In CNN Special Report “Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump,” White House Reporter Kate Bennett lands rare access inside the East Wing. Watch Friday, June 14 at 9 pm ET.
President Donald Trump might use his Mar-a-Lago visits to golf, entertain dignitaries and schmooze with his powerful friends, but for his wife, Melania Trump, the idea is to be invisible. The private quarters are just that – private – and reserved for just her, her husband and their son.
Mar-a-Lago is her respite.
The family compound of the Trump orbit at the approximately 20-acre estate-turned-private club nestled on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, Florida, are relatively modest, as far as their homes go, according to a member familiar with the layout.
The suites of rooms aren’t vastly expansive in terms of square-footage – tiny compared to the three floors of the Trump Tower family penthouse in Manhattan and a fraction of the four floors of the Executive Residence of the White House. There is a coziness to the place, even if it is one of the largest estates in Florida.
There is no private pool for the family, no private spa, no separate driveway. In fact, the proximity to the rest of the guests, many of whom have known one another socially for a period of time, breeding the club-like atmosphere, is both surprising and familial.
The heavily secured area, like most of the property, is essentially attached to the rest of the club’s facilities, where members and member-guests can stroll about, dine, socialize, frequent the vast outdoor facilities, the tennis courts, the croquet courts or the Beach Club.
President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is the shiny penny of his wealth, a sprawling example of what he has acquired, the literal interpretation of showing off. He rarely leaves its confines, with the exception of golfing at his club. Melania Trump is loathe to leave the grounds, too, it turns out, and spends most of her vacation days on property, secluded from the hoi polloi members, mostly having quality time with her son and her parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, who also spend a decent portion of the year at Mar-a-Lago.
Over the Christmas holiday, the first lady spent three weeks out of the public eye at Mar-a-Lago, save for the approximately four days she was in Washington and on a surprise visit to troops in Iraq. This month, for spring break, she has been away from Washington at Mar-a-Lago since March 19, and is scheduled to return Sunday evening. Her year is peppered with mini-breaks there, too – the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Easter, Thanksgiving.
Yet, like many things with Trump, there remains a screen of privacy around her visits down here, an oblique notion that she is off somewhere, for large chunks of time away from the White House, doing whatever she sees fit to do, at her own pace, on her own schedule, unrelated to that of her husband, or his priorities or habits – an independent way of life that has become the calling card of this administration’s first lady.
“She has a long history with Palm Beach, yes, but she stays to herself for most part,” said Laurence Leamer, part-time Palm Beach resident and author of “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.”
Leamer has long been a chronicler of Trump and his Palm Beach habits, even pre-presidential, and, as such, those of Trump’s third wife.
“All these ladies in Palm Beach,” said Leamer, speaking generally of the overtly monied set of denizens in one of the country’s wealthiest towns, “they go to Worth Avenue to shop, they dress up and they pay these exorbitant prices for clothes and things, and that’s part of the scene. That’s what they do here, that’s the life. But not Melania Trump.”
When Trump departed Washington for Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN spring break at the property was “an annual tradition” for the family.
There are few who would argue against Trump’s fierce commitment to her 13-year-old son to provide as “normal” a life as she possibly can for him. As such, Trump hasn’t diverted from the occasions and events that have brought her down here since he was born.
Grisham, during the 2018 Christmas holidays, which coincided with the longest government shutdown in history, said something similar when pressed by CNN about the first lady’s use of government funds to fly to and from Palm Beach and Washington (Air Force planes are required for the first lady of the United States, per security guidelines.)
“It has long been the family’s tradition to spend their Christmas holiday at Mar-a-Lago. Her plans to travel with her son to their Florida home for his winter break have not changed this year,” said Grisham at the time.
For many of the rich folk who “winter” in Palm Beach, away from chilly East Coast temperatures and snow, Palm Beach means parties and social clubs and nights on the town. But for Melania Trump, Palm Beach is hearth-centric, it’s where she makes sure things are consistent, where she can care take annual traditions and where she can hunker down, away from the headlines and chaos.
Since becoming first lady, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago days include other additions to her usual calendar of vacation and self-care. She now travels there with at least one staff member, typically Grisham, whose full title is deputy chief of staff for communications.
Trump and Grisham meet regularly while in Palm Beach, Grisham told CNN, to discuss events and off-site visits (this week Trump hosted Fabiana Rosales, the wife of Juan Guaido, the president of the country’s National Assembly, who the Trump administration recognizes as Venezuela’s acting president. She also dropped in on a local elementary school to talk about bullying with the students).
They also plan upcoming White House obligations (such as the Easter Egg Roll) and future travel. Trump is, Grisham said, in “constant communication” with her and the rest of her small East Wing team back in Washington.
Yet there is another component of her Mar-a-Lago life that is more personal than professional; it is where Trump has lengthy one-on-one time with her husband, the President.
