PALM BEACH, Fla. - On an October morning, before the club had opened for its winter season, all was quiet at Mar-a-Lago. The five clay tennis courts were unblemished. The beach umbrellas were unopened. The perfectly manicured lawn surrounding the 17-acre Spanish Revival was unoccupied.
The security team, however, remained active. A guard stationed at a side entrance wasn't interested in gabbing about whether a certain hard-to-spot resident was somewhere on the grounds.
"Do you ever see Melania Trump?" we asked him.
"Sir, you're going to have to step back and keep walking," he replied.
She's around. If not at this moment, then in general. For months, the former first lady has been living in one of Mar-a-Lago's many bedrooms, secluded and almost entirely out of the public eye. But as the big twin storylines of 2024 - whether Donald Trump will return to the White House, and whether he'll be convicted of crimes and face possible prison time - have ramped up, Melania Trump has been more notable for where and when she has not appeared.
She did not appear by her husband's side at the New York courthouse when the former president pleaded not guilty to 34 charges relating to hush money paid to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels - not that anyone really expected her to do so. But she wasn't seen at the Miami courthouse, either, when her husband pleaded not guilty to 37 charges related to his handling of classified documents. She was not spotted at the D.C. courthouse when he pleaded not guilty to four charges related to alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. She did not turn up at the Georgia courthouse when he pleaded not guilty to 13 charges.
Melania has also been absent from Donald Trump's presidential campaign appearances - the state fair visits and raucous rallies - since attending his kickoff last November at Mar-a-Lago.
The disappearing act extends beyond the trail and the trials. Outside the walls of the Trumps' estate here in Florida, Melania hasn't really been seen at all, per our informal survey of local hangouts for rich people with free time.
Not at any of the high-end shops on Worth Avenue, located just two miles up the road in Palm Beach: "She used to come in, but no one has seen her in years," said a Salvatore Ferragamo salesperson, echoing what employees in more than a dozen stores told us. "It's a quiet, safe oasis here," the Ferragamo worker said. "It's why you see celebrities around. But for some reason not her."
Not at the fancy restaurants: "Jimmy Buffett used to sit right there, loved speaking French to the staff," said the bartender at the nearby Cafe L'Europe. "I've never seen Melania, though. It's incredible. It's like they might as well live in another country, not just down the road."
Not even on the Palm Beach party circuit: "There's a small-town feel here for very wealthy people, a place where you see everyone at social events," said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant and Palm Beach socialite. "But I've never seen her outside the walls of Mar-a-Lago."
The Trump campaign did not make her available for an interview. In response to a request for comment on various details in this article, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung sent a statement: "There will always be those who seek relevance and financial gain by inserting themselves into stories. Mrs. Trump has always been and will always be focused on her family, as it is her number one priority. Any reports claiming to have insight into her life should be read with caution."
Melania's absence has delighted Trump critics who see it as a possible sign that Trump has lost the backing of his most loyal supporter in his bid for reelection/exoneration. If his wife were in fact over it, then perhaps the loyalty of his other longtime fans might be liable to fade.
Someone running against Trump is, at least, trying to draw attention to Melania's absence. In September, "Missing Melania" fliers popped up in Iowa, and an airplane flew over a college-football game, dragging a banner that read: "Where's Melania?"
It's not much of a mystery: She's spent some time at Trump Tower in New York, which she is said to prefer over the club in Bedminster, N.J. She's been paid to attend a number of events, including, according to the New York Times, collecting $500,000 from the Log Cabin Republicans and a conservative elections organization called Fix California. She has made some halfhearted attempts at a second act - including her collection of Apollo-11-themed NFTs (the minting and selling of which may have violated NASA policies), and a scholarship program for foster children aging out of the system.
For the most part, though, she's here, at Mar-a-Lago. If she's missing, it's only in the sense that she is not as present as she could be, if she wanted.
And this leads back to that old question: What is Melania Trump thinking? What, if anything, is she trying to show us by remaining out of the public eye? And what might she be saying with her silence?
Let's start with the visible: Mar-a-Lago.
"Have you seen it?" said Dan Leber, a funeral home owner from New Jersey who has a condo in the Palm Beach area. "It's spectacular." Not a bad place to hole up.
