never shown any interest in politics and has always been less visible compared with other first ladies in recent memory. For instance, Jill Biden is always seen with her husband, President Joe Biden; Michelle Obama was always there for Barack; Laura Bush was a permanent fixture at the Bush campaign events and Hillary Clinton always supported Bill Clinton, despite his countless shenanigans.

But Melania broke with that practice and has rarely been seen in public with her husband. Stephanie Grisham, Melania's former chief of staff, told CNN that Melania had confided in her that she was completely different from first ladies like Jill Biden. “I don’t need to stand by Donald like Jill Biden; it is like she’s holding Joe Biden up,” Melania told Grisham.

Last September, during an interview, Trump was asked about Melania's absence from the campaign trail. He said she would be there at an appropriate time, but then added that he liked to keep her away from the campaign. “It is so nasty and so mean,” he said.

Still, most observers were surprised when she chose to skip the Super Tuesday night (March 5) when Trump more or less sealed the Republican nomination. She was missing from the victory party held at the couple's Mar-a-Lago resort even though she lived there. Trump was accompanied by Donald Trump Jr,. Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump at the event.

As part of Trump's re-election campaign, Melania has so far made only two public appearances–the first one was when the former president launched his bid in November 2022 and the second was last month, when she came with him to vote in the Florida primary. A third appearance is expected on April 20 when she hosts a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for Log Cabin Republicans, the biggest organisation for LGBTQ conservatives in the US. It is the launch of the organisation's Road to Victory programme, aimed at targeting swing state voters.

To be fair to Melania, she has never been active as a first lady. When she left the White House, she had a 47 per cent unfavourable rating, the worst in the history of the United States. She always kept a distance from her husband's political activities. She did not actively campaign when Trump ran his first campaign in 2015-16. She always said that she wanted to be there with Barron. She was not to be seen in the 2020 campaign season either, which took place under the shadow of the pandemic.

This time, too, it seems Melania is not keen to join the campaign trail. A source close to her told CNN that Melania alone would decide when and in what way would she appear at her husband's events.

Interestingly, after the news about her husband's legal woes spread—apart from the hush money case, Trump is facing three more criminal cases and many more civil cases—there were reports that Melania renegotiated the terms of her prenuptial agreement. Sources say she is worried that Trump would go bankrupt paying his legal bills and damages in civil cases. Although Trump is very rich, Melania wanted a renegotiated prenup to ensure that she and Barron would have a more “solid future” if the couple decided to split. This was apparently the third time Melania renegotiated the terms of her prenup. There was a Washington Post report which referred to the first time Melania forced Trump to redo the agreement. It said she delayed moving with Trump into the White House to make sure that he gave her a more liberal financial arrangement. By then, she had far more leverage as she had been with Trump longer than his two former wives. Interestingly, there are many more theories about Melania opting to stay at the Trump Tower penthouse in New York instead of the more modest accommodations at the White House living quarters. Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former aide who wrote a tell-all memoir about the days she worked with Melania, said one of the reasons behind Melania’s stubborn streak was that she did not want to use the same shower and toilet as Michelle Obama did and wanted the bathroom to be completely renovated.

Yet, despite Melania's independent streak, Trump's inner circle, including his children, know that her presence is vital in keeping the former president calm. They have realised that she helps keep his tantrums under control. They also know that Trump puts on his best behaviour when she is around. A Trump insider told Page Six, a New York Post feature, that Melania was better than Trump's regular golf games at keeping his temper in check. The source also revealed that Melania has taken up the role played by Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner during his first term. “Melania keeps him on track as a father and has in many ways stepped up to fill the place Ivanka and Jared once had,” said the source. “She is his most intimate sounding board.”