Lying prone on a rug adorned with the Great Seal of the United States, the woman who might someday be first lady is wearing high-heeled sandals and a crimson bikini.
The date is February 2000. Donald J. Trump hasn’t yet thrown his hat into the ring as a Reform Party candidate, yet he’s already set in motion a machine that 15 years on will turn a voluble political maverick into the front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination.
The woman on the rug is Melania Knauss, a Slovene model, who at 29 is almost a quarter-century younger than her billionaire future husband. The rug is a prop in an Oval Office set mocked up in a Manhattan photo studio. Spread across two pages of the now defunct Talk magazine, Mr. Trump is seen in an inset close up; telescope back from the picture and what you’d see is Mr. Trump seated behind the presidential desk and at his feet his future wife, a woman striking in her beauty and docility.
If it is always the case in politics that you “play a role,” as Ms. Knauss observed in a caption accompanying those photos, you do this because politics is, above all else, “a business.”
Observers of the business and ongoing theater of a Trump candidacy are bound to be struck by the passive role played by the candidate’s wife, one seeming to predate gender equality, in an embrace of values from an era when a potential first lady might be less likely to have served as her husband’s former law firm mentor (as Michelle Obama once was) than his carpet ornament.
“Why do we not see her?” Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, asked recently, referring to Mrs. Trump’s near invisibility on the campaign trail, her sole appearance a wordless photo op for which she smiled prettily as her husband announced his candidacy. “One reason is that Republicans take a traditional view of marriage,” Mr. Luntz said. “And she is not a traditional spouse.”
The truth of this has been underscored in a variety of ways as the Trump campaign continues to gather momentum. When Mr. Trump formally announced in June, it was not his wife who offered remarks but Ivanka Trump, the 33-year-old daughter some have already begun referring to as his unofficial campaign spouse.
When at the Republican debate in September the moderator Jake Tapper invited the assembled hopefuls to introduce themselves, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was quick to note his quarter-century marriage to his wife, Kelly. Following suit, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas then referred to his longtime spouse, Heidi, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ticked off the 17 years he’d been married to his wife, and both Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina made references to the individuals they’ve been wed to for decades.
When it came time for Mr. Trump to introduce himself, the New York-based billionaire said nothing of his wife, stating only: “I am Donald Trump. And I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ”
And again in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast recently and filmed at the couple’s ornate Manhattan residence, Mrs. Trump was notable by her absence. “I think this is a correct decision,” Mr. Luntz said, referring to Mrs. Trump’s starkly limited public profile. “If his wife doesn’t want to be center stage, then she shouldn’t be.”
It was only this week, with an article in People magazine that featured the smiling family on the cover, accompanying the headline “At Home With the Trumps!” that Mrs. Trump decided (albeit briefly) to break her silence.
In this patch of valuable media real estate usually reserved for Kardashian newborns and other orchestrated reveals, the potential first lady suggests that family obligations are keeping her at home. “My husband is traveling all the time. Barron needs somebody as a parent, so I am with him all the time,” she told the magazine, adding that she was “not ready to get political yet.”
The decision by Mr. Trump, if such it is, to promote his daughter and not his wife as consort on the campaign trail, is a shrewd one, Mr. Luntz said. “Politics is not her first, second, third, fifth language,” he said. “It’s not her world. And if it’s not your world, you will get tripped.”
While it’s difficult to determine the reasons behind the apparent decision for Ivanka Trump to take on a role traditionally assigned to a candidate’s wife (Donald, Melania and Ivanka Trump declined requests for interviews for this article through a campaign spokeswoman), it helps to take a peek into Mr. Trump’s checkered marital history.
In his first wife, the brash émigré Ivana Trump, a former sometime model, a former champion skier and — as “Never Enough,” a new biography of Mr. Trump by Michael D’Antonio, the Pulitzer-winning journalist, notes — a highly inventive fabulist, Mr. Trump found a glamorous and willing companion for his ride to enormous wealth and fame in the go-go ’80s.
The strobe-loving first Mrs. Trump, born Ivana Zelnickova either in postwar communist Czechoslovakia or possibly Austria, entered into marriage to Mr. Trump at Marble Collegiate Church in 1977 with the ministerial services of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking” (to this day, Mr. D’Antonio said, Mr. Trump’s favorite reading) and with a prenuptial agreement drafted by Roy Cohn, a McCarthy-era henchman.
That marriage produced Mr. Trump’s first three children, countless headlines and paparazzi snapshots and, perhaps coincidentally, what would become regular “leaks” to the press by a Trump wife about her husband’s superhuman sexual potency.
The press alternated between breathlessly reporting and ritually parodying the opulent Trump lifestyle and tumultuous marriage, one plagued by reports of infidelity and that ended in a turn of events so Hollywood-hokey that, as Mr. D’Antonio notes in his book, script writers long ago abandoned it as a plot device: Ivana Trump overheard her husband talking to his mistress when she picked up a telephone extension.
What followed was the notorious and much chronicled ski-slope confrontation between Mrs. Trump and Marla Maples in Aspen, Colo. Mr. Trump eventually divorced Ivana Trump and married Ms. Maples in 1993, two months after the birth of their daughter, Tiffany. That marriage, too, provided tabloid fodder and ended in divorce in 1999, shortly before he met the third woman he would take to the altar.
