Ivanka Trump and Melania Trumphave a lot in common on the surface. Money, style, poise, devotion to family and, since becoming first daughter and first lady of the United States, patience, fealty and thick skin. Such is their more recent lot in life, caught up in the miasma ever-swirling around President Donald Trump, with millions of people admiring them but millions of others finding their every move suspect.
If this were Dynasty, stepmother and stepdaughter—or Muse and Marvel, as the Secret Service call them—would be obvious rivals, constantly battling for Trump’s affections (not in that way), for favor, for influence. They would snipe at each other in private and put on wide, plastic smiles in public. They might even pull each other’s hair on occasion.
But this is real life, last we checked, and that is mostly not the case when it comes to the two most important women in the president’s life. And not just because politics makes for strange bedfellows.
“Ivanka and Mrs. Trump have always shared a close relationship, and that continues today,” the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told Vanity Fair in early 2017 after sources observed a certain “frostiness” between the two. Melania hadn’t even moved into the White House yet full time, having remained in New York while son Barron Trump finished the school year.
From the start the first lady seemed intent on continuing with what she used to do in New York, which was taking care of her family and being a good hostess, only on a grander scale. She organized the room-and-board arrangements for all the Trump kids and grandchildren during inauguration weekend, starting at the Blair House and moving into the White House once Trump had been sworn in and the Obamas had cleared out.
Ivanka requested the Lincoln Bedroom, according to Emily Jane Fox’s Born Trump. And when Melania hesitated at the idea of the traditional Inauguration Day walk with her son and husband to the White House, wondering if it would be safe enough, Ivanka reportedly said, “It’s happening.”
Now, with Trump’s third year in office underway, Melania and Ivanka are busy not stepping on each other’s toes, the dance made easier by the fact that they have approached political life entirely differently. As in, Ivanka is fully immersed, and Melania steers clear as much as she possibly can.
The New York Times reported in November that friends said Ivanka “bristled” when people seemed to mix up what was her role in the administration as opposed to the first lady’s role, and she would clarify that she was there to work on policy and help her father deal with pressing issues, by whatever means she could best exercise her influence. Ivanka was guessed to be leaving all other FLOTUS-tailored duties in Melania’s court by purposeful omission.
“The office of the first lady is focused on her initiatives and works independently,” Grisham said in a statement to the Times, “but we often collaborate on a variety of projects with the West Wing and have a very positive working relationship.”
Otherwise, they appear to be left to their own devices. When it was announced that Melania would be visiting Africa in October in conjunction with her “Be Best” initiative, Ivanka sent a note over to the East Wing letting them know that she had been planning a separate trip to Africa, probably for January 2019, according to the Times. (Ivanka’s trip, which was to be with Trump skeptic turned avid supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, has yet to happen.)
The campaign trail never having been Melania’s thing, Ivanka was the one who joined her father at a few rallies before the 2018 midterm elections, and as someone who actually enjoys transactional socializing and deal-making, the first daughter is in her element charming members of Congress or appearing as a surrogate for her father. But that’s pretty much how the spectacle-averse Melania (husband’s antics notwithstanding) would have it.
“The first lady and Ivanka have a great relationship,” a White House official told the Times. “As strong independent women, each has their own unique portfolio but they always support each another personally and professionally.”
We’re sensing a theme.
“To Melania: Thank you for your continued support and encouragement,” Ivanka wrote in the dedication to her 2009 book The Trump Card—not exactly a snub (Melania made the page, after all, under her siblings, her maternal grandmother and a beloved nanny), but not exactly oozing with affection. Her number-one thank you was “To Mom and Dad.”
Ivanka Trump was 8 when her parents, Donald and Ivana Trump, separated in spectacular, tabloid-abetted fashion. She was 9 when a reporter first asked her if it was true that her father was good in bed—the question inexplicably presented to her after the New York Post‘s infamous “BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD” front page in 1990, spurred on by the future second Mrs. Trump, Marla Maples, replying “yes” when Donald Trump asked her, mid-phone interview with a Post editor, if she indeed felt that way.
