When Donald Trump Met Melania: The First Couple's Unusual Road to the White House

The president is celebrating his 73rd birthday on June 14 and his wife knows more than anyone that thinking a man is going to change after marriage is a fool's gambit

By Natalie Finn Jun 14, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Donald Trump, Melania Trump, 2016Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

The third time has proved to be the charm for Donald Trump.

A pile-up of stories debating the happiness of their marriage aside, Trump won the presidency in 2016 and, almost 20 years after Melania Trump was first asked about the prospect of being first lady of the United States, they moved into the White House.

And there they remain, much to his supporters' delight and to his critics' persistent irritation.

"I love Washington. I love to live there. And I made the White House home—for our son and my husband—and we love to live in the White House," Melania told ABC News in October. "We are very honored to serve our great nation."

But with no public events scheduled for Friday, it's likely that they're planning on marking the president's 73rd birthday at their Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, where the Trumps like to spend as many weekends and holidays as possible.

Earlier this month the first couple—and all of Trump's four grown children—visited England and enjoyed the literal royal treatment, dining with Queen Elizabeth II and her family, including future kings Prince Charles and Prince William and their wives. In between tweet storms, the obligations of governing and a news cycle that manages to feel more 25/8 than 24/7, it's evident that both Trumps relish the formal events where Melania gets a chance to shine and be the "traditional" first lady she once envisioned herself being, long before it became apparent there would be nothing traditional about the Trump presidency.

Except, perhaps, for his wife's stalwart support.

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"I love what I do," Melania told a group of middle school children in North Carolina in April while on a visit to Fort Bragg with second lady Karen Pence. Asked if she was up for a second Trump term, she replied, "I think our husbands are doing [a] fantastic job, and I will support my husband if he decided to run again.

"And yes, it's a privilege, a great honor to serve, and I will be here."

But the public dynamic of the Trumps' relationship, including the sort of things they say about each other in the press, has hardly varied since they first got together in the late 1990s. 


Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The most inscrutable first lady in decades rarely diverges from the script as far as championing her husband goes, though she has assured on several occasions that she doesn't shrink from letting him know when she disagrees with him.

"I don't always agree with what he tweets," Melania told ABC News' Tom Llamas during her visit to Africa last fall. "And I tell him that. I give him my honest opinion and honest advice. And sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn't. But I have my own voice and my opinions and it's very important for me that I express what I feel."

In that respect, not much has changed, though many had hoped she would raise her voice much louder when it came to certain issues.

But the public dynamic of the Trumps' relationship, including the sort of things they say about each other in the press, has hardly varied since they first got together in the late 1990s. 

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Except that now there's more talk of public service and less about sex and nudity.

A still-married but separated Donald Trump first met Melania Knauss in September 1998 at a party at Manhattan's famed Kit Kat Club thrown by Paolo Zampolli, the president of ID Models. It was the middle of New York Fashion Week and Melania, a 28-year-old model who had moved to the U.S. from Slovenia in 1996, was out with friends. Trump was on a date but, as he recalled later, he was immediately drawn to his future wife, if not immediately down for the count.

"I went crazy. I was actually supposed to meet somebody else," Trump recalled to Larry King on CNN in 2005. "There was this great supermodel sitting next to Melania. I was supposed to meet this supermodel. They said, 'Look, there's so and so.' I said, 'Forget about her. Who is the one on the left? And it was Melania."

"It was a great chemistry and energy," Melania concurred. "We had a great time. We started to talk. And, you know, something was there right away."

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That being said, Melania recalled to Harper's Bazaar in 2016, "He wanted my number, but he was with a date, so of course I didn't give it to him. I said, 'I am not giving you my number; you give me yours, and I will call you.' I wanted to see what kind of number he would give me—if it was a business number, what is this? I'm not doing business with you."

Trump gave her four numbers—"the office, Mar-a-Lago, home in New York, everything"—and she called a few days later. ("If he gave me just his office number, that would show he's not very serious," Melania reportedly told a friend later, per the New York Post. "It shows how a man sees a woman, and how he treats a woman.")

"I was struck by his energy," Melania said. "He has an amazing sense of vitality." Their first date was dinner and an excursion to Moomba, a major celebrity watering hole at the time.

"It was a great place, wasn't it?" Melania remembered the hot spot frequented by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprioGwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. "I remember that night like it was two months ago."

