"The elephant not in the room": The strange, rich emptiness of the new Melania Trump biography

Mary Jordan's biography of Melania Trump, "The Art of Her Deal," is an extraordinary work of discovery and empathy

Published June 23, 2020 6:39PM (EDT)

First Lady Melania Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
First Lady Melania Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Mary Jordan prefaces "The Art of Her Deal," her new biography of first lady Melania Trump, with an insider account of the night in October 2016 when the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape was leaked. (That would be the one in which her husband bragged about his propensity to grab unwilling women "by the pussy.") Those were tense hours for the campaign, as senior staff gathered with the candidate around a screen to grapple with the news.

They were also tense hours between Melania and Donald Trump, who had "red coming up his neck to his ears," and put off returning to face his wife that night for as long as possible.

Team Trump was focused on one person sitting more than thirty floors above them in the penthouse. They could spin and divert attention — strategist Steve Bannon, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and others were already formulating ideas for how to do that — but if Melania walked out, the campaign was all but over. If she said she couldn't tolerate her husband's behavior, why should female voters?

"Everybody was saying, 'You should go upstairs and see Melania. Why don't you go upstairs now and see Melania?' And he was not rushing to go up there," [campaign adviser Chris] Christie remembered. "I said to him, 'It ain't going to get any easier. The longer you wait, it's not going to get any easier.' " Another person in the room said, "That night he seemed frightened to go face his wife." It took Trump two hours to finally step into the elevator.

Melania, in other words, is missing from the first scenes of her own book. As Christie put it, "She was the elephant not in the room."

In the end, for whatever reason, Melania released a statement asking the country to forgive her husband as she had.

Trump, restored, then tweeted, "I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE," and went on to become president of the United States of America.

That anecdote, as well as any in the book, captures the problematic intrigue at the center of its subject: An invisible woman of uncertain influence.

"The Art of Her Deal" is beyond all doubt an extraordinary book. It is impeccably reported and written — light, clear, engaging and honest throughout.

Those qualities, coupled with Jordan's deep wells of sensitivity and research, counterbalance the biography itself, which is in many ways the opposite: of all that opaque, superficial, evasive and ultimately untrustworthy.

A beautiful, empty vase.

Jordan, a Washington Post journalist who has won a Pulitzer (and been nominated twice), interviewed more than 120 people in five countries for the book, which took nearly four years to assemble. In all that time, she could only speak with Melania Trump once, in 2016, before the election. The rest is sheer legwork, a scramble to unscramble what fragments Jordan could recover.

Jordan, who says that Melania's life story presented an "unprecedented challenge," doesn't shy from expressing her frustrations, and in fact has made them a central theme.

"Those who dismiss [Melania] as nothing more than an elegant accessory do not understand her or her influence. She works at remaining mysterious," Jordan writes. "In her own way, she is as complex and complicated as her husband. She is also much more like him than it appears."

Those shared qualities include ambition, narcissism and paranoia — Jordan describes both Trumps as "fighters and survivors who prize loyalty over almost all else" and "avid creators of their own history."

However, readers will find it's basically impossible to understand Melania apart from her husband.

Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs (rhymes with "mouse") in 1970, in what was at the time socialist Yugoslavia. Between then and today she, like her home country, has changed her name, the last one three times.

Her family was intensely private even by the standards of that intensely private era, Jordan writes, noting that "even those who thought they knew the Knavs family well were surprised to learn in 2016 that [Melania's father] Viktor had a son in a nearby town."

From there, Melania's life "unfolds like the acts of a play." The little girl from a conformist country; the young, ambitious model; the woman who emigrated to New York City and landed a billionaire real estate mogul.

But there are no through-lines to the story, nothing that connects one act to another.

"Strikingly, when the curtain falls on one period of her life, it is almost as if it never happened," Jordan writes. "The characters, the staging, everything changes."

Melania, Jordan says, does not keep in touch with people "to an exceptional degree," and with the exception of her immediate family, the people in her past have no place in her present.

(Even family has its limits. When journalist Julia Ioffe found Melania's half-brother, Denis Cigelnjak, in 2016, he said he had never met Melania, or her older sister.)

"Melania just appeared one day," a Trump friend remarked, about meeting her for the first time in 1999. "She didn't bring friends. She didn't talk about what she had been doing. She just appeared, this woman with no history."

The current first lady built her image by watching what Trump values, but doing the opposite to achieve it, raising her profile through "strategic reveal and scarcity" and dodging the press — which seems unusual for a beautiful woman who had so doggedly sought a modeling career. (She "spent years studying how to walk, how to stand, how to tilt her head for a better camera angle," Jordan writes.)

"People say, 'Oh, she's a model, therefore she must be dumb.' There's nothing dumb about her," longtime Trump associate and adviser Roger Stone told Jordan.

"She's the one who ultimately said, 'You know, Donald, stop talking about running for president and do it. If you're going to do it, do it. But if you're not going to do it, stop talking about it because it's getting old. And if you run, you're going to win,'" Stone recalled.

Notably, that was the only memory of Melania Stone was able to share with Salon, as well.

Melania is one of Trump's most trusted emotional advisers. She is always the first person he calls after a rally, and he often turns to her for White House personnel decisions.

Indeed, a number of people in the book testify to genuine feeling between the two. Melania's mother responds to speculation about gold-digging by pointing out, "You can't hug an apartment; you can't hug an airplane."

