Melania Trump is one of the most inscrutable first ladies, which makes her one of the most scrutinized.
But a new book by CNN reporter Kate Bennett, who covers her full time, offers a revealing — if disputed — portrait of what she’s really thinking.
Bennett’s reporting was partially done with the White House’s cooperation. But they now say the final version, which they claim is full of “many false details,” has caught them by “surprise.”
For years, observers have wondered about the first lady’s true politics, her thoughts on her marriage amid allegations of infidelity and her highly unusual habit of telegraphing her feelings in public. (Remember the awkward hand-holding with husband Donald Trump, or her “I Really Don’t Care” jacket?)
As Bennett argues in Free, Melania, an “unauthorized biography” published Tuesday, the former model is more in control of her life, President Trump and her public narrative than has been reported.
After years of covering Mrs. Trump, Bennett writes that she is not imprisoned like the “Free Melania” memes and signs from the Women’s March suggest.
Instead, Bennett believes, she’s fiercely “independent” and in some ways, an “unlikely feminist” given how she, as a woman, is able to move the Trump administration around her.
“Not only did Melania have power and influence with the president, she perhaps had more of both than anyone else in the entire White House,” Bennett writes in one section of the book detailing Mrs. Trump’s influence in a personnel dispute.
Bennett relies on both named and unnamed sources connected with the Trump administration and first family to support Free, Melania‘s description of a first lady 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.
On Monday, ahead of the release of Free, Melania, Mrs. Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, dismissed the book. She described it, in some ways, as a betrayal.
“Mrs. Trump is surprised at Kate Bennett’s reporting,” Grisham told PEOPLE in a statement.
“Our office worked with Kate in good faith on her book, and thought she would do an honest job. Sadly, it 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.”
Grisham is the first person to hold the positions of White House press secretary and communications director for the East and West Wings, speaking for both the president and first lady. Her loyalty to Mrs. Trump receives ample space in a chapter of Free, Melania titled “The East Wing, the White House’s Tightest Ship.”
In her book, Bennett writes that Mrs. Trump approaches her position as first lady “almost like it’s part-time,” and instead makes her primary focus her 13-year-old son, Barron.
Bennett also contends that Mrs. Trump has more sway over her husband than previously thought and writes that she is calculating in the statements she makes with her clothes — including that notorious “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket, worn while visiting migrant children.
Bennett suggests the jacket was a jab at stepdaughter Ivanka Trump, who is a senior White House aide.
“The secret to Melania Trump’s confidence and to her survival as first lady?” writes Bennett in the book’s introduction. “She doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. Whether people assume she is complicit in Trump’s beliefs and actions by being married to him and staying married to him or whether they think she is standing by his side because she is a noble adherent to traditional marriage—it doesn’t matter to her.”
Mrs. Trump, according to Bennett, “just does what she wants to do. As goes Trump and his rule-breaking presidency, so goes Melania and her rule-breaking first ladyship.”
Bennett links her to a larger history of women who would not be constrained — a bold argument but one uncoupled from the political divisions created by the administration.
“In many ways, her defiance, and at times her patent disregard for the norms of the role, define her as an unlikely feminist,” Bennett writes.
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Though, as Bennett reports, the Trumps live in different suites on separate floors in the White House (when Mrs. Trump is in residence), the first lady’s power is significant. According to Free, Melania, she pushed her husband to run in 2016 and knew he would win — unlike many supporters and even Trump himself.
“There’s a common misperception that Melania was against Trump’s running for president. That she didn’t want him to do it. Not true,” Bennett argues. “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 contradicts previous reporting elsewhere. In a November 2017 Vanity Fair article, a longtime friend of the couple said that Mrs. Trump didn’t want the president to win.
“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.”
Bennett’s book does confirm past reports about Mrs. Trump’s desire for privacy and her even greater need to protect 13-year-old son, Barron.
“Though less engaged in the general ‘work’ of most first ladies, Melania has ceaselessly focused on her job as a mother,” Bennett writes, “and she maintains that regularly scheduling time away from Washington, doing the things that she has done with her son since he was born, is just as important as, say, developing a policy base for her platform.”
“This is not an exaggeration,” Bennett continues. “Yes, she works at being first lady, she does the ceremonial parts of the gig, but there’s also the sense with her that it feels almost like it’s part-time.”
Now in her third year as first lady, Mrs. Trump has undertaken more and more solo outings in support of her Be Best campaign for children’s welfare, which includes combating the opioid epidemic and cyberbullying.
Still, the initiative has been dogged by varying levels of criticism from the beginning, including from those who said she did not have any policy specifics in her work and others who said she was a hypocrite, given President Trump’s love of insulting other people on social media.
According to an August 2018 New York Times report, unlike other first ladies, Mrs. Trump has a small staff of 10 people, less than half that of her predecessors. The Times reported then that she works with staff on White House upkeep and pays attention to her husband’s meals, pushing for healthier options. She also regularly did Pilates, according to the Times.
As with her attention to detail in the White House, Bennett argues in her book that Mrs. Trump is conscientious about her clothing — and sometimes uses fashion as a way to make a statement (even if the press gets the message wrong). Allegedly upset that Ivanka had gotten attention for helping persuade President Trump to back away from his family separation policy at the southern border, Mrs. Trump, who had pleaded for the repeal, decided to show her displeasure.
Bennett writes that Mrs. Trump wore the infamous “I Really Don’t Care” jacket on her trip to the Mexico-U.S. border as a subtle message to her stepdaughter. Many, however, believed it was a clue about her feelings on the issue of immigration.
“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. “I believed, and still do, that the jacket was a facetious jab at Ivanka and her near-constant attempts to attach herself to positive administration talking points.”
Much like her husband, the first lady tracks coverage of herself — even taking notes about unflattering stories while watching news outlets such as CNN, Bennett writes.
Mrs. Trump has used her public appearances, or the lack thereof, to chastise President Trump, according to Bennett’s book. When news broke of his alleged affair with Stormy Daniels, the first lady iced him out.
“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.
According to Free, Melania, Mrs. Trump wasn’t so much shocked about the affairs as hurt about what he put her and their family through.
“She knew well the man she married: that he was no arbiter of moral fortitude, that he had a shoddy track record with fidelity,” writes Bennett. “But the past few weeks that Melania had endured were so publicly scathing and deeply humiliating that she was angry with him more because of what he had exposed to the world than because of what he was alleged to have done with Daniels.”
Speaking with ABC News in October 2018, however, the first lady publicly brushed off the scrutiny. “It is not concern and focus of mine,” she said.
“I’m a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do,” she added. “I know people like to speculate and media like to speculate about our marriage.”
An unnamed source reportedly told Bennett: “‘She’s not locked herself in a golden bedroom somewhere to cry her eyes out that he was possibly unfaithful, if that’s what anyone might be thinking.’ “
This pattern has played out multiple times.
While President Trump is under investigation for impeachment in the House of Representatives, after he lobbied Ukraine to look into his political rivals, the first lady has largely stayed silent on the process.
She did, however, speak out this week about the impeachment hearings. But it was to defend their son.
Free, Melania is on sale now.