Maria Puente, USA TODAY | Updated 12:15 a.m.
Unconventional and unpredictable, first lady Melania Trump now faces the task of vacating the White House and deciding what the next phase of her life will look like.
The days since the election have been as tumultuous as the last near-four years in Washington – but pretty typical for her: She was seen only once – at the White House with the president in the early hours of last Wednesday – and has not been seen or heard in public since.
Meanwhile, it was all over but the shouting. Nail-biting waits for vote counts continued, and Joe Biden was declared president-elect Saturday morning. The president blasted out multiple ALL-CAP tweets; one demanded the vote counting stop, while another claimed he won "by a lot" just ahead of many media networks calling the race in favor of Biden. The president ranted Thursday night during a live press conference about alleged fraud in the election, which was so shocking many media outlets, including USA TODAY, cut away in the middle of it.
Melania Trump wasn't there. On Friday morning, her Twitter account sent out an anodyne tweet about a hospital she visited last year in Boston, as if nothing unusual was happening.
Associated Press, USA TODAY
So now that Biden has been declared the winner, what's next for Mrs. Trump? Will she return to her former role of devoted mom and wealthy lady of leisure, traveling between one Trump estate to another? After Jan. 21, will she make a beeline for her Trump Tower penthouse in New York City, or head for the spa at Mar-a-Lago in sunny Palm Beach, Florida?
Based on the past four years, she's not likely to confide. But a hint: She voted last week in person in Palm Beach County, where the Trumps have registered to vote and have made their official residence.
"I assume Mrs. Trump will go back to Florida – or maybe she will be able to convince her husband to return to New York as their official residence – and continue the kind of life she led before the White House," predicts first lady historian Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University.
But first she will busy herself with decorating the White House for the Trumps' final Christmas season there, says Anita McBride, who was former first lady Laura Bush's chief of staff and now runs the Legacies of America's First Ladies Initiative at American University.
Losing the election comes with "a certain disappointment of not having this option (of being in the White House) again after working so hard towards it," McBride says. "You go through the stages of a loss because it is a loss. I think (Trump) will focus on her family and her son (Barron); helping him to manage this transition will most likely be foremost in her mind."
But who could blame Trump if she is preparing to relinquish with some relief the undefined, unpaid, high-pressure job of first lady to former second lady Jill Biden, now the FLOTUS in waiting.
Why? Four years of near-constant battles with a mainstream media that Trump despised and a deluge of toxic tweets from critics who returned her disdain. Sharp criticism of her fashion and decorating choices. Two medical crises, including a five-day hospital stay and weeks when she disappeared from public view.
Continuing talk and lawsuits over her husband's past alleged indiscretions. A first-lady agenda that fell short of its ambitions, especially on fighting online bullying of the sort often practiced by the president.
There were public spats over banal jokes invoking son Barron, 14; over her desire to tune the TV on Air Force One to CNN; and on her role in the firing of a high-level national security official. Throughout there were dozens of pictures and videos showing her with a crestfallen face, or snatching her hand from his, or the risible conspiracy theory that she employed a body double in public.
Then there were the unwelcome biographies and tell-all books, including one by a former friend who promoted it by releasing secret tapes of their conversations, capturing the first lady's scorn for some aspects of her role and her familiarity with Anglo-Saxon expletives, if not perfect grammar.
Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author of “First Women,” about modern first ladies
"I could say I'm the most bullied person in the world," she lamented to ABC in her one mainstream media interview, during her tour of Africa in 2018, for which she was dressed like a colonial big-game hunter with a pith helmet on a nearby table.
In short, after all the Sturm und Drang of the most idiosyncratic FLOTUS term in the modern history of American first ladies, it would be understandable if Trump viewed leaving it all behind with a sense of good riddance.
"I think Melania will probably be secretly relieved," says Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author of books about the White House, including "First Women," about modern first ladies. "This is not what she signed up for."
Americans might have suspected ambivalence based on her decision to not move into the White House on Jan. 21, 2017. She and her husband said she waited five months so that Barron could finish the school year in New York.
From that surprising beginning, Trump was often under siege in the East Wing, but with few connections to living former first ladies to call and commiserate.
"She feels like she can’t do anything right, and though every first lady feels that way at some point, she has the disadvantage of being married to someone who has burned every bridge to the past," Andersen Brower says.