He'd visited as a guest a handful of times over the years. "This friend of mine was a member of Mar-a-Lago," Leber explained to us while sitting at the bar at Cafe L'Europe with a cocktail and a plate of short ribs. "He died at 68 years old, in Las Vegas, screwing his girlfriend. He had a heart attack. His girlfriend went nuts and started dialing 911, but 9 dialed room service in the hotel."
Writing a novel had always been on Leber's bucket list, and after his friend's funeral he found words pouring out of him on to handwritten pages. Before he knew it, he was writing a thriller novel with a main character based on his friend - except the story he wrote wasn't about an accidental death, and Leber had a better location than Las Vegas in mind: He titled his book "Murder at Mar-a-Lago."
Leber had been smitten by his visits to Trump's club. He said he once shook Mike Tyson's hand there. Another time he saw Donald Trump win a pro-am doubles tennis tournament. "The pro was running all over the court making all the shots, totally covering Donald's ass," said Leber (who, we should note, voted for Trump and would do so again). Afterward, he remembers Melania running over to give her husband a big, celebratory hug in front of everyone.
As far as he's concerned, any rumors about their marriage is just another kind of Mar-a-Lago-based fiction.
"I don't believe the stories that say their relationship is bad," Leber said. "Every time one comes out, a week or two later you hear she's completely supporting him."
Anti-fan fiction is a storied pastime, Melania-wise. Her husband's tendency to say seemingly everything that pops into his head, and her tendency to say nothing at all, has long inspired speculation among America's amateur body language interpreters. When she didn't physically stand by him, that must mean she couldn't stand him . . . right? When she swatted away his hand, shouldn't we take that as a signal of distress?
No, not really.
"She always said she was going to do what she wanted to do," said Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Melania's former friend and adviser. "Her favorite line when she saw that stuff was, 'Give me a break.'"
Melania always hated stories that cast her as a damsel in need of rescuing, says Stephanie Grisham, her former chief of staff.
Yes, Melania could get mad at her husband. She was displeased enough with him after the Stormy Daniels news broke that she deliberately skipped the State of the Union address and showed up to Air Force One separately for a trip, Grisham said. She was less angry about the attempt to buy silence from Daniels (née Stephanie Clifford) - the centerpiece of the New York criminal case - and more that the cheating allegations had publicly embarrassed her, according to Grisham.
Usually, however, Melania's absence was due to more mundane reasons: She didn't really like doing certain things, and she didn't feel like her husband needed her to. She appeared to find it cringey the way Jill Biden always seemed to be hanging around Joe, once telling Grisham that she didn't need to "hold her husband up" the same way.
Being silent was "Melania's armor," Winston Wolkoff said.
"It was a way to protect her by not letting anyone fully know who she is," she said, adding that she and Melania had an "ongoing pre-approved list" of words to describe her, such as "confident" "strong" and "independent."
"We discussed how her intentional lack of communication with the media would keep everyone guessing and ultimately maintain the narrative of being mysterious and an enigma," she said. The armor remains in use, where effective. In a recent interview with Megyn Kelly, Trump stuck to the script when asked about Melania's whereabouts, saying: "I think part of the beauty is that mystery."
Here are some unapproved words that could also be used to describe Melania Trump: Demanding. Stubborn. Particular.
She could be exasperating for those who worked with her. Winston Wolkoff, who eventually left the Trump orbit and wrote a tell-all memoir, remembers being shocked when it took months for the first lady to move into the White House. There was a variety of reasons, she said, including that Melania refused to live there until they installed a new toilet.
She was not afraid to speak her mind and make demands, even with her powerful husband.
"The attitude I admired about her the most is she did what she wanted, when she wanted to," said Grisham. "She was pretty much the only person I've ever seen who he kind of bows down to."
Melania has often gone long stretches without appearing beside Trump, but even then she was often his first call after campaign events or when he needed advice. Staffers say they welcome her because Trump slashes his foul and crude language around his wife and behaves less aggressively toward others.
"He would call her from the Oval all the time and ask questions," said a former member of her staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private events. For his reelection launch in 2020, this person told us: "He called and said, 'Should I come down the escalator again?' She said, 'No, you've already done that.'"
Behind the scenes on the campaign, Melania is described as an "occasional" presence. She sits in on some meetings, but she rarely hovers. And, according to one staff member, she "is never shy about giving her opinion." With regard to said opinions: Trump listens when Melania offers suggestions, but doesn't always take the advice. She has, for example, suggested he stop making fun of transgender athletes and refrain from his goofy arm-based dancing he often features onstage. He hasn't stopped either.
