Opinion: Why Ivanka and Melania Trump’s Strategic Silence Says It All

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Of all of the people in Donald Trump’s inner circle, his daughter Ivanka and his wife Melania are perhaps the most fascinating. Unlike the leading man in both of their lives, Ivanka and Melania both know the power of strategic silence; like him, they are both keen readers of the public temperature; and they both also get away with a level of disloyalty that the Trump family patriarch permits from no one else.

Trump was just convicted on 34 felony counts related to a hush-money payment he made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, with whom he is alleged to have had sex, in an effort to interfere with the 2016 election. His wife Melania had recently given birth to the couple’s son Barron at the time of the alleged affair.

According to Daniels, before she and Trump had sex, he likened her to his daughter Ivanka. Both Ivanka and Melania were notably absent from the trial, even while Trump’s older sons Eric and Don Jr. sat in the gallery. And both sons, plus their partners, have been loudly proclaiming their father’s innocence. No such protestations have come from the two most important women in Trump’s life.

(Trump does have a second daughter, Tiffany, who has been generally ignored.)

Mussed-Looking Trump Goes on Wild Free Associative Rant at Post-Conviction Press Conference

After the verdict was announced, Ivanka did make a small show of solidarity with her father, sharing on her Instagram stories—not even on main!—a photo of herself as a toddler with her dad, and four words: “I love you dad.” But she wasn’t by his side when the verdict was read, and doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to jump publicly to his defense.

Melania has offered even less. She is, to be fair, a nearly perpetually silent spouse. But one imagines that, given the allegations of an affair and Trump’s denial of the same, that he or his team at least asked her to show face at the trial to give the impression of either a belief in her husband’s innocence of infidelity or forgiveness for it. That she did no such thing suggests that perhaps forgiveness has not come—or that she’s simply unwilling to help her husband clean up this particular mess.

Neither woman was at Trump’s side when he delivered his rambling, falsehood-filled post-trial rant at Trump Tower Friday (Melania was reportedly at the tower with son Barron; Ivanka was reported to have returned to New York to offer her off-camera support).

Both women also seem to understand what side their bread is buttered on. Melania may be angry at her husband and refusing to play the role of the forgiving wronged wife—and good for her—but she has still appeared at a recent campaign event, and suggested she may be present on the campaign in a limited capacity.

Ivanka had previously said that she’s putting politics behind her in order to live her best life, but now that her dad may win re-election, has hinted that she would consider coming back to the West Wing. She is indeed her father’s daughter, skilled at getting what she wants out of a situation, and ducking out when something is no longer in her interest.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, his wife Melania, Kimberly Guilfoyle, his sons Barron and Donald Jr. and his daughter Ivanka leave St. Vincent Ferrer Church during the funeral of Ivana Trump, in New York City, U.S., July 20, 2022.

One thing that sets Melania and Ivanka apart is what seems to be a desire to be socially accepted among the upper crust of New York, and the knowledge that they can’t both be Trumpiest of Trumps and also be perceived as sophisticated and admirable. Ivanka may have moved her family to Florida—West Palm Beach is more amenable place to the Trump clan than the Upper East Side—but her aspirations remain more Manhattan than Florida Woman.

The manic Trump brothers (especially the sweaty and hopped-up Don Jr) and their filler-faced right-wing wives and girlfriends are excruciatingly clownish figures; Melania and Ivanka seem more interested in being elegant and aspirational ones. But they also know that there is immense power in proximity to he who wears the crown—as long as he wears the crown, that is. And so these two women seem to be stilettoing their way across a tightrope: Staying in Trump’s good graces so that they might benefit if he rises again, without being drawn into the clown show that engulfs just about everything around him.

Lucky for them, these two women are afforded more leeway than just about anyone else in Trump’s orbit. Trump is a notoriously vengeful man who demands total loyalty well beyond reason; he routinely demands a kind of prostration and self-humiliation from those who want to be close to him, and he routinely excoriates and pushes out anyone who evinces anything less than a kind of beaten-dog devotion. Ivanka and Melania, though, largely escape these expectations.

There is one significant difference between the two women, and that is desire for power and influence. It’s impossible to know what’s going on inside either woman’s head, but Melania seems like a woman interested mostly in a life of beauty and ease, someone who likely either agrees with or doesn’t care about her husband’s ugly views—how else could they have stayed married?—but isn’t particularly motivated by politics or ideas of any kind.

Reporter after reporter has delved into Melania’s younger days to try to discern her interests, motivations, or even some semblance of an inner life, and to a one they’ve come up empty. It’s not hard to imagine that she’s unhappy with her husband’s political ambitions, because they hamper her own ability to live a glamorous, easy, and private life.

Ivanka, on the other hand, transparently desires power and influence. Her career, her fashion brand, her book, her taking-up of a role in the White House despite having no relevant experience or previous interest in politics—it all points to someone who, like her father, seeks authority and recognition, even if she hasn’t totally earned it. Puck News reported in May she may be considering a return to politics, to help her father’s campaign.

This difference between the two top Trump women may come into sharper focus as his campaign ramps up, and especially if he wins. In the disastrous aftermath of the 2020 election, Ivanka distanced herself from her father’s toxic politics. Melania simply continued to stay largely out of the whole circus, and seems primed to do so again. But if Trump manages to eke out of a victory in 2024, his eldest daughter may very well smell opportunity, and find herself offering her dad much more than just a nostalgic Instagram story.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist, lawyer, and author who covers gender and politics. She is the author of two books, OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind, and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

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