Melania Trump’s spent her first few months as first lady in New York, only rarely appearing in Washington or speaking at events. Yet friends and aides say she’s keeping a close watch from her gilded apartment in Trump Tower on how her husband is portrayed in the press—and that she’s growing increasingly worried about the anonymous sniping from West Wing staff.
Like President Donald Trump, these people said, Melania Trump is an avid consumer of cable news, and often tracks the news of the day and will alert her husband to stories she thinks make him look bad.
She has raised concerns that some on his communications and press team aren’t doing enough to defend him, according aides and sources close to the president. She’s been especially troubled by background quotes in which West Wing aides criticize the president, and she’s called the president to discuss it.
Her quiet role as private watchdog is at odds with her public persona. Melania Trump has been seen as generally aloof and removed from her husband’s political operation since he announced his campaign in 2015, but as his administration has been consumed by infighting and outside investigations, she’s grown increasingly vocal about the perceived shortcomings of staff surrounding the president.
“Melania loves the president unconditionally, definitely, she really cares about the president, she feels a kind of protection,” said her long-time friend and former modeling agent Paolo Zampolli, who introduced the couple in 1998. “The main concern to the president and the first lady is that these leaks are unacceptable.”
Aides and friends of the president describe Melania Trump as one of the several people he calls at night to hear how the dysfunction in his White House is playing out beyond the Beltway, including billionaire businessmen Carl Icahn, Rupert Murdoch and Chris Ruddy.
For the next week, she’ll travel with her husband, accompanying him on his first trip overseas, putting her in a position to exert even greater influence over his thinking day to day.
“She’s very private and she’s very smart. Anyone who thinks she’s a mannequin doesn’t get it,” said longtime Trump associate Roger Stone. “She has excellent instincts into who is trying to exploit their influence with him.”
In recent weeks, her concerns have centered on White House press secretary Sean Spicer, whose role as an on-camera briefer is expected to change after Trump returns from his overseas trip.
“She was really concerned that Spicer was not doing a good job, that they were not proactive in defending the president,” said one outside adviser who speaks to the president regularly. ”The leaks bother her. She believes a lot of people are more interested in serving themselves than him.”
Like Donald Trump, perception is key to Melania Trump. She visibly nudged the president to put his hand on his heart during the national anthem at the White House Easter Egg roll in April.
Behind the scenes, she personally reviewed small details at the event, including the Easter bunny costumes worn by staff. One bunny was forced to shed the outfit attached to the costume after Melania Trump said she didn’t like it, one aide recalled.
“Mrs. Trump is being diligent and thoughtful with a focus on quality and tradition when it comes to her important role of first lady – both behind the scenes and in public,” said Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s communications director. ”She is staying true to herself and she believes the American people deserve nothing less.”
On the campaign trail, Melania Trump made her preferences known and would tell aides when she thought stories or issues could be handled better. She weighed in on controversy when former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of roughly handling a reporter. Former campaign aides say Trump took her opinion into account.
“She would consult with us, she would send me things. She was concerned when there was this ridiculous reaction to some of Trump’s statements,” said former campaign adviser Sam Nunberg. ”[Trump] would say to us ‘Melania said this, well Melania told me that.’”
Her decision to stay in New York, where 11-year-old Barron Trump is finishing the school year, has prompted widespread intrigue—but her allies are quick to point out that even Michelle Obama briefly considered delaying her move to Washington while their daughters finished school in Chicago after President Barack Obama was elected.
Melania Trump is expected to move to Washington over the summer with Barron, who will enroll at St. Andrews’ Episcopal School in suburban Potomac, Maryland.
She’ll travel with the president throughout his tour through Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, and Belgium, hosting events on her own during the first few stops and attending programs for spouses while he’s at the NATO and G7 summits at the end of the trip.
Ahead of the foreign trip, the first lady put out a statement: “This will not just be an opportunity to support my husband as he works on important matters of national security and foreign relations, it will also be my honor to visit and speak with women and children from different countries, with different perspectives.”
Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush and has been consulting for Melania Trump, pointed to her decision to visit hospitals and schools, following traditional advocacy for first ladies. ”She wants to be taking seriously, and I think she wants to study this role,” said McBride. “It’s an enormous privilege to her as a new American citizen.”