Not even two weeks into the new year, the headlines came -- an alleged affair between Donald Trump and a porn star, including a six-figure payout by his attorney -- thrusting first lady Melania Trump unwittingly into a salacious media storm.
On Monday, the first lady will emerge to give some of her first official public remarks of the year -- her first since the renewed scrutiny on her marriage began -- at a luncheon for governors' spouses at the White House on Monday. While typically not one to discuss hot-button policy issues, such as guns, the first lady's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN that Trump will address the Valentine's Day tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, as well as the effect gun violence has on young people. Trump will deliver her remarks from a podium in the White House East Room to approximately 35 guests.
Likely left unaddressed will be her husband's alleged affair with Stormy Daniels, which Donald Trump has denied. It was said to have occurred in 2006, less than four months after Melania Trump gave birth to the couple's son, Barron.
In the wake of the news, the first lady recalibrated her schedule. By January 23, Trump had pulled out of her previously announced trip to accompany her husband to Davos, Switzerland. Grisham blamed the decision on "logistical issues."
Coincidentally, the day before the trip cancellation -- January 22 -- was also the couple's 13th wedding anniversary, an occasion not marked by lovey-dovey social media messages or declarations of love. Requests from CNN to the press offices of both the East Wing and the West Wing to see whether the first couple had special dinner plans went unanswered.
Similarly, on January 20, what could have been a day to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her husband's presidency, the first lady tweeted a somewhat cryptic message about her own first 365 days in office: "This has been a year filled with many wonderful moments. I've enjoyed the people I've been lucky enough to meet throughout our great country & the world!"
Above the sentiments, a photo of Melania Trump on Inauguration Day, her arm snugly placed, not through that of her husband, but rather a military escort. In fact, there was no mention at all of Donald Trump, an oversight that, considering how her 2018 was going so far, was perhaps predictable.
The East Wing did not return a request for comment on the Trump marriage.
But as mounting speculation about the state of the Trump union continued to grow -- even reaching the hallowed comedy halls of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" -- Grisham lashed out on Twitter, attempting to tamp down the growing media swirl.
"BREAKING: The laundry list of salacious & flat-out false reporting about Mrs. Trump by tabloid publications & TV shows has seeped into "main stream media" reporting. She is focused on her family & role as FLOTUS - not the unrealistic scenarios being peddled daily by the fake news."
When Melania met Donald
Perhaps to understand the buzz behind the first couple now, it's important to recall the duo two decades earlier, when they first connected.
Melania Trump, then Melania Knauss, was a 28-year-old model when she met real estate titan and celebrity Donald Trump, then 52, at a 1998 Fashion Week party Manhattan's Kit Kat Club. Though he was on a date with someone else, they clicked, eventually getting together and soon becoming a fixture couple at red carpet events.
They dated for many years before getting engaged in 2004 and marrying in 2005 in an elaborate ceremony and reception held at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. Melania Trump made the cover of Vogue magazine in her six-figure designer wedding gown, celebrities toasted them at their nuptials, Elton John serenaded them at the reception. Within a year, she was pregnant.
Trump, by his own account, was smitten by the Slovenian stunner, who became a United States citizen in 2006. In a 2005 interview, Trump told CNN that life with Melania, his third wife, was drama-free.
"We literally have never had an argument," said Trump.
The same year, Trump told gossip columnist Cindy Adams that Melania Trump had "shown she can be the woman behind me," which is where she remained with relative comfort until the presidential campaign ignited in 2015.
That bright spotlight proceeded to fortify Melania Trump's already steely demeanor, particularly in the wake of the 2005 "Access Hollywood" recording surfaced in October 2016 that caught him saying on a hot mic: "And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything ... Grab them by the p****. You can do anything."
"People talk about me like, 'Oh, Melania, oh poor Melania.' Don't feel sorry for me, don't feel sorry for me. I can handle everything," Melania Trump told CNN in the wake of the video.
It also crystallized that when Trump very much needed her to do so, the future first lady put on a forward-facing forgiveness of her husband, allowing those who wanted to do the same a beacon.
"The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me," she said in a statement. "This does not represent the man that I know. He has the heart and mind of a leader. I hope people will accept his apology, as I have."
When he won the election in November, however, Melania Trump truly came to understand being under the lens of a world preoccupied with Trump palace intrigue. Says a former Trump campaign aide who has spent time with the couple: "The President is tough and the first lady even tougher, but that doesn't make it OK for what they're being subjected to."
Forgiveness harder to come by?
By January 30, 2018, with speculation rife that the couple could be experiencing some strain under the weight of the Daniels scandal, the first lady broke with longstanding tradition, choosing to ride separately to the State of the Union address in her own motorcade and not join the President for the short drive from the White House to the Capitol building.
Grisham told CNN at the time that the first lady was spending quality time with the special guests she had invited to sit with her for the speech.
