By Kate Bennett
In mid-November, as President Donald Trump railed against the election results, his wife, first lady Melania Trump publicly agreed with his sentiments. But privately, a handful of days after the final state tally, the first lady tasked an emissary with discreetly finding out what was available to her in terms of budget and staff allocation for post-White House life.
While the President is busy figuring out a way to stay in the White House, the first lady is determining what to put in storage, what goes to Trump’s New York City digs, and what should be tagged for shipment to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.
“She just wants to go home,” said another source familiar with Melania Trump’s state of mind. Asked how the first lady feels about rumors her husband might announce a 2024 bid, the source added: “That might not go over well.”
The first lady quietly brought on Marcia Lee Kelly to her scant East Wing staff in April as a special government employee who could add gravitas and experience. She is unpaid and serves in a volunteer capacity but her job as Trump’s special adviser proved helpful as the waning months of her first-term tenure.
Kelly had previously run the White House Office of Administration and after it became clear Trump would need to prep for her life after Washington the first lady told Kelly to discreetly ask West Wing acquaintances and a member of the Office of Management and Budget whether there were taxpayer funds allocated to former first ladies, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
The short answer is no. While there are post-presidential perks for such things for the outgoing commander in chief, budgets to set up an official office and staff and cover some travel costs, there is nothing from the government for any first lady, save a paltry $20,000-a-year pension, which is paid out only if her husband dies.
The intel gathered by Kelly on the budget — that there isn’t one — has not deterred Trump from turning her energy to departing Washington. According to discussions with three sources familiar, there is currently ongoing inventory being taken at the White House of the Trump’s own furniture and art and personal items.
And the first lady is hyper-focused of late on her legacy. One thing Trump is considering is a book, though it will likely not be a memoir — the post-White House writing of which is a tradition most first ladies have adhered to. Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” and Laura Bush’s memoir, “Spoken from the Heart,” were massive bestsellers.
Instead, Trump is said to be toying with writing a photo-centric coffee table book about White House hospitality history, or one perhaps centered on the design projects she has completed while first lady, according to a source in the publishing industry familiar with preliminary discussions. Trump has also reportedly done one of the final things most first ladies do before leaving office: select the administration’s official china service.
“Mrs. Trump is focused on her role as first lady. Monday she unveiled her most current effort in preserving the White House by announcing the completion of the tennis pavilion. She also recently unveiled a new piece of art in the newly renovated Rose Garden. Her office just revealed this year’s Christmas décor. Her schedule remains full with her duties as a mother, wife and first lady of the United States,” the first lady’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham told CNN.
A smooth transition
Trump is now focused on Mar-a-Lago, a source said, ensuring a smooth transition out of Washington for herself and her 14-year-old-son, Barron, who one source confirms will finish his school year in Florida and not at the posh suburban Maryland private school he has attended for the last three years. While Trump has yet to concede, Melania Trump is already overseeing shipments of personal items to Mar-a-Lago from both the White House and her Trump Tower penthouse in New York City, a source at the resort confirms to CNN.
Tham Kannalikham, the interior decorator Trump hired in 2017 to redesign the personal quarters of the White House executive residence when they moved in, has been for the last several weeks focused on the Trump “home” at Mar-a-Lago, said a source. That includes overseeing painting, new textiles and providing assistance for an aesthetic facelift for the space that will now be the family’s permanent residence.
Minor renovations to the bathrooms are taking place as well, though nothing major can be constructed on the property without a grueling permit process, as Mar-a-Lago is a National Historic Landmark and permission by the city’s council to alter the façade or add an addition is unlikely. The minor updates were planned and underway before the election, according to a source.
For a family used to several floors of Manhattan penthouse living, as the Trump’s Trump Tower residence reflects, they are going to be considerably downsizing to reside at Mar-a-Lago, which is part of the reason the first lady is now further adjusting the private quarters, where, as in the White House, she has her own bedroom suite and dressing room. The Mar-a-Lago abode encapsulates approximately 3,000 square feet of the property’s main building, a generous proportion for many families, but a relative studio apartment after living in the 55,000 square foot White House mansion.
“It will feel like staying full-time at a nice hotel,” said Laurence Leamer, author of “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.” “It’s fine for a bit, sure, but can you imagine Donald Trump just sitting around there for six months of the year? It will start to feel confining very quickly.”
Not to mention the steady stream of club members who will essentially walk past the former President’s front door every time they wander from the pool to the dining room, or the spa to the patio.
“It will be the weirdest thing,” said Leamer, who suggests if Trump is as wealthy has he claims to be, he should close the club and keep the entire mansion as his home.
A source with knowledge of preparations for Trump’s arrival in January said there is currently “a really extensive Secret Service presence now,” at Mar-a-Lago, as security elements are being assessed for Trump’s long-term protection.
Melania Trump views Mar-a-Lago as a peaceful respite of sun, solitude and self-care.
“Her parents have a suite of rooms there as well, not far from the family quarters,” said Leamer, who has spent ample time at Mar-a-Lago as a guest of several members. Viktor and Amalija Knavs, Trump’s parents, stay at Mar-a-Lago often, and have done so for much of the two decades their daughter has been with Donald Trump.
The first lady also knows Mar-a-Lago is the one place her husband might find a sliver of the accolades he will likely require now that he has spent four years in the very public eye.
“She is aware he is not the kind of ex-President who will retreat to a quiet life of writing his memoir, or taking up oil painting,” one of the sources said, referencing the post-White House habits of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
“The members will bolster his ego,” added Leamer, noting the loyalty of the Palm Beach set who belong to Mar-a-Lago, many of whom supported Trump throughout his presidency.
One source familiar adds the club’s rituals when Trump makes one of his frequent visits “always” include the playing of “God Bless America” when Trump and Melania Trump enter the ballroom or outdoor patio for dinnertime.
“It is … odd,” the source said of the way Mar-a-Lago’s nightly lounge singer switches from an ambient playlist of jazzed-up Andrew Lloyd Webber showtunes to a patriotic anthem, and everyone stands when Trump comes down to eat.
On Saturday at the Georgia rally, Trump told the crowd he would look forward to post-White House life at Mar-a-Lago.
“I’d go to Florida … I’d take it easy,” he said.
Melania Trump’s future endeavors
The first lady’s queries about funds for an office and staff would indicate she is thinking of establishing an official office after the White House, as most first ladies do, to continue initiatives or policy goals begun while their husbands are in office. One source confirmed Trump is mulling the idea of keeping up her “Be Best” platform aimed at helping children, but another person with knowledge said no firm plans for how or when that might take shape have been determined. Trump’s East Wing office has at approximately 12 people been the smallest staff in modern history.
As for the official Trump china, the first lady recently selected patterns and colors for hundreds of place settings, which is standard procedure for an outgoing first lady.
Presidential administration china has traditionally remained at the White House as part of the official collection and, dating as far back as President James Monroe, can be utilized by future administrations. However, a source familiar with the order said Melania Trump is not relying on the White House Historical Association to pick up the tab for the set, which is not a requirement, but it is an option.
The last administration not to use funds from the White House Historical Associations for official china was the Reagans, notes the source, who confirms the association was “not involved in an acquisition project related to the Trump china.”
A full official administration china service is not an inexpensive endeavor.
The Obama china, planning for which began in 2011, was delivered in 2015, the color inspired by the blue waters off of Hawaii. There were 320-settings of 11 pieces each, costing more than $350,000. Laura Bush’s china selection totaled 4,500 pieces and was also well into six-figures. (Bush ordered an additional, less-formal 75-place settings to use for entertaining in the private residence, which was not paid for by the White House Historical Association.)
Melania Trump has most commonly opted to borrow place settings from the official Clinton china set for her White House events, the two Trump-hosted state dinners included. There are 300-place settings of apropos ornate, shiny gold plates and dishware selected by Hillary Clinton when she was first lady.
Whether Trump’s personal choice reflects the ostentatiousness of the Trump era, only the future will tell.
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