‘Melania and Me’ Author Stephanie Winston Wolkoff Talks Politics and Publishing

Rosemary Feitelberg
·19 mins read

After landing on The New York Times best-seller list last month for her tell-all book about First Lady Melania Trump, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff was lambasted online by Trump on Friday. Earlier in the week Wolkoff was named in a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly breaking a nondisclosure agreement by writing it.

“Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady” details how Wolkoff, a New York City in-the-know fashion professional, wound up helping plan 18 inaugural events and two live broadcasts, and then serving as a senior adviser to FLOTUS. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday asks a judge that Wolkoff surrender any profits from her book to a government trust.

The battle between the First Lady and Wolkoff intensified Friday, with a post from FLOTUS on the White House’s official site. Without naming Wolkoff, Trump noted how “major news outlets eagerly covered salacious claims made by a former contractor who advised my office. A person who said she ‘made me’ even though she hardly knew me, and someone who clung to me after my husband won the presidency. This is a woman who secretly recorded our phone calls, releasing portions from me that were out of context, then wrote a book of idle gossip trying to distort my character. Her ‘memoir’ included blaming me for her ailing health from an accident she had long ago, and for bad news coverage that she brought upon herself and others. Never once looking within at her own dishonest behavior and all in all an attempt to be relevant. These kinds of people only care about their personal agenda — not about helping others.”

FLOTUS also took aim at the media Friday morning, tweeting, “When the media chooses to focus on self-serving individuals and salacious gossip instead of work to help our next generation, it needs to be talked about.”

Wolkoff responded with a statement issued Saturday that read, “Yesterday, in response to my book ‘Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady,’ Melania Trump made a statement that said, ‘She hardly knew me.’ I find it puzzling that the First Lady of the United States asked someone she ‘hardly knew’ to attend her nuptials, join her for countless lunches, help plan the presidential inauguration, stay over at the White House and Mar-a-Lago, and act as her senior adviser. I wrote this book to share with the public my experience of working with Melania, our 15-year-friendship and her ultimate betrayal. This portrait is not at all flattering but it’s the truth and Americans deserve the truth about the occupants of the White House.”

In regard to the lawsuit, Wolkoff said Wednesday she fulfilled all terms of the Gratuitous Service Agreement and has exercised her “right to free expression“ and “will not be deterred by these bullying tactics.” A Justice Department spokeswoman said Wednesday, “This is a contract with the United States and therefore enforceable by the United States.”

A spokeswoman for the First Lady declined to comment on the suit on Wednesday.

The Justice Department lawsuit alleges that Wolkoff’s services gave her access “to significant confidential information related to the First Lady’s official duties, as well as the more private aspects of her role in the first family, along with indirect access to deliberative information, to which the First Lady was privy, related to the president’s official duties on behalf of the country.”

As of Friday, 192,000 copies of the book were in print after seven printings, according to a spokeswoman for Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, which published “Melania and Me.” The spokeswoman said Wednesday, “The Justice Department’s action is a transparent attempt to use the government as a means of intimidation against authors. We stand behind our author Stephanie Winston Wolkoff and her right to tell her story.”

In an interview, Wolkoff said, “I didn’t have an NDA with Melania starting on Nov. 8, 2016, all the way to Aug. 22, 2017. I had no contract so their entire basis is meritless.”

Wolkoff said she had signed an NDA with the Presidential Inauguration Committee in December 2016 that ran through January 2017. She said she signed another NDA in August 2017, when she signed up “as a trusted adviser and friend” who “was not allowed to say anything.”

“Melania then had to write a letter the next day that allowed me to speak on her behalf,” Wolkoff said. “…It [the NDA] was only for that time at the White House, and either she or I could cancel it at any time by telling each other.”

Wolkoff said she resigned in February 2018, the night before The New York Times published an article with the headline “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid First Lady’s Friend $26 Million,” which was later modified to “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to Firm of First Lady’s Adviser.”

The author said she worked with a pre-publishing lawyer and a First Amendment lawyer before “Melania and Me” was released to “be very careful about writing only what was verifiable, provable and within my rights.” Regarding the lawsuit, she said, “This is a blatant abuse of the [Justice] Department to pursue Melania’s and Donald’s personal interests.”

Wolkoff is not the first former administration official to be pursued by the Justice Department over a tell-all book about the administration. The department has also filed suit against former National Security Adviser John Bolton regarding his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” fighting to block its publication and subsequently attempting to seize any profits he makes from it.

