As Trump’s popularity soars again, the family who ditched him now face a dilemma

It was all over for Donald Trump. He had lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden – the first time that a sitting president had been defeated since George HW Bush was ousted by Bill Clinton in 1992. And with that toppling of a self-styled monarch came the collapse of his court as those loyal to him – or, more accurately, to the power he held – fled the sinking ship.

Chief among them: his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka, both canny figures who appear to thrive on transactional relationships. If Trump was no longer of any use to them, they had no reason to stick around.

But now the impossible might be happening. Could Trump have a second term after all? It’s a nightmare scenario for many in the United States and beyond. But for some of his family members, it’s a murky dilemma.

Should they keep their distance? After all, Trump is still embroiled in multiple lawsuits. Or should they return to the fold in case the king wins back his throne?

It would be a remarkable U-turn from his spouse, in particular, who has been dubbed “Missing Melania” because of her lengthy absence from her husband’s side in public. The former Slovenian model has never seemed comfortable as a political spouse, playing a minimal part in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Her few contributions were frankly risible, like her claim that, as first lady, she would focus on combating cyberbullying – all while Trump constantly took to Twitter, now X, to make nasty jibes about his opponents.

Melania also got into hot water when she made a speech at the Republican National Convention that plagiarised Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.

Ivanka TrumpIvanka Trump

Trump’s daughter Ivanka is a ‘canny figure’ who thrives on ‘transactional relationships’ – Jon Kopaloff/Getty

She mainly followed her husband’s lead during his presidential term, right up to echoing his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged. She even eschewed the tradition of welcoming the next first lady, Jill Biden, to the White House. Perhaps that contributed to her leaving with the worst final approval rating of any first lady in history.

But was she actually relieved to escape this glaring spotlight? Since the Trumps left Washington, Melania has disappeared into the sanctuary of Mar-a-Lago, with Palm Beach residents like Laurence Leamer remarking: “Nobody knows where she is. It’s like a mystery. It’s certainly talked about.”

Melania appears to have been far more interested in making money, independently of her husband, than supporting his ambitions. She recently auctioned off an array of items via her website, including “Head of State” memorabilia – like the hat she wore during Emmanuel Macron’s state visit in 2018.

Sources close to Melania say she’s particularly unwilling to return to the political fray because she wants to protect her 17-year-old son Barron, who is about to apply to college. She wants to shield Barron from Trump’s barrage of legal issues and keep him out of the story – especially as Barron is about to become a legal adult, and therefore fair game for the press.

However, that might not be possible for much longer. Trump looks increasingly likely to clinch the Republican party nomination, and Melania’s absence has again been a talking point. In the key state of Iowa, Trump’s opponents have been distributing fliers showing a picture of Melania with the captions “Missing” and “Have you seen this woman?”. There’s been no sign of her at Trump’s rallies or his numerous court appearances.

Trump with his wife Melania and their son Barron at the funeral of Amalija Knavs, the former first lady's motherTrump with his wife Melania and their son Barron at the funeral of Amalija Knavs, the former first lady's mother

Trump with his wife Melania and their son Barron at the funeral of Amalija Knavs, the former first lady’s mother – Rebecca Blackwell/AP

But is Melania now edging back into his inner circle, albeit reluctantly? Trump claims so in interviews: he told cable channel Newsmax that she was backing him 100 per cent.

Melania herself did actually surface in May 2023 to speak to Fox News Digital. She said it would be a privilege to serve as first lady again, and that she hoped to work alongside Trump in “restoring hope for the future and leading America with love and strength”.

The website Axois also claimed that Melania has weighed in on Trump’s choice of running mate, strongly recommending conservative pundit Tucker Carlson – and indicating she’d be more likely to attend campaign events if he was on board.

But perhaps the really key part here is those trials. Although Melania hasn’t been present, she certainly knows what’s going on – and if she has to choose between returning to the White House, or watching her husband become a felon (and possibly a bankrupt one at that), she’ll take Option A any day.