Like Ivana Trump, Melania Trump is also a naturalized citizen, an immigrant — though not from one of those countries her husband suggests walling off from the continental United States. Born Melania Knavs in Sevnica, Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, she is the daughter of a onetime auto dealership manager and a woman described in differing accounts as a fashion designer or seamstress, depending on the source.
It was at a modeling contest before she took up her studies at the University of Ljubljana that Melania Knauss attracted the attention of the photographer Stane Jerko, who shot the first test photos of a pretty teenager with baby-fat cheeks and a Madonna-style ponytail, pictures that eventually resulted in her signing with a Milan modeling agency and beginning her successful career as a mannequin.
Though never in any sense a top model, during the years before she met Mr. Trump the 5-foot-11 Ms. Knauss was nevertheless photographed for ad campaigns and magazine pictorials, shot by prominent fashion photographers like Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Testino, and she appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
In 2000 she posed naked on a white fur rug inside a private jet for British GQ, and in that same year was reported by The New York Post to have whispered on air to Howard Stern that she and Mr. Trump were enjoying “ ‘incredible sex,’ at least once a day, sometimes ‘even more.’ ”
The two married in 2005 at a Palm Beach Episcopal Church, with a reception at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. The bride wore an embroidered couture dress from Christian Dior whose ornamentation alone required more than 500 hours, at a cost estimated at more than $100,000. The guest list for the wedding included Katie Couric, P. Diddy, Heidi Klum, Shaquille O’Neal and a smattering of Republican politicians, along with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, in what Mr. Trump declared was practically a paid performance.
Anna Wintour of Condé Nast was also on hand and afterward featured the bride on the cover of Vogue dressed in her elaborate couture dress, her features mysteriously shrouded by a veil, her hand adorned with a 13-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring Mr. Trump reputedly acquired half-off in a deal struck with a celebrated New York jeweler. In March 2006, Mrs. Trump gave birth to a son, Barron William Trump, now 9 and a student at a private school in Manhattan.
Mrs. Trump then settled into a life that, were it not for her husband’s presidential aspirations, might resemble that of any number of trophy spouses in New York, Palm Beach and Paris, the three cities Mrs. Trump says she loves most. “Life is a balancing act,” she told E! after the debut of a jewelry collection she designed and briefly sold on a shopping network. “You need to be very organized and very quick and just very on the toes all the time.”
For a time, her 51,600 Twitter followers were allowed a rare window into her honeyed but seemingly isolated life in the form of regular Twitter posts featuring selfies of her beauty rituals, private jet rides and bikini body. That window snapped shut in July, just after Mr. Trump declared his candidacy and following incendiary comments of his depicting Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists. The last Twitter post (at least for now) from @MelaniaTrump was an image of the American flag date-stamped July 4.
As the first presidential spouse since Louisa Adams to be born outside the United States, Mrs. Trump would also potentially be the first for whom English is not a native language. Her lingua franca, say those from the tight social circles she inhabits, is “nice.”
“Mrs. Trump is a supportive wife, great mother and a lovely person,” Wendi Deng Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s former wife, said in reply to an email query. “She is incapable of being mean,” said Brad Johns, the celebrity colorist who for years added the caramel highlights to Mrs. Trump’s hair. “She’s not gossipy at all, not bitchy and just really nice, though I know that’s not exciting to hear,” said Robert Janjigian, fashion editor for The Palm Beach Daily News.
“It’s interesting that she came in after his last ones, who talked all the time, and is a very quiet and nice person,” said Harry Benson, the seasoned photographer, who has done numerous portraits of Mr. Trump in Palm Beach home with his various wives.
“She’s very, very nice, and he’s got absolutely the perfect woman for him, who I’m sure is not just arm candy, though she looks like she is,” said Liz Smith, the gossip columnist.
“She’s a really nice person and a fabulous mother,” said Terry Allen Kramer, the Palm Beach socialite and veteran Broadway producer, echoing a point that resounded through more than a dozen interviews with those from Trump family circles. Asked whether Mrs. Trump is likely to make a proper first lady, Ms. Kramer paused for a beat before responding, “I don’t think we vote for the first lady.”
An article last Thursday about Melania Trump and the passive role she has been playing in the presidential campaign of her husband, Donald Trump, misstated her age at the time she was Melania Knauss and posed for a picture in Talk magazine. She was 29, not 26, making her almost a quarter-century younger than her future husband, not more than a quarter-century younger. The article also misidentified a presidential debate she attended. She was in the audience at the Fox News debate in Cleveland in August; she was not present for the CNN debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. In addition, the article misidentified the position in Congress held by Marco Rubio, one of Mr. Trump’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination. He is a United States senator from Florida, not a representative. The article also misspelled the given name of Rupert Murdoch’s former wife, who described Mrs. Trump as “a supportive wife, great mother and a lovely person.” She is Wendi Deng Murdoch, not Wendy. The article also misspelled the surname of an editor at The Palm Beach Daily News, who noted that Mrs. Trump is “not gossipy at all, not bitchy and just really nice.” He is Robert Janjigian, not Jangigian. And, finally, the article referred imprecisely to Mr. Janjigian’s role at the newspaper. While he has reported on society, he is in charge of fashion coverage, not society coverage. (Shannon Donnelly is the society editor.)