Neither she nor the president drink alcohol and numerous people who knew Melania back in the day described her as the anti-party-girl, more content one-on-one or in small groups than being the center of attention, and strict about getting her beauty rest.

"It was unusual for her to go out; she never went to clubs or bars," Zampolli told the Post. "She never dated anyone in New York before Donald. She only went to movies by herself and to the gym."

Ron Galella/WireImage

Meanwhile, Trump and his second wife, Marla Maples, had a prenuptial agreement, but Maples was contesting it, hence the drawn-out divorce proceedings after separating as early as 1996.

According to Vanity Fair, their original agreement was that Trump would give Maples $1 million if they separated within five years (they married in 1993), plus another $1 million to buy a house, and pay child support until their daughter Tiffany Trump turned 21 (or, interestingly, got a full-time job or joined the military or Peace Corps before then).

"This was the big battle all along," Marla said back in 1994. "But there's a lot of factors involved here. We basically came to an agreement that for the first few years we would agree on something and then tear it up. So, that way, I feel that we have what he needs right now for his business. And then, in five years, I have what I need for a true marriage."

Maples didn't know that, as Trump told TrumpNation author Tim O'Brien years later, "I was bored when [Marla] was walking down the aisle. I kept thinking: What the hell am I doing here? I was so deep into my business stuff I couldn't think of anything else."

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Their divorce was finally finalized in June 1999, as Trump was exploring a run for president as a Reform Party candidate with his new girlfriend on his arm.

Melania's first mention in the New York Times came that January, when she and Trump were escorted to a roped-off section of the Sony Loews Theater to watch Elizabeth. There had been a leak and the first 10 rows were closed to the public, but management apparently offered up the prime real estate so the couple could avoid having to scramble for seats.

Toward the end of the year, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who had been observing and dissecting Trump-affiliated buildings for years, wrote about seeing Trump and Melania at a Ricky Martin concert at Madison Square Garden, where they were given the ultra-VIP treatment, that October.

"Mr. Trump had organized a trip backstage to see the star before the concert starts," Muschamp wrote. "Barbara Walters can't get in. Bette Midler can't get in. But Mr. Trump gets in, with lots of 'Mr. President!' 'Mr. President!' along the way."

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On Nov. 9, 1999, Trump called Melania "quiet, beautiful, very nice" and "very smart" on The Howard Stern Show. (And while the stuff Trump told Howard Stern over the years has made for a lot of racy headlines, the radio host himself was usually egging his guest on, though Trump was obviously a willing participant. When it came to Melania, Trump usually acknowledged Stern's synopses more than volunteered lascivious details, but he was often compelled to over-share.)

Asked if he thought he'd get married again, Trump said Melania was "very exceptional" and, while she hadn't brought it up, "I do love the concept of marriage, if you have the right woman."

And while Trump told Stern that a question about whether Melania sometimes skipped underwear at dinner wasn't appropriate because "you're talking about a potential first lady," he did hand the phone to Melania, who was apparently right next to him.

Asked if she loved Donald, Melania said, "Yeah, we have a great time." Did she want to marry him? "I'm not answering that."


On that occasion Trump did share that his girlfriend wasn't wearing any clothes, calling her nudity "a thing of beauty."

Lest anyone is still under the impression that Trump came out of nowhere in 2015, he had been talking about running for president since the 1980s, and in 1999 he seemed more serious about it than ever before, unorthodox-for-a-candidate interviews notwithstanding. (While doing publicity for his latest book, Howard Stern Comes Again, which excerpts several of his interviews with Trump, Stern said multiple times that he believes Trump always had a commercial reason for saying he was running, and that 2016 was no exception.)

Sitting down with Hardball host Chris Matthews later in November 1999 in front of an audience at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, Trump said, "One of the things about me, I've been an open book. I've been out there for 20 years, longer than 20 years, and I think everyone knows who I am, what I am, and they like me, they hate me, they somewhere in the middle. Fact is, I've really been an open book."

By the way, that was an answer to a question about whether he was prepared to release his financial records, including his income tax returns, for all to see. "They're very big, they're very complex," he added. "I probably wouldn't have a problem with doing it. I've been very much by the book."

We know how that turned out, but the déjà vu is real.

Matthews also asked, if Trump was elected in 2000, would he bring a first lady with him to the White House?

"I could be married in 24 hours if need be," he quipped. "That's what happens when you go to Wharton."