That's truly one of the book's more surprising revelations: Donald Trump seems to love Melania — an emotion that in Trump manifests as a strange blend of admiration and fear, as the "Access Hollywood" anecdote captures well.

"Trump gets overly demonized sometimes," onetime White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told Salon. "He has a rough exoskeleton and he can be inhumane, but he's not like that in every setting. He totally respected and I think still does respect her opinion."

Melania herself expressed their unconventional relationship tenderly: "We give a space to each other."

The head server at Trump's club in Bedminster, New Jersey, put it more cynically.

"He was sweet with her," he told Jordan. "But that was on TV. In person, I never saw them talk like that." Jordan said his "remarkably consistent" account illustrated a marriage "that seems to thrive on husband and wife maintaining parallel lives that barely intersect."

And that's the book's big scoop: Melania leveraged her indispensable image as first lady to renegotiate her prenuptial agreement with Trump, refusing to move into the White House until he gave in. Tellingly, she referred to this as "taking care of Barron."

(Jordan points out she could have learned the move from Trump, who in his ghostwritten "Art of the Deal" says, "The best thing you can do is to deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have.")

Melania, Jordan writes, first laughed at the "FREE MELANIA" signs, but says she recoiled at being thought of as "helpless" or a "hostage." Her primary concern is raising Trump's youngest child, Barron — who has Slovenian citizenship and speaks the language fluently — and just about everything she does revolves around what she believes will be best for him. (Trump once called Barron "Melania's son.")

"She is very happy being first lady," said one acquaintance.

"She knows exactly what he does not want, which makes her exactly what he wants," said another.

The true frost, it seems, exists between Melania and "first daughter" Ivanka Trump, who gave her stepmother the derisive nickname, "The Portrait."

Melania has been heard calling Ivanka "The Princess" out of earshot. When she was younger, Ivanka privately called Melania "The Portrait," telling classmates that her father's girlfriend spoke as much as a painting on the wall.

Melania apparently fought to keep Ivanka's reach out of the East Wing, and personally intervened to block her from taking the most visible spot next to Trump during the inauguration. (That went to Melania and Barron.)

In fact, Jordan writes, when Melania famously donned a cheap army-green jacket with "I don't care do u?" scrawled on the back for a visit with separated migrant families at the Mexico border, it was, according to White House aides, a shot at Ivanka, who did not make such a trip.

(Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, only makes one appearance in the book, walking in on their interview wearing shorts and talking about how Donald Trump would never give his kid a participation trophy.)

Jordan confirms that Melania was at least in part responsible for ending that immigration policy. She reports that White House sources told her it was coordinated with Trump, who "realized that he had made a mistake and was happy for Melania to help him fix it."

Though the first lady has advocated for some policy action — such as an ill-fated effort to ban e-cigarettes after Barron told her many of his classmates used them — Trump places the most value on Melania's judgment about White House staff.

She is rumored to have been behind several high-profile moves, such as firing Scaramucci after barely a week in the White House, when a journalist wrote up a wildly profane phone call that Scaramucci had believed was off the record. (Scaramucci told Salon that Melania and Ivanka were likely behind his ouster, but said he doesn't blame them: It was "an absolutely fireable offense.")

In another of the book's few scoops, Melania seems to have been co-opted into demanding the firing of national security aide Mira Ricardel.

This, Jordan points out, shows how "top administration officials sometimes try to use Melania's power for their own agenda … and sometimes when it appears Melania is acting independently from her husband, she is actually working with him."

But in striving to convince a skeptical public about Melania's agency, Jordan fails to hold her accountable for her complicity in her husband's astounding cruelty and destructiveness. The first lady, who prides herself on being a "calm person," is rarely shown slamming her foot down or expressing indignation, and the book never address her immigrant's take on Trump's blatant racism.

For instance, Melania didn't shame Trump into ending the child separation policy; he was separately vexed by the criticism that the televised images of children had generated.

Perhaps this was a conscious choice on Jordan's part to sculpt a narrative, or perhaps it's a byproduct of the "unprecedented challenge" that the inscrutable Melania posed for the author, whose book is ultimately most concerned with unpacking the person.

Jordan does cast serious doubts on Melania's trustworthiness (calling her the "avid creator of her own history"), and says, for example, that Melania's claim to speak five languages is patently false. As recently as summer 2016, Melania's official bio said she graduated from college. She did not.

Of course, Jordan's patience with contradictions and deception are exactly what makes the book such a rich and rewarding read. On the other hand, whatever experiences and relationships shaped Melania still guide her, and her actions and inactions as first lady to Donald Trump are in many ways the ultimate testament to whoever she is, or wants to be.

In their lone interview, when Jordan asked Melania to describe herself "correctly," the soon-to-be first lady replied, "I know what I want, and I don't need to talk, and to, you know, be an attention seeker. I'm not that way."

Jordan, just as confused by this answer as she was before it, asked Melania to tell her what she does want, as opposed to what she is not.

"I live meaningful life," Melania said. "I know that talking every time, blabbing something around isn't good. That's not my style."

"Maintaining façades is and has always been Melania's job, a job she takes seriously and executes meticulously, even if — as with her modeling — rather lifelessly," Jordan observes. "She knows how to do what she needs to do; she just doesn't know how to look like she enjoys doing it."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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