The Trump family also attempted to block publication of a book written by the President’s niece, Mary Trump, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” That effort failed.

Accustomed to being asked by friends why she got involved with the Trump administration, Wolkoff said she was trying to help a friend. “I believed that regardless of political ideologies — the reality was I didn’t even have any — which is no excuse, and it’s a horrible thing to admit, but I’ve admitted it — you can’t get into something not knowing who the players are, but also not understanding that policy and ethics go together. I thought you could keep them separate and you can’t.”

Before her run inside the Beltway, Wolkoff’s career trajectory included posts at Sotheby’s, Vogue (where she helped organize nine Met galas working with anti-Trumper Anna Wintour), Lincoln Center (orchestrating New York Fashion Week) and later setting up her own agency, SWW Creative, to work with such clients as IMG Fashion Worldwide. Wolkoff first met the future First Lady during her Condé Nast days and the pair became friends.

After Trump won the 2016 election and inaugural plans began to take shape, Wolkoff believed her event-planning skills could go to good use. The way Wolkoff saw it, “Here was a friend who needed help. Everyone else turned their backs. Our entire world turned their backs. I couldn’t say no to Melania, so I took on a responsibility to help oversee two events, which turned into 18 events and two broadcasts. It was a magnitude that I never could have imagined, and not just workwise but emotionally, physically — all of it.”

Throughout the Gallery-published book, Wolkoff references emoji-filled texts, e-mails, and conversations between her and FLOTUS. What started as lighthearted exchanges transpired into barbed differences of opinion with not just FLOTUS but other Trump supporters and employees. Having archived receipts, e-mails and other information related to her involvement with inaugural planning and other East Wing-West Wing dealings, Wolkoff said she has shared “thousands and thousands” of documents with government investigators examining the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee.

The PIC and the Trump administration “wanted everybody to believe that I spent the money lavishly. That’s not true,” she said.

She said she does not know how much money was raised or spent by Trump’s PIC, but it was reported on the tax form 990 that $107 million was raised. “I had no access, jurisdiction or authority over budgetary considerations or approvals, other than to repeatedly raise concerns about the inaugural committee’s financial management,” Wolkoff said Thursday. In a previous interview, she said, “If you read the book closely, I left a lot of breadcrumbs.”

After being “severed” by the White House as a senior adviser, a contracted position, in February 2018, Wolkoff started writing what she thought would be an oped as a way to sort through what happened. That writing exercise resulted in the 343-page book. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the election. I was thinking character, morals and ethics, just very simple basic life lessons. I had to figure out where it all went wrong,” she said.

Before the inauguration, Tiny Horse and SWW Creative joined together to create WIS Media Partners, which Wolkoff said was incorporated by Tiny Horse. PIC paid WIS Media Partners $26 million. The bulk of the $26 million was managed by her partners from Tiny Horse, who paid more than $24 million to Inaugural Productions for two live broadcasts, she said. Inaugural Productions was led by long-term associates of Mark Burnett Productions.

“The price for not agreeing to a narrative of how the other $80 million was spent was to have my name soiled by The New York Times and other publications that accused me, the friend of the First Lady, for pocketing $26 million,” Wolkoff said Thursday. “Since the story broke, I have endured years of wrongful accusations against me, all the while no one was asking where the other $80 million was spent, all of which was under the oversight of [the PIC’s deputy campaign manager] Rick Gates and the PIC.”

There was no salary for being an adviser to FLOTUS, she said, but she acknowledges in the book her inaugural compensation of $480,000. Wolkoff compared it to making a $107 million movie and producers’ fees are typically 5 percent and sometimes are as high as 10 percent. “My fee was less than half of 1 percent. Many people working on the inauguration made far more than I did,” she wrote.

In a previous interview, she said, “I was only a partner of WIS. I had no budget. It was the Tiny Horse [team] that had the financial dealings with the PIC,” referring to Jonathan Reynaga, Kyle Young, Owen Leimbach and Melanie Capacia Johnson.

Wolkoff said her years of event planning and budget crunching taught her to question everything. She said, “I had the best teacher in the world [an apparent reference to Anna Wintour]. Budgets I understand. But I never had signing power, access to a bank account or to a checkbook in planning inaugural events. I was one person of a partnership in WIS. This was a set-up from the very beginning.”

