The Melania you don't know

Melania Trump and "The Art of Her Deal"
Melania Trump and "The Art of Her Deal" 08:16

Recently, while President Trump was talking "law and order," first lady Melania Trump was tweeting about "healing & peace." And back in April, when Mr. Trump declined to wear a face mask ("It's voluntary, you don't have to do it. ... I don't think I'm going to be doing it"), his wife put one on, and urged others to do the same ("to keep us all safe").

It's not exactly a palace coup, and some might say not nearly enough to keep her husband's more controversial actions in check. But either way, according to a new book, Melania Trump has more influence than you might think.

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In "The Art of Her Deal," Washington Post correspondent Mary Jordan explores the life of the first lady and her surprising role as one of the most influential voices in the Trump White House. CBS News

Correspondent Tracy Smith said, "This is very different than the narrative that some people have painted that she is trapped."

"Oh, ho! Makes her crazy to say she's 'Poor Melania Trump'; she's not," said Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Jordan. "She is smart, independent. She will decide what she wants to do and what she doesn't wanna do."

Jordan is the author of "The Art of Her Deal," published by Simon & Schuster (a ViacomCBS company).

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Simon & Schuster

Jordan, a Washington Post correspondent, asked to interview her for this book. The response? "Basically, no reply. The Trumps, both of them, make people who are around them sign non-disclosure agreements. They also, I quickly learned, told people that knew Melania when she was young, when she was a model, to not talk."

The White House dismisses the book as "fiction." But Jordan said that, after several years and more than a hundred interviews, a clearer picture emerged or a woman who grew up dreaming of a life far away from her native Sevnica, Slovenia. 

"She's a girl who grew up in a really small town and couldn't wait to get out," Jordan said. "She told everyone that. I mean, everyone I talked to in Slovenia said, 'She couldn't wait to get out of this town. She wanted to be where the action is.'"

At first, young Melania wanted to study architecture, but she was persuaded that modeling was a better option, and she found success doing mostly print work in Europe and, later, in New York City. 

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Some of Melania Knauss' early modeling shots.  CBS News

She met Donald Trump in 2005; became a U.S. citizen in 2006; and eventually sponsored her mother and father, Amalija and Victor, to be U.S. citizens as well. 

In fact, just days after their son-in-law made a speech blasting so-called "chain migration," Melania's parents took the oath – and in effect became "chain migrants" themselves.

Politics aside, both are said to dote on their 14-year-old grandson, Barron, who's learned to speak their language. 

Jordan said, "So, Barron Trump speaks Slovenian, is very close to the father. Both her parents spend huge amount of times in the White House, living there.  There's a unit within the family unit, and it's Melania, her mother, her father and Barron. And they all speak Slovenian. And it's kind of interesting: the Secret Service has no idea what they're saying."

"And Donald Trump doesn't have a good idea of what they're saying a lot of the time when they're speaking Slovenian?" said Smith.

"No. And he has said it annoys him sometimes, 'cause he has no idea what they're saying."

But Jordan also says Melania has no problem making herself understood. "She's quite influential," she said. "And I think people underestimated her, big time.

"For instance, when Donald Trump was trying to figure out who to pick as his vice presidential candidate, he brought Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence and had her vet them. She spent two days with the Pences. And her advice to [Donald] was, 'You know, pick Pence, because he'll be content to be number two. The other ones won't. They'll be angling for the number one job.'"

But while Melania has toed the Trump Company line in the past, like the false "birther" claims about President Obama, it's tough to tell what she thinks about her husband's most recent decisions, like advocating the use of force against people protesting the killing by police of George Floyd. 

Smith asked, "So, if people don't like what's going on with this administration, how much can they blame her?"

"This is a really tricky question," Jordan replied. "But  I think most people that I've talked to about that interesting question say, 'You know, you're not really to blame for what your husband does.' But I do think there's a special responsibility when you're in the White House. 

"You know, it's not just a regular spouse. You have a platform. Now I know that she's using it in ways that we don't know, because I keep hearing about all the influence and advice she's given him. She doesn't do it publicly. But you know, maybe it would even be worse. For those who don't like Trump, who knows what else he would be doing if she weren't whispering in his ear?"

Katherine Jellison, who teaches history at Ohio University, said, "I still think that most Americans don't think they know the real Melania Trump."

Smith asked, "So, is it kind of important to know where the first lady stands? Because she does have the president's ear."

Jellison replied, "I think pretty consistently, in the modern era, first ladies have been sounding boards for their husbands, and occasionally have weighed in on policy matters. Certainly Mrs. Clinton did. Mrs. Carter did. So, I think the American people want to know something about the family life of a president, or a would-be president at the time of a presidential campaign."

A defining moment in the 2016 campaign was the infamous "Access Hollywood" incident. "I think that was the moment that she had the most power," Jordan said. "You know, Trump is all about leverage and power. And that was the moment that Melania really came into her own."

The tape, recorded during a 2005 "Access Hollywood" shoot, surfaced a month before Election Day. It captured Mr. Trump talking about women in the most vulgar, offensive ways.

"He was saying that because he's a star he can grab any woman, and was using pretty lewd language," said Jordan. "And you know, if Melania didn't back him up, if she walked away right then, he was toast."

At around the same time, Jordan writes, Melania was starting to renegotiate her prenuptial agreement. "Because she had wanted to do that during the campaign – no dummy! And she picked the right moment to try to get a better deal out of him."

And when she delayed her move to the White House, that, Jordan said, gave her even more leverage. 

Smith asked, "What did she get in the new prenup?"

"I don't know the exact details, but what I'm hearing from multiple sources is, 'She moved in at the right time and got what she wanted,'" Jordan said.

At 15 years, President Trump's marriage to the first lady has outlasted both of his previous unions. He may call himself a great negotiator, but in Melania, it seems he's met his match. 

Smith asked, "Is it a loving marriage, or is it a business deal?"

"What I'm told is that there is more there than people realize," Jordan said. "Yes, they live, I think, what many people think is bizarrely separate lives. Separate bedrooms, you know, they have separate routines. But she's fascinating because we've never had somebody who only arrived in America at the age of 26, and 20 years later she's in the White House. It's quite a story."

        
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"The Art of Her Deal"

      
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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Remington Korper.