Looking around him, Trump asked, "Where's my supermodel?"

Toward the end of 1999, Melania also infamously posed nude (with strategic covering) for British GQ's "Sex at 30,000 feet: Melania Knauss earns her air miles" cover story in the January 2000 issue.

"She's popular, she's brilliant, she's a wonderful woman," Trump told the magazine. If her boyfriend hit the campaign trail, "I will put all my effort into it, and I will support my man," Melania said.

At a big dinner at Mar-a-Lago just before Christmas, she told a Washington Post reporter, "I think America need a new leader. It's good. It's a good idea. You need someone who is, mmm, talk straight and not—" She mimed someone wavering all over the place.

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Talking to the New York Times a few weeks after the Stern interview as a "potential first lady" now, Melania laughed off the hype over the salacious chat (and the objectifying way Trump tended to talk about women).

''Oh, that became everything so fast," she said. "It was like a comedy show. People who hear it direct from the radio show, it was completely different from the next day in the newspaper how they quoted. It was fun. ''

Ocean Drive

To clarify for those who only read about it, Melania continued, "He did ask me what I'm wearing and I said, 'Not much' and it was quoted that I am nude. Then he was asking Donald, 'Does she have [cellulite]?' He says, 'Howard, she doesn't even know what [that] is,' because I don't deal with the [she was quoted phonetically] cellalite. I know what it means, but they quote it like I don't know what the word means, like I don't understand English.''

"It's the man thing," she concluded, "that's how the man talks.'' (Speaking of which, 15 years later Chris Matthews was overheard thanks to a hot mic on MSNBC admiring Melania's walk, saying, "My God, is that good. I could watch that runway show." Melania took it in stride. "Unbelievable," she told DuJour when her interviewer told her about it. "That's what I'm saying! I'm not only a beauty, I'm smart. I have brains. I'm intelligent. I would just say, Men will be men.")

''The press could be sometimes very mean,'' she added, referring to the more skeptical portrayals of her May-December relationship with the sometimes-billionaire. "They love to make a joke, that's how they're selling the newspapers. But I think you can't be with the person if it's not love, if they don't satisfy you. You can't hug a beautiful apartment, you can't hug an airplane, you can't talk to them."

''He's a very successful businessman, he's very charming," she described Trump. "He's very smart, the energy between us is unbelievable.''

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He was also getting cold feet.

Shortly after New Year's in 2000, the New York Post, Trump's favored tabloid, reported that he and Melania had broken up, and that she was "heartbroken."

"She's a great girl, but Donald has to be free for awhile. He didn't want to get hooked," a Trump source told the paper. "He decided to cool it."

But, the twice-divorced father of four also reportedly said it was "the hardest thing [he'd] ever done."

A friend said, "He was still reeling from his split from Marla, and he needed companionship. And then Melania came along and she was beautiful and available."

Reconciliation down the road was possible, another source said, "but the odds might be better at one of Trump's roulette tables."


"She had some trust issues with him at the beginning," photographer Matthew Atanian, a former roommate of Melania's when she first moved to New York, told GQ in 2016. "She was telling me that she wouldn't have it, he was back to his old ways. She kept her apartment to have her own space because of this."

Ronald Kessler reported in his 2018 book The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game that Melania first dumped Donald a few months in because she saw an ex-girlfriend, model Kara Young, leaving his Trump Tower apartment one morning.

"She didn't care about the billions of dollars or the beautiful Mar-a-Lago or the beautiful apartment," Kessler told Us Weekly. "She just broke up with him and she ordered her clothes to be sent back from Mar-a-Lago, she called the butler Tony Senecal, and told him to send the clothes back. Within a week, Donald wooed her back, and sure enough she sent her clothes back to Mar-a-Lago, but that gives you a little insight into her character and of course Donald was impressed by that as well"

In mid-January 2000, the single-again Trump was at a party feting his Miss USA pageant when he told the New York Times, "Melania is an amazing woman, a terrific woman, a great woman, and she will be missed."

He did ultimately miss her.

Melania, always discreet about her husband's rumored indiscretions, recalled to DuJour in 2016 that Trump's sort-of presidential campaign back then was "part of" the reason they split up. "We were apart for a few months, not long. We got back together," she said. "He was always thinking about [running for president]. But he loved what he did, he had his business. He was not saying 'Now is the time.' He always had that in him." 