Three years after the inauguration Wolkoff said she learned that of the $26 million, a $1.62 million consulting and supervisory fee that was paid to WIS was earmarked as “SWW Executive Consultation/Management Fee, which could be construed by anyone who saw it without knowing the facts that she personally received and retained that full amount.“ She described it in the book as “sleight of hand, creative accounting, bulls–t at its finest, and the press ate it up, hook, line and sinker.”

“Listen, fashion and entertainment is tough, but you see it as it is. You understand what’s going on around you. This was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life — the self-interests I was listening to,” Wolkoff said in an interview.

Wolkoff said that in December 2017, after having a conversation with the PIC and being asked to give a one-page narrative about the WIS Media Partners’ spending, she refused. In her book, she wrote that the document, known as “the sixty-seven questions,“ was approved for release by “the family” and other “operatives” tied to the White House and that document set off more alarm bells. The list consisted of press questions about the inauguration that the West Wing had received and compiled over the previous year, Wolkoff wrote. Rick Gates had his own section with questions like, “‘What did Rick Gates have to do with the White House?‘ The White House answer: Need answer.’“

Gates is a former political consultant who pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the U.S. and making false statements in regards to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. He became a key witness for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

She said the questions and answers regarding her involvement were written to point the finger at her “with no mention of WIS Partners or Inaugural Productions, the broadcast production company that received over $24 million of the $26 million paid to WIS Media Partners.” Wolkoff said she corrected the answers pertaining to her personally, “not realizing I was being set up to take the fall.”

“I’m reading something that was created by the White House and the PIC, given to [then White House communications director] Hope [Hicks] and everyone. They were going to release it and they asked me to do the one-pager. But when I saw those questions, I knew that none of it was true.”

Wolkoff has cooperated with three investigations into the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee — one led by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, a lawsuit filed by U.S. Attorney General for the District of Columbia Karl A. Racine and a third that is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She said she was not at liberty to to discuss any specifics related to those dealings.

In February 2018, Wolkoff said she started secretly recording conversations with the First Lady after “being accused of stealing $26 million and being fired.” Wolkoff has recently shared select audio clips from those talks. Wolkoff said she and Trump last spoke via text on Jan. 1, 2019.

Wolkoff said, “They really misjudged the kind of person I am and the kind of accountability that I take. I’ve dedicated my life to being true and honest and I would never take advantage of something.”

Prior to the First Lady’s post about Wolkoff’s book on Friday, FLOTUS’ spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham was asked for comment about “Melania and Me” and provided the following statements that had been issued over the previous few weeks: “This book exists simply because the author didn’t like an article that was written about her, and decided to lash out at Mrs. Trump. Her intent to secretly tape the First Lady and break her NDA in order to publish a dishonest book is a sad attempt to advance her own name. Simply put, it is an exercise in narcissism and self-pity.

”Anybody who secretly tapes their self-described best friend is by definition dishonest. The book is not only full of mistruths and paranoia, it is based on some imagined need for revenge. Wolkoff builds herself up while belittling and blaming everyone she worked with, yet she still managed to be the victim. Sadly, this is a deeply insecure woman whose need to be relevant defies logic,” Grisham added.

”This book is not only wildly self-aggrandizing, it’s just not truthful. It is an exercise in bizarre twisting of the truth and misguided blame for the sake of self-pity. It’s unfortunate and concerning that she’s overstated their friendship and her brief role in the White House to this degree,” the statement concluded.

A representative at the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment about the book.

Post-Pennsylvania Avenue, Wolkoff said things got better after she wrote the book, “because there was so much going on between the investigations, the people, friendships and physically [due to two surgeries for spinal fusions] I didn’t really leave the house for two years. I stopped living. Between my neck and everything else, psychologically and emotionally, it wasn’t just a friendship of betrayal. I gave everything, I really did. I gave up all my [business] partnerships,” the mother of three said.

“Who else is going to call Ralph [Lauren who custom designed FLOTUS’ inaugural outfit] and people aren’t going to suspect something? It was being able to take everything that I’d learned all those years and utilize it for the good of something bigger than any of us, at least I thought. Meaning the First Lady, the presidency, the White House all eyes were on us.”