’They dine for hours’
Dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago are used to seeing them by now. The couple huddled on the candle-lit patio during dinnertime, talking, sometimes for two, three hours. Only interrupted by friends who come over to shake his hand or wish him a pleasant evening, Donald and Melania Trump are mealtime fixtures at the club’s formal outdoor restaurant, often eating dinner together both Friday and Saturday nights on weekends when Trump is in town, says a White House official.
“What married couple spends three hours together alone at dinner?” Leamer, who has observed the Trumps on several occasions rhetorically asked. “They’re there so long, other people are leaving and they’re just … there. They dine for hours. He likes a small table, a four-person table, so people can come over to say ‘hello’ but there’s not enough room to invite people to join.”
The cozy dinners at Mar-a-Lago might fly in the face of the oft-thought common perception the first couple are irretrievably detached.
“It’s extraordinary for what a public personality Trump is that part of him is very private, and so is she. I am talking in the sense he and she don’t necessarily like interlopers,” said Leamer. “Trump has always got to be the center of attention, so if you go to someone else’s party, he’s not always going to be that.”
When Trump does have dinner guests, instances of which there have been publicly circulated photographs, there is typically no more than two or three other couples, oftentimes old friends from New York, or members of his inner political circle. A creature of habit when he’s not eating alone with Melania Trump, the President isn’t looking to make new friends. Nor is he looking to widen his culinary inclinations.
Leamer writes in his book how particular Trump is about his vacation menu – and how many Mar-a-Lago chefs have rotated in and out through the years. As such, Melania Trump doesn’t challenge the kitchen either. Though she may not eat Trump’s favored blackened steaks and burgers or meatloaf, she keeps her tastes simple and healthy.
Melania Trump does, however, oversee menus for bigger family events, including Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. But for dinners à deux, the focus is on the conversation, not the cuisine.
“Those two will go and sit at dinner, and they are in the most in-depth conversations, and will talk and sit there for hours, literally,” a White House official told CNN, confirming Leamer’s account of the first couple’s habits.
A long history
Mar-a-Lago was one of the first places Trump took his new girlfriend, then-Melania Knauss, when they first started dating in late 1998, early 1999, and it quickly became one of her favorite getaways, and remains so now, two decade later.
“Melania Trump is following a long tradition of first ladies seeking to escape the claustrophobic White House,” says Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.” “I think she’s been more successful than most because there is so much going on in her husband’s West Wing that she can fly under the radar more than Michelle Obama or Laura Bush ever could.”
Bush had the family ranch in Crawford, Texas, Obama had Christmases in Hawaii and summers on Martha’s Vineyard, but when those first ladies vacationed, it felt planned and regimented.
“The Reagans had Rancho del Cielo or ‘Ranch in the Sky,’ ” said Brower. “But they were so attached at the hip they often went there together.”
Rarely did they spend as much time apart as do the Trumps.
Trump has Mar-a-Lago, and in the summer, when south Florida becomes sticky with heat and humidity, she can also escape to New Jersey, where she and her family have more private quarters within a private club, the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster. Trump’s options are more vast, her movements more mysterious and her activities, when she’s not working with her team, more cloaked in privacy.
Trump’s desire to be away is perhaps more akin in terms of predecessors to Jacqueline Kennedy, who would spend long weekends away from the White House at Glen Ora, the 400-acre estate in Virginia horse country that the Kennedys rented.
Brower writes in her book, “First Women,” “according to Jackie’s Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, between the summer of 1961 and the summer of 1962, the first lady spent nearly four months away from Washington. She often left on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning and would not return until Monday afternoon or even Tuesday morning.”
Summers for Kennedy were spent in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where the fabled Kennedy compound was located. But Jackie Kennedy, like Trump, also spent time in Palm Beach for Christmas and Easter, and she had a fondness for escaping to her family’s estate in Newport, Rhode Island, where she and John Kennedy were married.
Mar-a-Lago contains marital memories for Trump, as well. While the ceremony was held at nearby Episcopal church Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the Trumps’ lavish wedding reception in 2005 was held in the club’s gilded ballroom, which had recently completed a $42 million renovation.
Trump’s six-figure couture gown helped land her the cover of Vogue magazine, and at the reception dinner guests were served gold-flecked hors d’oeuvres, steak and lobster, and they swilled expensive Champagne. As the party spilled out into the pool area after dinner, Trump changed into a white Vera Wang slip dress, better for dancing, which the newlyweds did until the wee hours.
Mar-a-Lago also served as the backdrop for the weddings of Donald Trump, Jr, and Eric Trump – and more recently, guests opting to hold their wedding at the club are sometimes to treated to a brief audience with the President, if he’s in town.
But even when they’re with family at Mar-a-Lago, especially Donald Trump’s extended clan, those who observe the first lady say she and her parents and her son form their own impenetrable, less approachable entity.
And when she’s there for her husband, “she is on his arm, spectacularly dressed, even if just for the members to see,” said Leamer. “Mar-a-Lago is the one place where he feels truly relaxed, he feels comfortable there – and I think that’s true of her as well.”