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Melania moved into Trump Tower with Donald for good in 2001.

Howard Stern asked him in January 2004 if he had been faithful to his by then longtime girlfriend, and Trump said he'd been "very faithful." "I know you're lying," Stern, ever the instigator, cracked. 

Talking again that April, Stern asked Trump if he was "gonna stick with" Melania, because surely he was getting a lot of attention from women in the wake of the success of The Apprentice.

"Well, I've had a great relationship with her," Trump concurred. "She's a good person." More importantly, "she's the most secure person I know." But if he were single, he acknowledged, "Boy, I'll tell ya, I love the thought" of getting involved with some of his show's female contestants. Asked which he prized more in a woman, "talent or looking great," Trump replied, "Looking great...I've had both, and I'll take looking great." 

Melania appeared occasionally on The Apprentice, including as a gracious host when the contestants were allowed a peek at their Trump Tower penthouse.

Mark Von Holden/FilmMagic

But he was planning on sticking with Melania. Before they hit the red carpet at the Met Gala—where Trump is now no longer welcome so long as Anna Wintour is in charge—that May, he proposed with a 15-carat Graff diamond ring (that the jeweler insists he didn't get for a discount, despite his boast that he did).

"Well, we were together five years," Trump, asked how the proposal came about, told Larry King in 2005. "We literally have never had an argument; forget about the word 'fight.' We never even had an argument. We just are very compatible. We get along. And I just said: You know what? It's time. It wasn't a big deal."

It was just time, he meant.

Checking in with Stern again in September, Howard marveled over how great in bed Melania must be for Trump to stay with her.

"Well, she is terrific in bed," Trump agreed. "She wouldn't want me saying that, but she is terrific."

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Trump told biographer Tim O'Brien as the wedding approached, "We've lived together for five years, I owe that to her now. I guess we'll know in two years [if it was the right decision] if I'm divorced again."

Melania went with Wintour and Vogue's Andre Leon Talley to Paris Fashion Week to get dress inspiration, and before the wedding she posed for her to-date only U.S. Vogue cover in her custom gown designed by Dior creative director John Galliano, that's said to have cost upward of $100,000.

Donald and Melania got married on Jan. 22, 2005, at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach. The ceremony was followed by a reception at Mar-a-Lago with about 350 guests, including Bill and Hillary ClintonRudy Giuliani, Anna Wintour, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Heidi Klum, Simon CowellSean "Diddy" Combs, Shaquille O'Neal, Kelly Ripa and Billy Joel, who performed—as did Elton John, Paul Anka and Tony Bennett.

"It was completely different than it is now," Melania told GQ in 2016, perhaps a little wistfully, but mostly pragmatically as she acknowledged how vicious her husband's campaign had already become.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"This is it, what it is," she said. "It's all business now; it's nothing personal."

Melania had advised her husband beforehand, "When we discussed about it, I said he really needs to make sure he knows he really wants to do it, because life changes."

What no one knew yet in early 2016 was that, back in 2005, a fairly newly wedded Trump had told Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, while bragging an attempt he made to seduce a married woman, that women basically let you do anything to them—such as "grab 'em by the pussy"—if you were a celebrity.  

"I said to my husband that, you know, the language was inappropriate," Melania told CNN's Anderson Cooper after the tape surfaced in October 2016 and was mistaken for the death knell of Trump's campaign. "It's not acceptable. And I was surprised, because that is not the man that I know. And as you can see from the tape, the cameras were not on—it was only a mic. And I wonder if they even knew that the mic was on."

CHANCE YEH/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

She continued, "We talked in private. I accept his apology and I hope the American people will accept it, as well. It was many, many years ago. [The man on the tape] is not the man that I know, and many times I said, and he's said it as well, it's very hard, especially for him, when he decided to run for [the] presidency because he did so much stuff in his life. He was on so many tapes. So many shows."

As for the women who, after the tape came out, had come forward to accuse Trump of various kinds of sexual misconduct, from groping to unwanted kissing, Melania said coolly, "I believe my husband, I believe my husband—it was all organized from the opposition. They can never check the background of these women. They don't have any facts."

"It's many people from the opposite side," she further charged, smiling broadly. "They want to damage the campaign. And why now? Why after so many years? Why three weeks before the election?" 

Whether she believed that or was simply excelling at being a politician's wife, Melania once said, "I think the mistake some people make is they try to change the man they love after they get married. You cannot change a person. You accept the person."

