Unconventional and unpredictable, first lady Melania Trump now faces the task of vacating the White House and deciding what the next phase of her life will look like.
The last few days of election week have been as tumultuous as the last near-four years in Washington – but pretty typical for her: She was seen only once – at the White House with the president in the early hours of Wednesday morning – and has not been seen or heard in public since.
Meanwhile, it was all over but the shouting. Nail-biting waits for vote counts continued, and Joe Biden was declared president-elect Saturday morning. The president blasted out multiple ALL-CAP tweets, one demanded the vote counting stop and another claimed he won “by a lot” just ahead of many media networks calling the race in favor of Biden. The president ranted on Thursday night during a live press conference about alleged fraud in the election, which was so shocking many media outlets, including USA TODAY, cut away in the middle of it.
Melania Trump wasn’t there. On Friday morning, her Twitter account sent out an anodyne tweet about a hospital she visited last year in Boston, as if nothing unusual was happening.
First lady Melania Trump casts vote in Florida on Election Day
Associated Press, USA TODAY
So now that Democrat Joe Biden has been declared the winner, what’s next for her? Will she return to her former role of devoted mom and wealthy lady-of-leisure, traveling between one Trump estate to another? After Jan. 21, will she make a beeline for her Trump Tower penthouse in New York City or head for the spa at Mar-a-Lago in sunny Palm Beach, Florida?
Based on the past four years, she’s not likely to confide. But a hint: She voted Tuesday in person in Palm Beach County where the Trumps have registered to vote and have made their official residence.
“I assume Mrs. Trump will go back to Florida – or maybe she will be able to convince her husband to return to New York as their official residence – and continue the kind of life she led before the White House,” predicts first lady historian Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University.
But first she will busy herself with decorating the White House for the Trumps’ final Christmas season there, says Anita McBride, who was former first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff and now runs the Legacies of America’s First Ladies Initiative at American University.
Losing the election comes with “a certain disappointment of not having this option (of being in the White House) again after working so hard towards it,” McBride says. “You go through the stages of a loss because it is a loss. I think (Trump) will focus on her family and her son (Barron); helping him to manage this transition will most likely be foremost in her mind.”
But who could blame Trump if she is preparing to relinquish with some relief the undefined, unpaid, high-pressure job of first lady to former second lady Jill Biden, now the FLOTUS in waiting.
Why? Four years of near constant battles with the mainstream media Trump despised and a deluge of toxic tweets from critics who returned her disdain. Sharp criticism of her fashion and decorating choices. Two medical crises, including a five-day hospital stay and weeks when she disappeared from public view.
Continuing talk and lawsuits over her husband’s past alleged indiscretions. A first-lady agenda that fell short of its ambitions, especially on fighting online bullying of the sort often practiced by the president.
There were public spats over banal jokes invoking son Barron, 14; over her desire to tune the TV on Air Force One to CNN; and on her role in the firing of a high-level national security official. Throughout there were dozens of pictures and videos showing her with a crestfallen face, or snatching her hand from his, or the risible conspiracy theory that she employed a body double in public.
Then there were the unwelcome biographies and tell-all books, including one by a former friend who promoted it by releasing secret tapes of their conversations, capturing the first lady’s scorn for some aspects of her role and her familiarity with Anglo-Saxon expletives if not perfect grammar.
“I could say I’m the most bullied person in the world,” she lamented to ABC in her one mainstream media interview, during her tour of Africa in 2018, for which she was dressed like a colonial big-game hunter with a pith helmet on a nearby table.
In short, after all the Sturm und Drang of the most idiosyncratic FLOTUS term in the modern history of American first ladies, it would be understandable if Trump viewed leaving it all behind with a sense of good riddance.
“I think Melania will probably be secretly relieved,” says Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author of books about the White House, including “First Women,” about modern first ladies. “This is not what she signed up for.”
First lady blasts Biden, Dems at solo event in Pa.
Americans might have suspected ambivalence based on her decision to not move into the White House on Jan. 21. She and her husband said she waited five months so that Barron could finish the school year in New York.
From that surprising beginning, Trump was often under siege in the East Wing, but with few connections to living former first ladies to call and commiserate.
“She feels like she can’t do anything right, and though every first lady feels that way at some point, she has the disadvantage of being married to someone who has burned every bridge to the past,” Andersen Brower says.
