Our first full month in the White House was like living inside an emotional washing machine that only made you feel dirtier with every rinse. Even though I believed we’d come out ahead, it felt like I was being dragged down. I missed my family. I missed my old life.
I had never been a secret special advisor in the White House before. Melania had never been First Lady before. Since Melania was still living in New York, she wasn’t even a full-time First Lady yet. Our team of Lindsay, Rickie, Tim, Emily, Vanessa, Stephanie Grisham, Mary-Kate, David Monn, and I was a motley crew. Every single thing we did or didn’t do was under the media microscope.
Even if Melania didn’t do anything, it made news. On January 30, 2017, the front page of the Washington Post “Style” section dubbed her “the AWOL First Lady.” After speaking with Melania, I emailed Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh, attaching the article, and said, “I understand that we have hiring restrictions but when it comes at the detriment of the First Lady (see below) it is not something we can ignore. We have an incredibly qualified Communications Director [Jessica Boulanger,] who is eager to begin but we need budget approval. We do not need a lot of staff, but we do need qualified staff.”
Two days later, February 1, brought a blistering article by CNN’s Kate Bennett and Betsy Klein, called “Whither Melania Trump: 12 days without a public sighting.” The gist of it was, while the president was making news with his executive orders and the travel ban, Melania was missing in action. Where had Melania been since the inauguration? It wasn’t exactly a mystery. She was home at Trump Tower with Barron.
I was endeavoring to solidify the staff, do the renovations, and field press queries. Not a minute went by that we weren’t scrambling to get things done. But the frenzy behind the scenes didn’t matter if nothing was going on in the public eye.
The CNN piece said that Melania’s “20-30” staff slots (I WISH!) remained wide open and that she hadn’t announced an initiative or a social schedule of events. The tone mocked her as a do-nothing First Lady who was so uninterested in her role that she refused to visit DC, let alone move there.
The official reason Melania had decided to stay in New York was so that she could be with Barron while he finished the school year, at a total cost of $150,000 per day for added security and traffic control around Trump Tower. In an interview with The New York Times, Donald said that Melania and Barron would move to Washington “very soon” and would visit on the weekends.
The truth? She really did want Barron to finish off the school year in New York. But also, renovations to the White House Residence weren’t finished yet, and she wasn’t going to move into a construction site.
Every day, as her spokesperson, I had to defend her decision and swear that the First Lady would, one day, be THRILLED to move to DC and was ECSTATIC to be FLOTUS. I was quoted in the CNN “whither” article: “Mrs. Trump is honored to serve this country and is taking the role and responsibilities of first lady very seriously. It was only been a short time since the inauguration and the first lady is going to go about her role in a pragmatic and thoughtful way that is unique and authentic to her.”
The line in that article that got under my skin: “[When] Trump boarded Marine One to pay his respects to a fallen service member’s family in Delaware, he was accompanied by first daughter, Ivanka—a reminder that she is his closest family in Washington.”
As irritating as they were, AWOL FLOTUS articles were only presenting the evidence. Melania lived in New York. She didn’t appear in public or release statements to the press. Her social media was quiet. Ivanka rushed in to fill the void as the “acting” First Lady, issuing constant social media posts and press releases galore about her involvement with women’s issues, lobbying Daddy about climate change (alas, unsuccessfully), and attending every meeting she could slink her way into.
To prove to the press that we were filling slots, I sent a draft of yet another press statement to Hope Hicks for approval so we could finally announce Lindsay as chief of staff and myself as senior advisor. Four hours later, Hicks emailed, “Looks fine. I assume you have connected with Reince, Katie, counsel? Adding needed parties here!”
Katie Walsh confirmed at eight p.m. that she’d sent out the press release. I texted Melania, “It’s out!”
Except… my name wasn’t mentioned. It was only about Lindsay, her experience in political fundraising, event management, and logistics; her previous service for President George W. Bush; a quote from her about reopening the White House Visitors Office.
My name, title, bio, and quote had to be removed. It was a gut punch to be deleted from the statement I had written.
In a series of emails to Reince, Hope, and Katie, we got to the bottom of my erasure. Apparently, the protocol office in the West Wing didn’t know what to call me and what type of contract to give me. The press had been referring to me as a “senior” or “special” advisor to the First Lady, but my official role was yet to be named or announced because I was waiting for counsel to get me a contract. The White House lawyers Don McGahn—the very same Don McGahn whom Donald had railed about the night he “fired” Rick Gates from the PIC—and Stefan Passantino, the White House deputy counsel in charge of ethics policy, were trying to figure out what to call me, given the unorthodox nature of my role, unpaid, and under the radar. And only once they cracked that mystery would an announcement be made. (It never was.)
Melania was hopping mad and reached out to me to say she wanted my press release to go out, and Reince needed to “get it and move on it.” Then she wanted to know if I had secured my phone. Can you imagine Barbara Bush or Hillary Clinton being ignored or denied by West Wing bureaucrats the freedom to send out a press release to announce her choice for senior advisor? It was like Priebus, Walsh, Hicks, and Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations, put all of Melania’s emails, texts, memos, and phone transcripts into a paper shredder.
In our private discussions, Melania and I talked about why the delays and runarounds were happening. We circled around it again and again, asking, “Who gains from an impotent, invisible First Lady?”
Our list was short. Very short.
From MELANIA AND ME by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. Copyright © 2020 by Power of Every Woman LLC. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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