A similar quandary faces Ivanka Trump. The sleek, poised businesswoman has had no problem trading on the Trump name in the good times, working for her father’s company while setting up her own (mostly failed) lines of jewellery, clothing and accessories.

Although she was once a Democrat voter and considered relatively liberal, it was Ivanka who introduced Trump when he made the speech announcing his candidacy in 2015, and she went on to become a key presidential advisor, alongside her husband, Jared Kushner.

However, she tactically distanced herself from the US Capitol riots in 2021, reportedly telling her father to post a video condemning the rioters, and tweeting herself with a plea for “peaceful” behaviour.

Trump with Eric Trump, Lara Yunaska, Vanessa Trump, Melania Trump, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Vanessa Trump in 2016Trump with Eric Trump, Lara Yunaska, Vanessa Trump, Melania Trump, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Vanessa Trump in 2016

Trump (centre) with Eric Trump, Lara Yunaska, Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Vanessa Trump in 2016 – Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The following year, when summoned to the panel investigating the Jan 6 riots, she admitted that she did not believe the 2020 election was stolen, nor that there was any basis for the voter fraud claim.

In November 2022, Ivanka skipped her father’s presidential campaign announcement. In a statement, she said that this time round, she was choosing to “prioritise my young children and the private life we are creating as a family. I do not plan to be involved in politics”.

True to her word, neither she nor Kushner have appeared on the campaign trail since then. Instead, they moved to a private island near Miami, Indian Creek, which has been dubbed the “Billionaire Bunker”.

Perhaps that’s because they haven’t needed Trump’s bankrolling. In 2021, Kushner founded the private equity firm Affinity Partners, and he received a whopping $2 billion from Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund.

Presidential candidate Chris Christie called this payment “family grift”, and the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into it. There was concern that it was a form of payback after Kushner defended Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi administration while working in the White House.

However, the couple can’t escape Trump’s orbit forever – not least because Democrats are keen to investigate all of his business dealings while in office, which very much includes Ivanka and Kushner’s affairs. Getting Trump a second term is one possible way of curtailing such investigations.

Trump surrounded by relatives and supporters after his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination for re-election in 2020Trump surrounded by relatives and supporters after his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination for re-election in 2020

Trump surrounded by relatives and supporters after his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination for re-election in 2020 – Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Although Ivanka fought to wriggle free from her father’s civil fraud case – retaining her own attorney, petitioning to be dropped as a defendant, and trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid testifying (with the excuse that she had “childcare concerns”) – she still found herself in a Manhattan court, answering uncomfortable questions about The Trump Organization’s business practices.

It’s a reminder that, whatever she might prefer, she is still tied to Trump – and she may be more vulnerable if she doesn’t work with him.

There have also been rumours that Trump might gift his son-in-law a prestigious role: secretary of state. He previously said: “If (Jared) can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”

That would give Kushner a major ego-boosting position of power.

And, if Ivanka decides the family is better off together – financially, legally, politically or otherwise – you can bet this savvy operator will make the Trumps great again.

And the rest…

Barron

His mother Melania might want to keep her 17-year-old son out of the spotlight, but Trump has other ideas. He was all too happy to discuss Barron in a recent interview, bragging about his son’s height (6ft 7in), healthy appetite, and fondness for soccer.

Who will win out? Unlike his older half-siblings, Barron has mainly avoided the Trump media circus. Instead, he’s had a privileged and shielded upbringing, attending private schools in Manhattan, Maryland and Florida. He’s now applying to colleges.

But once Barron becomes a legal adult, Melania won’t be able to protect him from the press and public interest in the same way. Trump will surely consider him a great asset in his campaign too: his good-looking golden boy could be catnip to younger voters.

Barron will have to decide whether he wants to be defined by his father’s politics – and perhaps benefit from his potential return to the White House – or whether he wants to bide his time.

Donald Jr

Trump’s eldest son has always been by his father’s side. Donald Jr, 46, is the executive vice president of The Trump Organization, and he played an active role in Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.

Donald Trump JrDonald Trump Jr

Donald Trump Jr in the courtroom for his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court last year – Getty

However, he’s something of a loose cannon. He met with a Russian lawyer who promised to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and he has passionately promoted conspiracy theories. He also spoke at the rally which preceded the storming of the Capitol in January 2021.

But last year, Donald Jr made a confident appearance during the civil case against The Trump Organization. When he saw photographers jostling to take his picture, he joked “I should have worn make-up”.

Unlike other members of his family, he’s already back on the front line. On Feb 9, he’ll appear at Washington and Lee University’s Mock Convention – a student event that has hosted future presidents and running mates like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

That suggests Donald Jr has his own political ambitions. But right now, he’s safest sticking with Dad.

Eric

Like Donald Jr, Trump’s second son is an executive vice president of The Trump Organization and he was a vocal supporter of his father’s presidential ambitions throughout his campaigns.

Eric, 40, called the 2020 election result a “fraud”, and promoted the false claim that Antifa was responsible for the Capitol riots. After Trump left Washington, Eric followed him back to Florida, buying a $3.2 million home in Jupiter.

However, he was far less slick than his older brother on the witness stand, making the much-mocked claim that he had little knowledge of financial affairs because he was “pouring concrete”; he was “the construction guy”.

But even if he’s occasionally a liability, he’s already proven to be zealously committed to Trump’s latest bid for the White House.

Earlier this month, he told Nigel Farage on GBN America that Trump didn’t need the presidency – he could be “playing golf, hanging out with his grandchildren”  – but that their opponents were weaponising the system. He added that Trump was a “brave man” who loves his country.

Eric is all in.

Tiffany

Trump’s only child with his second wife Marla Maples, Tiffany, 30, has never been involved with her father’s business dealings. She grew up with her mother in California, and only saw Trump a couple of times a year – although she did attend her old man’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

The campaign trail seemed to be an opportunity for Tiffany to finally bond with her father. She spoke enthusiastically at political events like the National Republican Convention.

But, following his White House exit, Tiffany became completely consumed with her lavish Mar-a-Lago wedding to the Lebanese-American billionaire heir Michael Boulos. She missed Trump’s campaign launch in 2022 because she was on honeymoon.

She was also forced to deny allegations made by Carol Leonnig, a reporter for The Washington Post, that she’d had an affair with her secret service agent.

However, it looks like Tiffany is once again backing her father. Last year she was present for his big post-indictment speech – unlike Ivanka. Is she seizing the opportunity to go from spare part to first daughter?

… and black sheep, Mary

Trump’s niece – born to his brother Fred Trump Jr – Mary, 58, has long been at war with her uncle.

It began with the hotly-contested will of Fred Trump Sr, with Mary and her brother Fred III claiming that Trump and his siblings had exerted undue influence on the elderly man.

Mary TrumpMary Trump

Mary Trump has long been ‘at war’ with her uncle – Avary Trump/AP/Lauren Schwartz

Hostile tactics included Trump cutting off medical insurance for them – even though Fred III had a child suffering from epileptic spasms. The lawsuit was settled in 2001.

Mary, a trained psychologist who runs a life-coaching company, has clearly never forgiven Trump. In 2018 she gave The New York Times financial records to support the paper’s explosive story about her uncle’s dubious tax schemes.

In 2020, Mary published her unauthorised biography of Trump, entitled Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. She sold one million copies on the first day.

Mary has said that Trump is “utterly incapable of leading this country”, branding him a sociopath. If there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s that Mary Trump will not be supporting his 2024 campaign.

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It was all over for Donald Trump. He had lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden – the first time that a sitting president had been defeated since George HW Bush was ousted by Bill Clinton in 1992. And with that toppling of a self-styled monarch came the collapse of his court as those loyal…

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