As first lady, when Melania Trump speaks, a lot of people listen.
But it’s what she says by saying nothing at all that may reveal more about President Donald Trump‘s wife, one of the most scrutinized and inscrutable figures in the White House in recent decades.
“[W]ith each swat, poke, nudge, and pout, she becomes more and more a memorable and independent first lady,” CNN reporter Kate Bennett writes at the end of Free, Melania, her recent unauthorized biography that earned a rebuke from Trump’s aides.
Bennett was writing about those headline-grabbing moments when Mrs. Trump, 49, very publicly avoided her husband: pulling away from his hand and arriving separately from him at events.
“It’s in these moments that we see the real Melania Trump,” Bennett writes, summing up her view of the first lady. “A Melania who has scrupulously done her homework and knows what the protocol is that needs to be followed. A Melania who wants to make a good impression. A Melania who is not worried about making her husband happy or making him angry. She is a Melania who is not willing to be ignored.”
Bennett, one of the few journalists to cover Mrs. Trump full time, relied on both named and unnamed sources connected with the Trump administration and first family to support Free, Melania‘s description of Mrs. Trump.
The woman Bennett describes is someone who — like her divisive husband — has sloughed off some of the traditional duties expected of her, reworking what remains into a position more tailored to her unusual background.
The biography, released in December, pushes back on the belief that Mrs. Trump is uncomfortable or unwilling in her White House role. Instead, according to Bennett, she is much more independent and in charge than the scrutinizing public has realized. Her main focus is motherhood, Bennett writes. Everything else — from living on a separate floor from her husband (but still having influence over him) to her devolving relationship with stepdaughter Ivanka Trump — is secondary.
The White House is having none of it.
“Mrs. Trump is surprised at Kate Bennett’s reporting. Our office worked with Kate in good faith on her book, and thought she would do an honest job,” Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement to PEOPLE.
Free, Melania “sadly … includes many false details and opinions, showing Ms. Bennett spoke to many anonymous people who don’t know the First Lady,” Grisham said. “It continues to be disappointing when people, especially journalists, write books with false information just to profit off the First Family.”
Continue reading for more highlights from Bennett’s reporting.
Mrs. Trump ‘pushed’ her husband to run for president
Contrary to previous reporting elsewhere, Bennett writes in Free, Melania that the former model encouraged her husband to run in the 2016 and knew he’d win — unlike many supporters and even Trump himself.
“There’s a common misperception that Melania was against Trump’s running for president,” Bennett contends. “That she didn’t want him to do it. Not true. She very much pushed him to run, in part because she did actually believe he would win and do a good job, but she was also tired, really tired, of listening to him talk about it.”
This directly contradicts other sources. In a November 2017 Vanity Fair article a longtime friend of the Trumps said Mrs. Trump didn’t want Mr. Trump to win the presidency.
“This isn’t something she wanted and it isn’t something he ever thought he’d win,” the source said, per the magazine. “She didn’t want this come hell or high water. I don’t think she thought it was going to happen.”
Whether Mrs. Trump thought her husband would win or not, Bennett goes on to further detail her view of how their marriage works: The president listens to his wife and often solicits her advice about whom to trust. Mrs. Trump, in turn, is aware of her own sway.
Bennett writes how, according to her book, Mrs. Trump showed her displeasure about news of the president’s alleged affairs (which he denies) by being cold and aloof. This sent him into a tailspin.
“Trump, by several accounts, is desperate for her approval, and he relies on her—her punishing coldness in the wake of the affair headlines and rumors took a toll on him,” Bennett writes.
She felt guilty about plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech
What was to be a major moment for Mrs. Trump in the 2016 campaign spotlight — a speech at the Republican National Convention — soon soured.
Bennett writes that the mistake happened in part because there weren’t enough staffers to read over the speech beforehand—Mrs. Trump’s speech had “fallen through the cracks.”
“[Melania] was devastated. ‘Beside herself,’ as one aide put it to me. Yet there was no slamming of doors, throwing of vases, blind rage, or berating of staff,” according to Free, Melania. “Instead, she became despondent, racked with guilt. ‘She felt like she had let the team down,’ says someone who worked on the campaign and was involved with Trump messaging. ‘All she wanted to do was get up there and give a great performance and deliver a big win.'”
Shortly after the speech went viral for all of the wrong reasons, the president’s team pushed back. Then-spokesman Jason Miller released a statement defending the first lady.
“In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
However, speechwriter Meredith McIver soon explained that Mrs. Trump, in a phone call, had read “passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples” of inspiration for her own address. “I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. … I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches,” McIver said at the time.
“This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama,” McIver said at the time.
For her part, former Mrs. Obama speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz told PEOPLE her first reaction to the plagiarism was “Oh. God.”