“What type of person would ask a nine-year-old girl that kind of question?” Ivanka wrote in her book. “About her own father, no less?
“But we were fair game, our lives on full display. And the questions kept coming. Did I like Marla? Whom did I want to live with after the divorce? Was my mother seeing anyone? It was so insane, so offensive, so upsetting. And there was no let-up.”
She also wrote about her parents’ divorce, “None of us saw it coming.” She assumed they would work it out until a Daily News headline shouted at her on the way to school one morning, “LOVE ON THE ROCKS.”
“They were both very smart, media-savvy people,” she described her parents, “but I don’t think either of them saw the magnitude of what was coming.”
After a drawn-out public battle, Ivana Trump ended up with custody of Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump.
Meanwhile, the story of how the Trumps used the New York tabloids as their own personal bullhorns—Trump the Post and Ivana the Daily News—is the stuff of legend. But you won’t find a cross word about either of them, the worst being that Dad spent a lot of time working, in Ivanka’s retelling of her story, no more than you would find one in the run-up to the presidential election. Anything that didn’t go toward polishing the brand was, and is, always verboten, even when it would make more sense to complain a little.
“[Trump] has a very honest relationship with his children,” a source told Vanity Fair in 2017. “They know him for what they love and what they don’t particularly admire. He treats them like adults and partners and family, but he doesn’t keep secrets from them.”
“When they turned 21,” Ivana said, also per Vanity Fair, “I handed them over to [my ex-husband] and said, ‘Here’s the finished product. You can take them from here.'”
“The 14-year-old Ivanka loved her father very much but didn’t realize just how great he was,” Trump’s daughter told People in October 2016. “The parent Ivanka appreciates him all the more. Now that I’m a parent I realize how difficult it is. He was tough, firm, but always available to us.” She wrote in The Trump Card that the divorce, while it turned 12-year-old Don Jr. against their dad for awhile, strengthened her bond with her father because she “could no longer take him for granted” and made efforts to see him more, when before she just always said hi when he came home and didn’t think much of it.
Still, the divorce, combined with the death of her maternal grandfather and a nanny who’d been like a second mother to her, was still “the darkest, most difficult period in [her] young life.”
The three eldest Trump children all ended up working for their father at the Trump Organization, and the brothers have acknowledged their relationship with him becoming closer in adulthood (Eric has said that Don Jr. was like a dad to him), but Ivanka was the only one who made the move to Washington, D.C., after Trump was elected president.
She and husband Jared Kushner are considered to be among the president’s closest advisers, despite Trump’s renown for, at the end of the day, only listening to his own instincts, as well as some other voices in his ear that in no way match up with the fairly liberal politics (and politicians) that Jared and Ivanka used to prominently support, pre-2015.
“He is my father, and he’s my boss,” Ivanka told ABC News in November. “And one of the reasons that I have such a good relationship with him in both a personal and professional capacity is because I’m incredibly candid with him.”
And, incidentally, she and Jared are still in the West Wing despite the cavalcade of criticism that met Trump for elevating his daughter and son-in-law to positions they didn’t seem particularly qualified for. Within the last few weeks the New York Times and CNN respectively reported that Trump pushed to get security clearances for Jared and Ivanka against the recommendations of security officials, then-chief of staff John Kelly and now former White House counsel Don McGahn.
Ivanka denied to ABC News that her father had anything to do with pushing their clearances through, saying that they received no special treatment.
Melania Trump, meanwhile, has always seemed perfectly happy to let the headlines be about somebody else.
One of the few people in Trump’s inner circle who was genuine in assuring him that he was going to win the presidency, Melania was also reportedly the one most devastated by him actually winning and was in unhappy tears on election night.
Aside from assuring that she’d make an incredible first lady, Trump had said that she was free to approach the role as she pleased. Before her husband was ever actually running, the Slovenian model was asked on multiple occasions (including at least once before they were even married) what sort of first lady she would be.