Having been born and raised in the central European country of Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), Trump, 50, has been a U.S. citizen for only 14 years. But the role she was expected to embrace can be hard to discern even for politically and socially savvy women born and raised in the USA.
"The job is so unclear anyway, so expecting her to (immediately) understand the weight of it and know what to do, and meanwhile none of the others want to talk to her except maybe Laura Bush, who came to tea a few times, because they all dislike her husband so much," Andersen Brower says.
Myra Gutin, a professor of communication and a first lady historian at Rider University in New Jersey, thinks Trump will be judged "an average first lady," one who fulfilled ceremonial responsibilities and launched a first lady project.
But "she was not an activist and rarely a presidential surrogate," Gutin says.
There is little doubt Trump was a historic first lady, more for what she is rather than what she did: the first foreign-born FLOTUS in 195 years. The first former fashion model who also posed nude. The first to be a president's third wife. The first for whom English was not her first language.
After many delays, she launched her first-lady initiative, Be Best, which was aimed at "helping children" by fighting online bullying and opioid abuse.
"Many Americans never developed any definite perception of her," Gutin says. "Her White House initiative, though well-intentioned, never particularly resonated."
Betty Boyd Caroli, author of multiple White House-related books, including "First Ladies," says Trump "hasn’t done anything significant" during her term.
"Her take on the job seems to be to do as little as possible, and of course some Americans, but not a majority I think, like that," Caroli says. "I expect her Be Best project to get buried, to the extent it ever existed as far as staff and funding go, quicker than Nancy Reagan’s Foster Grandparent plan."
Caroli doesn't see Trump taking on a new cause or, say, getting involved in her husband's post-presidency foundation or library, if there is one, largely because Mrs. Trump wasn't much of an activist before.
"As far as I can tell, Melania was not one for projects even before the White House," Caroli says.
It's possible that Trump will continue to snub the media, even as her husband is expected to continue haranguing them. He might even join the media, possibly through a post-presidency Trump-branded television network – Trump TV, as it were – that's been floated.
Caroli thinks the outgoing first lady might make occasional attempts to send snarky messages to the media through her clothes.
During her 2018 ABC interview in Africa, she claimed her infamous "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?" jacket was really a message to the media. Yet when she answered questions during a gaggle with reporters (Egypt's Great Sphinx in the background) on the same trip, she derided the media for paying too much attention to her clothes, saying she wished people would “focus on what I do, not what I wear."
Kate Andersen Brower, journalist and author
"She'll go down in history as a first lady who used her clothes as a vindictive gesture to the media – she hates the media," Andersen Brower says. "She thinks it's ridiculous that her clothes are analyzed like this, and so she's going to have fun taunting people."
But after the White House, it won't matter as much. It could "drive reporters crazy, but I’m not sure anyone will care about what she wears after she’s out of D.C.," Caroli says.
Trump could get her revenge on her foes by writing a memoir, as most first ladies usually do: Michelle Obama's book, "Becoming," was a runaway best-seller and made her millions while allowing her to get things off her chest, including the experience of being attacked in ugly racist terms while she was first lady.
"I think Melania is going to return to that lady-who-lunches lifestyle, which is totally her right to do, but if she wrote a book, she could make a lot of money," Andersen Brower says. "If she wrote a no-holds-barred book, like Nancy Reagan's 'My Turn' memoir, that would do very well. And she might, given the way she (sometimes) talks so candidly."
But Trump will make motherhood her role first and foremost, even as Barron grows up in a few years and prepares to leave home. Will they go back to New York so he can return to his former private school in Manhattan?
Could she bear to stay behind in Washington while he finishes high school at his current school in Potomac, Maryland, about 20 miles from the White House? (Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama stayed in Washington after their White House years so their two daughters could finish up at their private school.)
McBride doesn't think the Trumps, any of them, will stick around Washington. She thinks it's possible that the former first lady could become quietly involved in the design of a post-presidency library, given her interest in design.
But she could also continue advocating for some of the causes she showcased in the White House, such as neonatal drug addiction, especially if she's asked by some of the groups she interacted with while visiting hospitals and hosting roundtables on the issue, McBride says.
"Sometimes, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't, so you do what you like, what comes natural and is a reflection of your style and taste, and then you hope people like it," McBride says.
As for where the Trumps will live after leaving the White House, they have many luxury homes to choose from, including Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, the Seven Springs estate in Westchester, New York, and the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey.