As thousands of pro-Trump supporters streamed into Washington, DC, Wednesday headed first to the Ellipse to hear President Donald Trump speak, and then to the United States Capitol to lay siege to the epicenter of American democracy, first lady Melania Trump was doing a photo shoot at the White House.
Professional lighting, the sort used for photography and videography, could be seen through the windows of the White House. “Photos were being taken of rugs and other items in the Executive Residence and the East Wing,” a person familiar with the day’s activities with the first lady told CNN. Trump – who, as CNN has reported, has expressed interest in writing a coffee table book about decorative objects she has amassed and had restored in the White House – was overseeing the photo project, said the source, with her remaining time in the White House dwindling.
Just blocks away, domestic terrorists were swarming the US Capitol in a riot that her husband had incited earlier that day at the rally. While images of the mob breaking into the Capitol consumed the airwaves, the first lady was focused – with the White House chief usher, Timothy Harleth – on getting the shoot completed. Both the media, including CNN, and members of her staff were asking if Trump had plans to tweet a statement of calm, or a call to stop the violence – something she had done a handful of times months earlier during the protests surrounding the police killing of George Floyd. She did not.
Instead, the first lady was quiet, and has remained so. Her disinterest in addressing the country was indicative of being “checked out,” said another White House source, who added, “she just isn’t in a place mentally or emotionally anymore where she wants to get involved.”
Except with the furniture.
By Wednesday evening, two of her first hires as first lady, chief of staff Stephanie Grisham – who also served as Trump’s closest adviser, speechwriter and spokesperson – and Anna Cristina “Rickie” Niceta, White House social secretary, had submitted their resignations effective immediately. CNN confirmed both Grisham and Niceta quit their jobs in large part because of Wednesday’s events.
Much has been made of the first lady’s influence on her husband. But it was Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter, who held an emergency meeting with him in the Oval Office Wednesday, where she urged him to call for the violence to stop.
Still, the first lady and the President, as CNN has reported, have a close relationship, which is sometimes surprising to those who have interpreted salacious stories of Trump’s alleged adulterous behavior and their physical distance as a sign of a dislike. The first lady speaks on the phone throughout the day with the President, according to several sources who have witnessed it – from both wings of the building – and she is the first one to share with her husband her thoughts on domestic and international issues.
Though the bulk of her public statements in recent months have been related to holiday decorations, on November 8, she tellingly tweeted her support of Trump’s baseless fight against the election results. “The American people deserve fair elections,” said the first lady. “Every legal - not illegal - vote should be counted. We must protect our democracy with complete transparency.” It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to indicate she was on his side.
The first lady has also not been shy when her opinions differ from her husband’s, tweeting – either on her own or via Grisham as her mouthpiece – messages that would seem to be out step with his.
But this week was not one of those times.
CNN has reached out multiple times to the East Wing, both before and after Grisham’s departure, to ask for comment on the first lady’s thoughts about Wednesday’s events, or if she had any comment at all. The requests were not answered.
The Trump children
Along with the first lady, the other three most influential people in the Trump orbit are his oldest children, Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump, all of whom have amplified the voice of their father after his election loss, calling for Americans to “fight” against what they baselessly deemed a corrupt election.
Trump Jr. was part of a roster of speakers at the Ellipse Wednesday morning, more than willing to inflame an already blindly loyal and largely infuriated group of supporters. “This gathering should send a message to them. This isn’t their Republican Party anymore,” railed Trump Jr. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”
He addressed lawmakers in his hype speech, which was peppered with expletives: “You can be a hero, or you can be a zero. And the choice is yours. But we are all watching. The whole world is watching, folks. Choose wisely.”
Eric Trump and his wife Lara spoke too, and listened with big smiles as the crowd of thousands serenaded the younger Trump with “Happy Birthday;” he turned 37. The couple vociferously maligned the democratic election process, and the will of American voters who elected Joe Biden as President. The crowd loved it.
“We live in the greatest country in the world, and we will never, ever, ever stop fighting,” said Eric Trump, the word “fight” a dog whistle to the eager crowd who were just blocks from where they – falsely – believed their future was being dealt an illegal hand by lawmakers. Shortly after Eric and Lara left the stage, they were whisked by Secret Service to the airport – the match they helped light in the rear-view as they flew back to their multimillion dollar New York home.
The President was at the rally, too, of course. The headliner, he first watched the crowd on monitors from a tented VIP area with his daughter Ivanka Trump, who did not speak at the rally, before he took the stage.
Ivanka Trump would shortly be the one whose responsibility it was to press her father to publicly call for the violence to stop – but not before she sent her own tweet, referring to the Trump supporters rioting as “American Patriots.”
“American Patriots – any security breach or disrespect to our law enforcement is unacceptable,” wrote Trump, who also said the violence must stop. After being called out for dubbing them “patriots,” Trump deleted her tweet.
At the White House, panic was setting in. “The President didn’t want to listen to people telling him he had to get these people to stop doing this,” a White House official told CNN.
“Everyone else was told to leave the room,” a different source close to Ivanka Trump told CNN of her emergency meeting with the President in the Oval Office. Trump had been called on by multiple people, both in person in her West Wing office and from Capitol Hill, where she had multiple contacts. “The message was, ‘President Trump has to tell these people to stop. He’s the only one they’ll listen to,’” said the source, who noted Ivanka Trump was already more than aware the rioters were wreaking irretrievable damage.
In their meeting, Ivanka Trump argued her father must make an immediate, televised address to the nation, the source said. The President was hesitant, with multiple sources telling CNN he appeared at times to enjoy watching the chaos he had unleashed unfold. Trump turned down the request for an immediate televised address, but would eventually compromise with a milquetoast version of reproach from the Rose Garden, which he then tweeted. “We love you,” he said in a recorded video to the people who forced lawmakers and staff to hide under chairs, scared for their lives. “Go home,” as though they had stayed too long at a dinner party.
“He will do what he wants to do,” said the source close to Ivanka, referring to the President. “But if she wasn’t in there yesterday, his tweets would have been a lot different,” the source added. Ivanka Trump has often received public criticism for taking credit for working “behind the scenes” on issues related to the President – and this time will likely be no exception. But the source told CNN Wednesday’s actions were not “virtue signaling by her.”
On Thursday evening, in another prerecorded video message, the President publicly conceded for the first time that he will not serve a second term, although he stopped short of congratulating Biden. With his presidency threatened by resignations and potential impeachment, Trump acknowledged that a transfer of power to a new administration is underway.
Ivanka Trump and her brother Don Jr. later retweeted the video.