"In addition to holding a White House reception and photo opportunity for them, along with their friends and family, she is accompanying them to the Capitol," said Grisham. However, Trump didn't ride in the bus with the guests.
The former campaign aide chalks up the scrutiny on Melania Trump as a side effect of being the first first lady of her kind.
"For all the talk of progressiveness in Washington, political insiders have a pre-set and admittedly chauvinistic viewpoint for what the role of the first lady should be, so when someone like Melania Trump threatens to smash that narrative, they try to tear her down," the former campaign aide said.
While she does have her critics, Melania Trump remains the most liked member of the Trump family, besting her husband in poll numbers by 7% in favorable ratings per a January CNN poll. "(She's) the star of the Trump family," said Trump of his wife at a White House dinner in September.
The State of the Union move to physically separate herself from her husband wasn't a first for a couple who is comfortable spending time apart -- after all, the first lady didn't officially move to the White House to join her husband until last June, after Barron's school year in New York had ended.
"They've never been joined at the hip," says a White House official, explaining that the separate schedules, and separate modes of transport, aren't necessarily a signal of trouble at home. "She has always been independent." Trump in 2016 told Harper's Bazaar in an interview. "I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me."
That independent streak raised eyebrows just days before her State of the Union surprise, when she jetted off from Washington aboard a government plane to Palm Beach for an unannounced overnight trip. The reason for the trip remains unexplained, with one White House official telling CNN at the time the first lady is entitled to some privacy.
In February, while outward indication that her willingness to accompany her husband on a day trip to Cincinnati, Ohio, to champion his new economic plan pointed to a signal of support, Melania Trump actually used to occasion not to be present for her husband's speech that day, but instead create an agenda of her own.
When Air Force One landed, she sped off in her own motorcade, bound for Cincinnati Children's Hospital to visit with medical experts and seriously ill children. The couple met back at the plane for the flight home.
A second scandal
As the dust appeared to settle on Stormy Daniels, another cheating scandal emerged. This time, the other woman was Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate whom Trump was alleged to have seen for several months in 2006 and 2007. Again, Trump denied the affair. The story broke in The New Yorker, two days after Valentine's Day, another calendar moment left unacknowledged by the couple in any public way. Melania Trump spent the bulk of her own Valentine's Day visiting with ill children, this time at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
On February 16, as pictures of her husband and McDougal plastered homepages and front pages, Melania Trump, who was scheduled to take Marine One with the President to Andrews Air Force Base to board Air Force One en route to Florida, pulled a familiar move.
Eschewing the traditional walk to the helicopter with the President across the South Lawn of the White House, with prying eyes of press eagerly watching every step, the first lady left early for the airport in her own motorcade. The President helicoptered alone, meeting her at the plane. Grisham told CNN the separate vehicle was due to scheduling and that "it was easier to meet at the plane."
When they landed in Florida, it was back to being the first couple, full stop. The country, and more specifically, the victims of the horrific Parkland high school shooting, saw them as a united front when they visited with patients and doctors at the hospital and met with first responders.
Whether the newest adultery scandal was behind them -- or had never even been something to put behind them -- the first lady was on duty, standing quietly beside her husband, as she most often does when the two are together, looking, not smiling, impeccably dressed, stoic.
"To be with a man as my husband is, you need to know who you are," Melania Trump told ABC's "20/20" in 2015. "You need to have a very independent life as well. And supporting him, you need to be very smart and quick and be there for him when he needs you."
Behind the scenes
Some who know the couple say they aren't in the marital dire straits the tabloids have suggested, and just because they don't get mushy on Instagram (a la the Obamas) it doesn't mean there isn't plenty of love.
"The single biggest untold story in the non-West Wing part of this White House is how much the President loves the first lady and how much he values and respects her counsel," said the campaign aide who witnessed many behind-the-scenes moments between the Trumps. "Those who actually interact with the couple take this for granted, but it's a story that needs to be told."
At Mar-a-Lago, in the evening after the hospital visit, the Trumps were spotted on a bench in one of the ballrooms, watching revelers at a disco-themed party. They were sitting closely and laughing quietly together, says a witness, looking cozy after a long day that started with brutal headlines and separate transport but ending with bonding.
There's always been a lot of interest in the Trump marriage, but since they took the White House, the scrutiny has been even more intense. Rumors will likely continue to fly, but no one really knows what goes on between a husband and wife, especially those as independently minded as Donald and Melania Trump.
"I give him my opinions, and sometimes he takes them in, and sometimes he does not. Do I agree with him all the time? No. I think it is good for a healthy relationship. I am not a 'yes' person," Melania Trump said in Harper's Bazaar. "No matter who you are married to, you still need to lead your life. I don't want to change him. And he doesn't want to change me."
Sunday night, the first lady and the President -- she in a glamorous black lace gown, he in a tuxedo -- strode into the State Dining Room to host the Governors' Ball, together.
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