"She said, 'Darling, I love you, I love you, but this is not presidential,'" Trump told a crowd recently in Sioux City, Iowa, before later announcing: "The country's going to hell in a handbasket. Let's do a little dancing."
Melania has never liked politics and never enjoyed being trapped at events while he "talks and talks and she sits there and is expected to smile," said the former Melania staffer. Plus, the staffer added, people "get creepy and invasive with her," always trying to put their arms around her, or ask her what perfume she uses or the brand of her sunglasses.
"I can't imagine she wanted him to run again," the former staffer said. "But she would never say that."
One way or another, Winston Wolkoff had a gloomy prediction for those fantasizing about Donald Trump losing a key endorsement amid his reelection campaign: Melania will continue to support her husband. "No amount of scrutiny, no amount of cheating, lying, stealing, you name it, will change that," she said.
"She has stood by him and will continue to stand by him because she is just like him," the former confidant continued. "It's a completely transactional marriage for both. She knew exactly who she married and warned him that all his secrets would come out if he ran for president. She knew exactly what she was getting into. She accepted it and she continues to accept it. People would be surprised by just how much they agree about things."
So, where's Melania? Where she wants to be, and not where she doesn't.
That's how it often worked in the White House. As much as Grisham appreciated Melania's chutzpah, it could make the job difficult: The first lady would cancel appearances at the last minute. She'd refuse to attend smaller-scale events, Grisham said, and didn't seem to "understand that something like a ribbon cutting would make people's day and get her out in the news."
Grisham said even her top advisers did not know how she spent her days in the White House. "It was a mystery," she said, adding they often thought she was shopping online or reading magazines. During the Jan. 6 riot, Grisham wrote in a memoir, Melania was at a photo shoot for rugs in the residence and did not want to issue a statement. (The former first lady told Fox News that she would have denounced the violence if she'd been "fully informed of all the details" and that the photo shoot was "a very significant undertaking and requires great care, attention to detail, and concentration - both in the planning and execution.")
Grisham said that it was often difficult to get Melania to agree to attend one event a week, and that she would still complain about how much time it would take to travel with her husband and how there was often no real role for her at events. The first lady would regularly just say no when the campaign would want her on the trail, and would often use as her excuse that she needed to spend more time with her son. By all accounts, Melania is a good mother to her son, Barron, and the fact that he is finishing up high school in the Palm Beach area is the major reason she's spent so much time at Mar-a-Lago.
"Another shield," Winston Wolkoff said. "You can't say anything bad about a good mother."
The family's living quarters there are small, former aides say. Often, she goes to the sauna and has food brought to her. Sometimes, she'll join Trump on the patio for dinner. Her circle remains tight. She spends time with her parents, speaks with a handful of friends, and continues to employ a stylist who, according to FEC filings, was paid $108,000 in the first six months of this year. Suffice it to say, the stylist's handiwork has not gotten much exposure with the broader public.
Campaign advisers say they expect her to attend a few events next year - large events where her presence is expected or where a special occasion is being celebrated.
But it's not as if her husband needs reinforcements at the moment. None of his Republican challengers have gotten close to him in any recent polls. That "Where's Melania?" banner in Iowa may have been, more than anything, a sign of desperation among his rivals.
Leber, the "Murder at Mar-a-Lago" author, isn't too gripped by the Where's Melania? plot.
"I don't care at all," he said. "Melania wants to be left alone, so leave her alone."
But for anyone still in the thrall of the not-so-mysterious mystery, here's a clue: At the end of October, Mar-a-Lago marked the start of its winter season with a massive Halloween party.
A man dressed as Joe Biden was accompanied by another man dressed as his son, Hunter, toting a bong. There was a woman with a microphone pretending to interview a cardboard cutout of Trump.
Then there was the real Donald Trump, walking onto the terrace, clapping his hands and pumping his fists while his guests applauded his arrival. And there, standing beside him, spotted for the first time by cameras in months, was his wife.
In a video later posted online, she is seen sitting down at a roped-off table.
She doesn't say a word. But for anyone still asking the question, here was an answer: Melania Trump is where she's always been.