She continued, “All I kept hearing about was peaceful transition of power. It’s too naive to say it, but it’s the truth, I didn’t understand the visceral. I didn’t understand the hatred. I just didn’t because I never understood the politics of it.”

 

Readers will learn by her account that Wolkoff has spent nearly $1 million on legal fees to defend herself. “In that White House, you cannot make a difference. We all learned that the hard way, even the generals who have gone in there,” Wolkoff said.

While Wolkoff uses the book to defend her actions, she also uses it to, at times, dissect the dynamics of the Trump clan. Ivanka Trump “was a horror. She is just the worst,” Wolkoff said in an interview. She is also critical of the first daughter in the book. The first daughter’s frosty relationship with her stepmother was absolutely exacerbated by the presidency, she said, adding that both Melania and Ivanka Trump used their private e-mail severs for some correspondence. “Look, they had to spend a lot more time together. There was a lot more spotlight to be taken away from one another,” Wolkoff said. “Power corrupts. It’s the evil of all, and greed. There was plenty for all of them, but I think Ivanka needed to be front-and-center.”

In “Melania and Me,” the author described how the First Lady denied Ivanka Trump’s request that the Trump family be part of the swearing-in photo op when Trump took the oath of office. On another occasion, FLOTUS opted not to wear a Kaufman Franco dress since Ivanka Trump had worn the brand, the author wrote. Wolkoff’s take on their power games was that every time FLOTUS said no to an event, it gave Ivanka a chance to step into her place.

While much of the book centers on the planning of the inauguration and the fallout that followed, Wolkoff does address the style quotient. Regarding the First Lady’s affinity for Manolo Blahnik stilettos, she wrote that FLOTUS would say, “Ronald Reagan always wore a suit to the Oval Office out of respect for his position. It’s the same thing.”

Originally, Wolkoff had written a “Look Book” chapter chronicling the different designer looks that Trump wore for key occasions and why they were chosen. But she said the breadth of that seemed to detract from her book, so it was removed.

In “Melania and Me,” Wolkoff makes clear that FLOTUS’ stylist Hervé Pierre “had nothing to with” the green Zara jacket imprinted with “I really don’t care, do u?” that FLOTUS wore to visit children separated from their parents at the Texas border. She said the first lady told her that during a 70-minute call five days after the media storm started. She said that Trump told her, “My office had nothing to do with it. They are not my gatekeepers. I decide what I wear myself.” As for why she wore it, Wolkoff wrote that Trump responded, “I’m driving the liberals crazy! You know what? They deserve it.”

Having not read Wolkoff’s book, Pierre declined comment. Designer Rachel Roy, who is referenced in the book as friendly with Wolkoff and Trump, declined comment through a spokesman.

Looking back, Wolkoff said part of her loyalty to Trump stemmed from wanting to create and expedite a platform for FLOTUS that centered on social emotional learning as a tool to curb addictive and other negative behavior and other negative outlets. She said she handed in the proposal for that platform the day after she left the White House. “The umbrella, to me, was much bigger than cyber bullying,” Wolkoff said, referring to a pillar in FLOTUS’ “Be Best” campaign. “…Donald was the walking antithesis of what we were trying to create.“

Criticisms of the First Lady and the Trump administration aside, at one point in the interview Wolkoff recalled how before the inaugural she went to see the Trumps in their Manhattan apartment. “Crying,” she said she told them that “she was going to wind up in the bottom of the Potomac River due to her involvement in planning the inauguration. That was not a joke. I genuinely felt that way,” Wolkoff said. “Donald sort of laughed it off like everything is fine. He is the most believable person in the world. He would say something and I would say, ‘There’s no way he’s lying.’ I wouldn’t even think it. That’s his one thing that is totally exemplary. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s cultish, but I’m talking about believing it.”

She continued, “I will look at things and say I know that’s not true now. But it seemed so convincing and that’s what’s so scary.

“For me, it’s about the truth. When you make a mistake, own up to it. Can you imagine if Donald Trump said months ago, ‘We were all wrong, or I was wrong, they were wrong.’ Whoever you want to blame it on. ‘Put a mask on,’” Wolkoff said. “But he will double down, triple down, quadruple down and people are dying because of it. Just own up to who you are, your responsibility to society, to other people and to yourself.”

Planning additional media appearances about the book and the Justice Department’s lawsuit, Wolkoff said Wednesday, “Look, I can’t turn back the clock, but I can absolutely voice the truth.”

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