“Making that kind of mistake is every speechwriter’s worst nightmare,” she said.
The Trumps live on different floors in the White House
Bennett’s book adds to previous reporting about the Trumps’ living arrangements.
She writes that President Trump sleeps in the main bedroom in the executive residence of the White House while his wife lives on a separate floor, in the room previously used by Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson.
Comprised of different rooms, the space is “more like a small two-bedroom apartment,” Bennett writes. There, Mrs. Trump — much like she does while in her own space at the family’s Mar-a-Lago Club — relishes her relative privacy, as well as utilizes a “glam room,” a private workout space and a solarium.
Bennett writes that she believes such space is important to Mrs. Trump and the health of her relationship.
Mrs. Trump doesn’t feel trapped and is content to focus on son Barron
The first lady’s devotion to raising her son is well-known and is a big reason she’s protective of her privacy. In Free, Melania, Bennett also pushes back on previous reports about why Mrs. Trump didn’t immediately move to the White House.
“Despite the pounding she took in the press for staying in New York City for the five months from inauguration until Barron finished his year at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory in Manhattan, Melania has told those close to her she never even considered not doing it,” Bennett writes. “Barron was and continues to be her first priority, and, whether the public liked it or not, she intended to keep it that way.”
Barron, then 10 turning 11 in the first year of his dad’s presidency, is also the reason Mrs. Trump approaches her position as first lady “almost like it’s part-time,” Bennett argues in her book.
While many have wondered if Mrs. Trump feels trapped and unhappy in her role as first lady, she reportedly told Bennett, “‘I don’t get it. All that ‘free Melania, free Melania.’ Why would I be unhappy here?’ “
“Melania went on to talk about Barron and being a mother, and it all sounded so abnormally … normal,” Bennett writes. “The life she described was not at all how the general public assumes the Trump family lives. For Melania, things like homework, play dates, and soccer practice were all paramount concerns, as with most parents of a child on the cusp of his teenage years. Making a home for Barron in the White House had taken Melania’s full efforts, and she was finally at a place where she felt comfortable, and where order was restored.”
Mrs. Trump thinks Roger Stone may have pushed for the release of her nude modeling photos
Stone, a long-serving former adviser to President Trump and self-proclaimed “trickster” who was found guilty of obstruction of justice for his interference in the Russia investigation, has been rumored to have helped release nude photos of the first lady taken in 1996, Bennett writes.
The photos of Mrs. Trump were first published by the New York Post in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
“There remains to this day a strong indication that it was Trump himself who tipped off the New York Post to the photos, using his longtime friend Roger Stone to deliver the goods,” Bennett writes. “The theory goes that Trump was trying to head off a bad week on the campaign. He was embroiled in a nasty public battle with the Gold Star parents of fallen army captain Humayun Khan.”
According to Bennett, friends of the first lady told her that Mrs. Trump didn’t believe her husband orchestrated the leak, but “she’s not so sure” about Stone.
(An attorney for Stone did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
Mrs. Trump and Ivanka Trump are ‘cordial, not close’
“For a time, the two women had enjoyed a comfortable, if not warm, alliance,” Bennett writes of two of the most important women in the president’s life. “But the White House has not been good for the relationship between Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump. ‘Cordial, not close,’ is how it was described to me by someone who has spent ample time around both women.”
Ivanka has made many headlines during her time in the White House because of her unusual dual role as daughter and adviser. She has also faced criticism for her lack of qualifications for government work while some detractors accuse her of hypocrisy for disagreeing with her father only in private.
According to Free, Melania, when Ivanka got attention for helping sway the president to end his controversial family separation policy, the first lady, who had also pleaded for its end, decided to show her displeasure in pointed — and confusing — fashion.
Bennett believes that Mrs. Trump wore her notorious “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket on her trip to the Mexico-U.S. border as a subtle stab at her stepdaughter.
“In my Melania-trained brain, I was almost certain the connection was to Ivanka and Zara and the way Ivanka had tried to take credit for getting Trump to soften his stance on immigration policy,” Bennett writes.
She also guessed that the first lady wouldn’t be swayed by critics who judged her for wearing the jacket at the border.
“I was aware of Melania’s stubborn streak, one of the things that binds her to her husband: when she gets attacked, she attacks back,” Bennett writes. “I had a feeling she would be reading the news reports on the plane home in her front cabin the way the rest of us were in the back, and if there’s one thing Melania hates, it’s being tsk-tsked by the press.”
“She’s Melania; she wasn’t going to cower from a hot news story,” Bennett added.
Mrs. Trump had changed during a stopover in Texas, according to the book. But when she stepped off the plane at the end of her trip, she was once again wearing the jacket.
Bennett concludes: “There are no coincidences with Melania Trump.”
Free, Melania is on sale now.