She has definitely excelled at that, at least outwardly.

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Also in 2005, a few months after the wedding, Melania got pregnant.

Trump had told O'Brien "sure" when asked if he was ready to have more kids.

"When you're rich you can have as many kids as you want," he said. "Being rich makes it easier to have kids."

Still, Melania told People in January 2006, her husband was caught off-guard when she told him in August 2005 that she was pregnant. "He came home, and I told him he'd be a daddy," she said, laughing. "And his reaction was...at first he needed to take it in. It was a real surprise. And then he was very happy."

"I expected we were going to have children, so I wasn't totally surprised," Trump added. "But I was surprised by the speed of it. It happened very quickly."

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He had informed Stern in December 2005 that Melania had blown up "like a blimp—in the right places. In her case, the right places. I mean she really has become a monster—in all the right places.

"I mean monster in the most positive way. She has gotten very, very large—in all the right places." 

Melania posed for Vogue in a gold bikini, standing on the steps of their private jet. "I think it's very sexy for a woman to be pregnant," she told the magazine. "I think it's beautiful, carrying a baby inside."

With their first wedding anniversary approaching, Trump told People he and Melania would "spend it alone together; we won't have people around. That's the best,I feel really comfortable in a bathrobe."

Peter Brooker/Shutterstock

Their son, Barron Trump, who was born on March 20, 2006.

A few months later, according to porn actress Stormy Daniels (and now-imprisoned former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen), Trump and Daniels had a brief affair—a dalliance Trump denied in 2011 when Daniels sat down for a tell-all interview with In Touch that wasn't published until 2018.

"He didn't seem worried about it," Daniels recalled to the tabloid. "He was kind of arrogant. It did occur to me, 'That's a really stupid move on your part.' And it's not like I went around and told anybody. No one ever really knew."


Noting how he apologized to her after the Access Hollywood tape came out, ABC News' Tom Llamas asked Melania if her husband had apologized to her at all since becoming president. 

"Yeah, he apologized," she replied tersely. (Her office said days later that what she meant was, "The president often apologizes to Mrs. Trump for all the media nonsense and scrutiny she has been under since entering the White House.")

Regardless, she said she didn't have time to worry about every single thing her husband was accused of doing, in public or in private.

"I'm a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do," she said. "It is not a concern and focus of mine."

Brad Barket/Getty Images

Taking care of Barron, meanwhile, become blissfully all-consuming for Melania, who happily considered herself a full-time mom.

"The most important job ever," she told Parenting.com in 2012. "I started my business when he started school. When he is in school I do my meetings, my sketches, and everything else. I cook him breakfast. Bring him to school. Pick him up. Prepare his lunch. I spend the afternoon with him. Sometimes I have obligations, but I also think children need to see a parent do what her passion is. It is a good example for a child. So the child can find passion as well and follow that passion in the future."

In 2015 and 2016, she refrained from traveling much with her husband on the campaign trail. And when there was a particularly important event, usually Barron would be there, too.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

She also put off moving into the White House full-time in 2017 until Barron's school year in New York had finished that June. 

The 13-year-old now attends St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Md.

"Our son is still the priority," she said in North Carolina in April. "I feel that I am still a mother first. He is at the age that he needs a parent for guidance."

Though she was a fixture at baseball games and school events when he was younger, now, "I don't go much," she said in October. "He likes to be one of the boys when they play...It's his life too, and I respect that."

Teen boys will be teen boys.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images for SHOWTIME

All told, Melania knew what she was signing up for back when she married Trump. He has always taken a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach, be it in romance or politics—or fatherhood.

Melania said from the beginning that she never envisioned her husband pushing a stroller on 5th Avenue, but he had his own way of bonding with his kids.

Alvaro Padilla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"We have a great chemistry and to be with a man like my husband is you need to know who you are," Melania told Barbara Walters in 2015, during the campaign. "You need to have a very independent life and supporting him, you need to be very smart and quick, and be there for him when he needs you."

She wasn't dying to be first lady, either, but she accepted that challenge, too, no matter how reluctantly.

And as the reality pressed in upon her, she adapted accordingly.

"I want to make clear," Melania told DuJour in 2016, "in 1999, when they asked what kind of first lady I would be, it was out there that I'd be traditional, a Jackie Kennedy or Betty Ford. But that was 1999. A lot has changed."