Jacqueline Kennedy was her go-to, though she also mentioned Betty Ford—so-called “traditional” wives who were happy to bolster their husbands’ profiles (though, of course, Ford made a lasting contribution to the world when it comes to addiction treatment, and Jackie remains in her own iconic category).
“Melania is very smart, she’s very warm, she’s got an incredible heart,” Ivanka told People in October 2016. “She’s always been very charitable and there are many organizations that she’s worked with. Not just for a season but over the course of many years and decades in some cases.
“So I’ll leave it to her to put forth what her platform will be but I know that she’ll be a very powerful and impactful first woman. I know that anything she sets her mind to she does with her full heart so I have no doubt that when she decides which platform she’s going to prioritize, she’ll be incredibly effective in that regard.”
As historically tends to happen with first ladies and presidents, Melania’s approval ratings have generally remained higher than her husband’s (despite her lament last year that she’s “the most bullied person on the world”), though they tend to dip when her rhetoric aligns with her husband’s. She has remained a beacon of class and impeccable taste, however, to those who like this administration, as has Ivanka. But Ivanka is the one who took the greater popularity dive as she was easily the most broadly liked member of the Trump family before the run for the presidency became a reality and the first daughter didn’t prove to be a check or balance on her father’s agenda. And now…
It would seem as though Ivanka and Melania, if they didn’t before, have a lot to bond over, their fate wagons hitched to a train that never runs on time after years of being able to smoothly manage their own narratives. A particularly bizarre conspiracy theory that Trump is sometimes accompanied by a Melania double just reared its head again, while Ivanka was recently laughed off the internet for commenting that most people would rather “work for what they get” rather than be “given something” (“something” being a higher guaranteed minimum wage—it varies from place to place, but the current federal rate is $7.25 an hour). Last year she shuttered her eponymous fashion brand, citing her ongoing work in Washington.
But what sort of a relationship did stepmother and stepdaughter have going into this chapter of their lives?
Eight years after primly thanking her for her support, Ivanka wrote in the acknowledgments of her 2017 book Women Who Work, “Melania, you are an unbelievable mother with a heart of gold. You give generously of your time and attention and I appreciate your support and friendship.”
By 2017, Ivanka was a mother of three and, knowing how much Melania doted on son Barron, she was able to better admire and bond more with her as a fellow parent.
“Melania is an unbelievable mother,” Ivanka told People in 2016. “It’s pretty uncommon for wives of candidates to not be on the campaign trail every day. And she made a decision I totally respect which is that she has a young son, he needs stability, he needs routine. My father’s traveling so frequently and she is an unbelievably consistent, loving and reliable figure in Barron’s life.” (Incidentally, she was also looking to quell some of the tongue-wagging about why Melania wasn’t endlessly on the road campaigning for her husband.)
Ivanka continued, “She takes him to school every day, picks him up every day. It’s a really remarkable thing and she’s a great inspiration to me as I raise my own children in terms of family first and having the right priorities.” In turn, Melania had done “an amazing job” protecting Barron, then only 10, from the media madness.
Always very close to her own mom, there was no reason to ever think that Ivanka would need or aspire to look at Melania as a mother figure. And considering they’re only 11 years apart in age, being friends sounds the like the more reasonable option.
A 25-year-old Melania met Donald Trump in September 1998 at Manhattan’s Kit Kat Club when she was out with a bunch of her fellow models during New York Fashion Week.
Ivanka was 17 and starting her final year at Choate, a Connecticut boarding school whose fellow alumnae include Glenn Close and Jamie Lee Curtis. She then attended Georgetown for two years before transferring to Penn’s Wharton School, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2004.
Trump and Melania moved in together in around 2000, when the real estate mogul was running a comparatively low-key race for president on the Reform Party ticket. During a phone chat with The Howard Stern Show, Trump said, referring to his girlfriend, “Howard, you look and you say, ‘How can something be so beautiful? For a presidential candidate, I’ll tell you this, for a presidential candidate, I have the best time.” (The campaign soon fizzled.)