Having been born and raised in the central Europe country of Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), Trump, 50, has been a U.S. citizen only 14 years. But the role she was expected to embrace can be hard to discern even for politically and socially savvy women born and raised in the USA.
“The job is so unclear anyway, so expecting her to (immediately) understand the weight of it and know what to do, and meanwhile none of the others want to talk to her except maybe Laura Bush, who came to tea a few times, because they all dislike her husband so much.”
Myra Gutin, a professor of communication and first-lady historian at Rider University in New Jersey, thinks Trump will be judged “an average first lady,” one who fulfilled ceremonial responsibilities and launched a first-lady project. But “she was not an activist and rarely a presidential surrogate,” Gutin says.
There is little doubt Trump was an historic first lady, more for what she is rather than what she did: The first foreign-born FLOTUS in 195 years. The first former fashion model who also posed nude. The first to be the president’s third wife. The first for whom English was not her first language.
After many delays, she launched her first-lady initiative, Be Best, which was aimed at “helping children” by fighting online bullying and opioid abuse.
“Many Americans never developed any definite perception of her,” says Gutin. “Her White House initiative, though well-intentioned, never particularly resonated.”
Betty Boyd Caroli, author of multiple White House-related books, including “First Ladies,” says Trump “hasn’t done anything significant” during her term.
“Her take on the job seems to be to do as little as possible, and of course some Americans, but not a majority I think, like that,” Caroli says. “I expect her Be Best project to get buried, to the extent it ever existed as far as staff and funding go, quicker than Nancy Reagan’s Foster Grandparent plan.”
She doesn’t see Trump taking on a new cause or, say, getting involved in her husband’s post-presidency foundation or library, if there is one, largely because she wasn’t much of an activist before.
“As far as I can tell, Melania was not one for projects even before the White House,” Caroli says.
It’s possible that Trump will continue to snub the media, even as her husband is expected to continue haranguing them. He might even join the media, possibly through a post-presidency Trump-branded television network – Trump TV, as it were – that’s been floated.
Caroli thinks the outgoing first lady might make occasional attempts to send snarky messages to the media through her clothes.
During her 2018 ABC interview in Africa, she claimed her infamous “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” jacket was really a message to the media. Yet, when she answered questions during a gaggle with reporters (Egypt’s Great Sphinx in the background) on the same trip, she derided the media for paying too much attention to her clothes, saying she wished people would “focus on what I do, not what I wear.”
“She’ll go down in history as a first lady who used her clothes as a vindictive gesture to the media – she hates the media,” Anderson Brower says. “She thinks it’s ridiculous that her clothes are analyzed like this and so she’s going to have fun taunting people.”
But after the White House, it won’t matter as much. It could “drive reporters crazy, but I’m not sure anyone will care about what she wears after she’s out of D.C.,” Caroli says.
Trump could get her revenge on her foes by writing a memoir, as most first ladies usually do: Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming,” was a runaway best-seller and made her millions while allowing her to get things off her chest, including the experience of being attacked in ugly racist terms while she was first lady.
“I think Melania is going to return to that lady-who-lunches lifestyle, which is totally her right to do, but if she wrote a book she could make a lot of money,” says Andersen Brower. “If she wrote a no-holds-barred book, like Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn” memoir, that would do very well. And she might, given the way she (sometimes) talks so candidly.”
But Trump will make her motherhood role first and foremost, even as Barron grows up in a few years and prepares to leave home. Will she and he go back to New York so he can return to his former private school in Manhattan?
Could she bear to stay behind in Washington while he finishes high school at his current school in Potomac, Maryland, about 20 miles from the White House? (Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama stayed in Washington after their White House years so their two daughters could finish up at their private school.)
McBride doesn’t think the Trumps, any of them, will stick around in Washington. She thinks it’s possible that the former first lady could get quietly involved in the design of a post-presidency library, given her interest in design.
But she could also continue advocating for some of the causes she showcased in the White House, such as neo-natal drug addiction, especially if she’s asked by some of the groups she interacted with while visiting hospitals and hosting round tables on the issue, McBride says.
“Sometimes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so you do what you like, what comes natural and is a reflection of your style and taste, and then you hope people like it,” McBride says.
As for where the Trumps will live after leaving the White House, they have many luxury homes to choose from, including Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, the Seven Springs estate in Westchester, N.Y., and the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, N.J.