Interview: Ivana Trump Has Her Say

12 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

Every family is a tiny nation unto itself, with its leaders, its laws and its own geopolitics. Each has its natural resources and its internal challenges. The family of President Donald Trump seems to have been a place whose citizens could flourish: Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. For rich kids, they’re remarkably industrious and polite. A new book says that is due not to their founding father, but entirely to their mother.

“Some people — including Hillary Clinton — consider [the kids] to be Donald Trump’s finest accomplishments,” writes Ivana Trump, the President’s first and so far longest-serving wife, in her new book, Raising Trump (Gallery Books), which comes out on Tuesday. “I believe the credit for raising such great kids belongs to me.”

No sitting U.S. President has ever had an ex-wife write a book about their erstwhile home life, what kind of a father and husband he was, and what kind of fun the ex-wife went on to have after he cheated and left.

Actually, no U.S. president has ever had an ex-wife who escaped the Communist bloc by means of a fake marriage, or sold her name-brand scents and fashion on TV in three countries, or still openly feuds with that president’s second wife, or fed his children sea urchins seasoned only with a drop of champagne harvested from beneath her yacht by her boyfriend, or jokes that she prefers younger men because she’d rather be a babysitter than caretaker, or buys lingerie in sets of 12, which she sends to each of her homes overseas because people steal them from her suitcases, or declares how much sex married people are really having. (A few times a month if they’re lucky.) Then again, this won’t be the first time precedent has gone to the dogs during this presidency.

Ronald Reagan had an ex who was a movie star, but the marriage was brief and Jane Wyman was discreet. Ivana Trump, who was married to the President for 14 years, back when he was just a young real estate scion with big ideas, big confidence and big family connections, is not the kind of ex-wife who declines the spotlight. If there’s credit to be had, she will have some. And she wants credit, most of all, for three things: Donald, Jr., Ivanka (whose given name is also Ivana) and Eric.

“When Donald started to campaign, he was going on the debates, and [the kids] were going with him to rallies, people came to know them,” says Trump, 68, in her soft, Czech-inflected voice. “On the street and in the airport, total strangers were coming to me and they’d say, ‘Ivana, how did you do it, to raise such a fabulous kid?'”

According to Raising Trump (co-written with Valerie Frankel, who helped Joan Rivers write her memoir), she did it by making family strict again. Trump is proud never to have breastfed. She’s an unabashed spanker. She believes in routine, very full schedules and punctuality. Her teenagers had early curfews and she cut Don Jr. off when he took a gap year after college to tend bar in Aspen, Co. Her version of helicopter parenting was taking her kids to her Atlantic City office on the weekends in an actual chopper where they would amuse themselves in her office while she made sure the high rollers at the Trump Castle casino were accommodated.

The results, she says, speak for themselves. Ivanka’s elegance? Her doing. She used to sit on the bathtub rim watching her mom get dolled up every evening, after ballet classes and art lessons at the Metropolitan Museum. Don Jr.’s discipline? Her doing. She spanked him when he misbehaved and made him work (on Trump properties) every summer. Eric’s perseverance? Her doing. When he hated skiing because he was cold and scared and three years old, Trump, who was a competitive skier, made him keep doing it.

All three kids are now in the spotlight, so people are getting a good look at Trump’s handiwork. Not everyone is as impressed as her airport interlocutors. While they may not be spoiled, critics say, the older Trump kids are definitely careless. (The President has two other children, Tiffany, 23, with Marla Maples, and Barron, 11, with his third and current wife, Melania.) Don Jr.’s meeting with a Russian contact who promised sordid information on Clinton means he now will very likely have to testify publicly before a Senate committee. A report by ProPublica says that he and Ivanka also misled buyers at the Trump SoHo condominium building about how many units were sold and, though they settled without admitting any wrongdoing, they were forced to refund 90% of some buyers’ money.

In April, a report found the Chinese knitting factory that produces Ivanka’s clothing brand was in violation of two dozen international labor standards. In June the New York attorney general said the state would look into a report that the Eric Trump Foundation funneled more than $1 million from charity golf tournaments into President Donald Trump’s business. (A spokesperson has denied that the Trump Organization received any money from the charity.) And both Eric and Donald have taken some heat for posing with photos of an elephant and a leopard they killed. That last one aggravates Ivana too: “Why go to Zimbabwe to shoot Bambi and Dumbo?” she writes. “I don’t blame people for giving them a hard time.”

But as for the rest of the stories of malfeasance, she dismisses them all with a wave of her French tips as she sits on the heavily tasseled red and green couch in her living room, decorated, she says, as “how Louis XVI would have lived if he had had money.” Her kids, who contributed their own impressions of their childhoods throughout the book, are nothing like the media’s depiction of them, she says. (The White House and the Trump children did not respond to questions about the book or this interview. Trump says she has not provided the President with a copy.) Having been raised in Czechoslovakia by an engineer father and telephone operator mother, she has no love for Russians. “I don’t like them,” she says. “They are communists, and they are hard core people. They terrorized my country.” And yes, she thinks they’re capable of messing with the US elections. “They are very smart, very calculated, and they are capable of doing anything.”

Her son Donald had “zero interest in Russia,” she says. “Never been in Russia, and they can investigate him as much as they want.” Her maternal loyalty is endearing if misplaced, since Trump, Jr., has reportedly been in Russia much more often than his father. Trump has similarly profound faith that her kids are not doing anything wrong in their business or charity dealings either.

Of course, she has anxieties. With Ivanka’s job in the administration and three kids to raise, “I’m a little bit worried that she has maybe too much on her plate,” says Ivana, though she does write in her book that her daughter “might be the first female—and Jewish—POTUS.” She loves her son-in-law but writes that some of the Orthodox traditions seem to her a lot of work, requiring the family to walk around Palm Beach on Saturdays.

Take a Peek Inside Ivana Trump’s Family Photo Album

"The weekend I met Donald for the first time in New York, 1976."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Skiing in Aspen in the nineties. No puffy coats or knit hats for me, ever!"Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Ivanka took two years of piano lessons, reluctantly, circa 1988."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"An eighties headband moment with Don Jr., circa 1986."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Eric flashing his baby blues in 1985."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"On Riccardo’s yacht, cruising the Mediterranean, circa 1993."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Don Jr. at Atlantis in the Bahamas, circa 2007."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Ivanka and Dedo at the pool in Greenwich, circa 1986."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"The brothers. A summer moment somewhere off the coast of France, circa 1995."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Eel for dinner, again? Don Jr. doesn't look too happy about it. Summer in Greece, 1993."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Thanksgiving in Greenwich, with a gigantic turkey and helpful Ivanka. I'd start cooking at five a.m. to feed a small army of Trumps, 1988."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Teenage Ivanka in her room on East Sixty-Fourth Street, circa 1994, on the phone as always!"Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Don Jr. and Ivanka in his room at Trump Tower, 1992."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Making friends with the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy, circa 2005."Courtesy of Ivana Trump
"Another Plaza birthday party. Ivanka loved those velvet dresses and the boys looked adorable in their little suits, circa 1987."Courtesy of Ivana Trump

For somebody who had to flee New York City to protect her young children from the tabloid feeding frenzy sparked by her husband’s infidelity, Trump is remarkably loyal to her ex-husband, too. The President was a good father, she writes, and his best quality was that he deferred to her on everything. Even when they were together, he was only a titular head of household. “He was not the kind of father who would be able to speak to them ‘choochoo-newnew-choochoo-newnew,’ when they were six years old, eight years old,” says Trump, mimicking children’s talk. “He was able to communicate with them by the time they were in university, when they could go and talk the business with each other.”

Yes, during the painful days of the divorce, when her husband was with “the showgirl,” as Trump still calls Maples, Trumpland endured some dark times. Don Jr. stopped speaking to his father for about a year. During the height of the scandal, shortly after Trump was called “an unfit mother” in the tabloids, the President sent a bodyguard to bring his eldest son to his 28th floor office and then called his ex-wife and told her he was going to raise the boy. “I said ‘I have two more to raise. Keep him!’ Fifteen minutes later, Donald Jr. was on his way home,” she says, laughing. She thinks people would do well to ignore some of what the president says. “Very often he doesn’t mean that,” she says “He has said silly things.”

There was also unpleasantness over money and the allegations of assault. “That was all just the lawyers’ talk,” says Trump of the accusations, including that Donald raped her, in her divorce documents, which she and her ex successfully fought together to keep private last year.

Trump is also careful to distinguish her administration from the ones that followed. Hers was a marriage of equals. When she met her future husband in the 70s hotspot Maxwell’s Plum, she says, he was making $70,000 a year and they had to borrow $250,000 to buy the Commodore Hotel. From there the Trump operation went from strength to strength, and she says it wouldn’t have happened without her.

After the tower she took on the casino. And then the Trump Plaza, she notes, all to great acclaim. So why did the wheels come off the marriage? Trump has a theory. “I think Donald probably felt a little bit jealous of my success. And I felt it,” she says. “There was nothing really he could do. He saw how much profit I made, so he would never fire me from Atlantic City. He would never fire me from Plaza Hotel because I did such a great job. And maybe he resented it a little bit.” The problem with being married to someone who loves to compete is that only one person can win. “I was too successful to be Mrs. Trump,” she writes in the book. “In our marriage there couldn’t be two stars. So one of us had to go.” (Her ex-husband has said in the past that making his wife part of his business strained their union.)

Trump has little time for women who stay with cheating husbands, though the President was not her last. She writes that she approached Clinton when then President Bill Clinton’s infidelity was in the news and asked “How do you deal with it?” but Clinton didn’t answer. “I think she should have left,” says Trump now of the former Secretary of State. “At least she would have left with her dignity.”

But the Trump union was very like the Clintons in at least one way: the partners saw eye-to-eye on politics. Were she First Lady, says Trump, her core issue would be health, especially prescription drug prices. “The whole health bill, Obamabill, it’s a disaster. And it has to be changed.” She feels particularly strongly about limiting immigration. Trump was able to leave the Soviet bloc only through means of a faux marriage to an Austrian friend, which gave her Austrian citizenship. She was then able to move to Canada, where, she writes “everything was new to her.”

That escape notwithstanding, Trump says she has been hardened on immigration by her time spent in Europe (she has a house in St. Tropez and kept a yacht, the M.Y. Ivana, in the Mediterranean for several years.) “There are millions and millions of immigrants, which are coming from Syria,” she says. “They don’t have education. They don’t know our culture. They don’t know how to dress to fit in. And so it’s a disaster.” It follows that she’s in favor of the President’s wall. “What I don’t like is that the Mexican woman who is nine months pregnant crosses over the wall, which is two feet tall, she goes to the hospital, and gives birth to the child, and it becomes automatically American. Who is paying for her?”

But politics, Trump emphasizes, are not really her interest. That’s not to say she couldn’t take to it. “Could I straighten out the White House in 14 days?” she asks. “Of course. Can I go and give the speech without a teleprompter for 45 minutes? Of course. Can I entertain? Of course I can entertain. But it is just not something I would like to do.” Recently, she lets slip, the Czech president Miloš Zeman recently said he’d like her to be the American ambassador there, and the President said it was fine with him, but she declined. She likes her current life too much.

Trump has no regrets. Even knowing what she now knows, she would do it all again. She may not have been the right partner for the President, but she is his ideal ex-spouse, living in loud luxury, playing by her own rules.

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