“She’s really nice,” Ivanka told New York magazine in 2004 about her father’s then-fiancée, in a tone described as “cautious.” “She’s a good person, and we appreciate that. I think we’re all getting to know her a little bit more now.”
Added Eric Trump, who admitted to having resented some of the people his parents dated (and married) early on, “We’ve actually seen our father being happy, you know, really enjoying this person and her doing a lot for him, and therefore we appreciate her as opposed to resent her.”
According to Born Trump, Ivanka also acknowledged to a gossip columnist, reflecting on when Trump first met Melania, “It was much more difficult getting along with my dad’s girlfriends when I was younger, because almost every woman who came into the house was a challenge to me.”
Donald and Melania got married on Jan. 22, 2005, at Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Fla., followed by a reception at Mar-a-Lago attended by, among hundreds of others, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Melania in her Dior wedding dress was featured on the cover of Vogue.
Ten days beforehand, Trump told biographer Timothy L. O’Brien, “It’s all in the hunt and once you get it, it loses some of its energy. I think competitive, successful men feel that way about women. Don’t you agree? Really, don’t you agree?” But Trump was optimistic that his third marriage would last, because it already wasn’t like his second, when he was bored by the time Marla Maples was walking down the aisle. Asked if he planned to have more children, Trump said, “Sure, when you’re rich you can have as many kids as you want. Being rich makes it easier to have kids.”
Meanwhile, in 2004 Melania told Barbara Walters, who attended the couple’s wedding, “He’s a great man. He should live forever.”
In his 2005 book TrumpNation, O’Brien did recall Trump being “clearly enthralled” with his wife two months after their wedding.
And to this day, despite everything that’s been reported on and/or verified about Trump’s unfaithful approach to marriage, and how much some people are convinced that she only is around her husband when she absolutely has to be (and even then sometimes sends a body double), Melania still has her husband’s ear, he seeks out her approval and she apparently can make time spent with the president feel more normal.
“A two-hour dinner with Donald could be overwhelming,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie writes in his 2019 book Let Me Finish. “[My wife] Mary Pat put it best: ‘He’s exhausting.’ But if he was talking too much, Melania would sometimes reach over and lay her hand on his forearm. That was the signal: Let others get in a word. She seemed to have a calming influence on him.”
Talking about the almost unprecedented influence that two adult women have on this president (FDR’s relationships with his wife and mother come close), Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, who has closely studied first ladies, told the New York Times that Trump’s wife and daughter appeared to rotate in and out of the spotlight. “In the case of Melania and Ivanka Trump…sometimes one of them is ‘out front,’ and sometimes it’s the other one who is,” she said.
Both Melania and Ivanka, however, objected to the administration’s policy that had authorities separating children from their parents trying to enter the country illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting Trump to say he was doing away with it.
“I give [my husband] my honest advice and honest opinions, and then he does what he wants to do,” Melania told ABC News in October. (And when she opined that there were certain people in his administration that he couldn’t trust? “Well, some people, they don’t work there anymore,” the first lady said.)
She previewed as much to Harper’s Bazaar in late 2015, months before Trump officially became the Republican nominee, saying, “I’m choosing not to go political in public because that is my husband’s job. I’m very political in private life, and between me and my husband I know everything that is going on. I follow from A to Z.
“But I chose not to be on the campaign. I made that choice. I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me.”
And all the way back in 2005, she told biographer O’Brien, “If you marry someone with as big a personality as Donald you have to make sure to always be yourself. I don’t think he had that before and lots of people say he’s the most happy and the most comfortable now.”
Also back in the ’00s, Ivanka was being asked to size up the new love in her father’s life.
She told the Mail on Sunday that she could tell Melania had “good character.”
Besides, “Dad’s too much of a pain in the ass to stick around with for too long if your motives aren’t genuine.”