In 2016, there was the “Access Hollywood” tape. Barring some unforeseen release out of Russia, this year’s October Surprise may be less exciting: the so-called Melania tapes.
Now, two months out from the 2020 presidential election, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, former trusted advisor to Melania Trump and author of “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady,” appears to have recorded conversations with the first lady herself.
The third in a string of Melania explainers — following “Free, Melania” in December and “The Art of Her Deal” in June — “Melania and Me” relates the (former) close friendship between the author and the first lady with almost alarming precision, using direct quotes, brackets and all, to back its narrative.
“Melania and the White House had accused me of criminal activity, had publicly shamed and fired me, and made me their scapegoat,” Winston Wolkoff told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “At that moment in time, that’s when I pressed record.”
The author’s conversation with the TV anchor came after the chief of staff and spokesperson for Melania Trump, Stephanie Grisham, told the New York Times that “anybody who secretly tapes their self-described best friend is, by definition, dishonest.”
Winston Wolkoff, however, flipped the script: She alleged dishonesty in the use of funds from the Presidential Inauguration Committee, and she kept the receipts.
For one example, on Dec. 10, 2016 — 41 days before the inauguration — the author learned via email that using the Trump International Hotel as a venue for eight days would cost $3.6 million.
“That figure couldn’t be right,” she writes. “Surely there is a mistake here — wouldn’t Donald be donating the space or charging a steep discount? … The amount appeared to be quadruple the standard price. Besides the problematic optics, it seemed ethically wrong.”
The optics didn’t seem to hurt much, but the ethical issues didn’t go away.
In August 2018, political consultant W. Samuel Patten pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to register as a foreign agent when he illegally funneled foreign funds to the inauguration committee.
In February 2019, the U.S. attorney’s office in New York subpoenaed the Trump inaugural committee in connection with multiple allegations, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
That same month, the attorneys general of New Jersey and D.C. subpoenaed the committee for documents regarding its finances.
For years, Winston Wolkoff couldn’t speak about allegations of wrongdoing by the inaugural committee — even as her name was dragged through the mud. She was “muzzled with an NDA” — a nondisclosure agreement — she writes in the book, which made her the perfect scapegoat for the administration.
So why come forward now?
The simple answer: Now she can. Since her stint in the East Wing, Winston Wolkoff has cooperated fully with three separate subpoenas. With so much now in the public record, she was free to speak her truth.
Since February 2018, when the New York Times published a piece under the headline, “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to First Lady’s Friend” (it has since been updated), that friend has been on a quest to clear her name.
“I wasn’t paid $26 million,” she writes in the book. “I wasn’t a part of the approval process, and I didn’t have access to the financing, not even” for her firm, WIS Media Partners. Most of WIS’ budget, she writes, was transferred to Inaugural Productions for the concert and the balls. “Every budget was preapproved and authorized by Tom [Barrack], Rick [Gates], Sara [Armstrong], and the PIC Finance Committee.”
At the trial of Paul Manafort in August 2018, former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates would admit that it was “possible” he’d stolen money from the inauguration funds.
“For the record,” Winston Wolkoff writes, “my personal compensation for my work on the inauguration that I retained was $480,000. That number may seem like a lot. It is a lot.
“But to put it into perspective, imagine we had been making a $107 million movie. Producers’ fees are typically 5 percent, and sometimes they are as high as 10 percent. My fee was less than half of 1 percent.”
The $107-million cost of the event, which unlike a movie was not a for-profit enterprise, was $50 million higher than any previous inauguration. It was also produced by Mark Burnett, creator of “The Apprentice.”
“Melania and Me” alleges that Winston Wolkoff was thrown under the bus with relish; in connection with “suspicious inaugural accounting,” the Trumps and their administration decided to hand the media the name of single senior advisor. The resulting book is about the severance of a job — and a friendship.
Winston Wolkoff met Melania in 2003, when she was a model named Melania Knauss. At the time, Winston Wolkoff was working as the director of special events for Vogue, the force behind the iconic Met Gala.
It was at the 2004 Met Gala that Donald proposed to Melania.
“I was there at the beginning,” Winston Wolkoff writes. “I witnessed the transformation of Melania from gold plate into twenty-four karat gold. I believed she had the heart to match.”
Now, she isn’t sure. “Throughout our early friendship, she lived up to what I saw in her,” Winston Wolkoff writes. “Watching her now, and seeing that only the gold shell remains, I have to wonder if that’s all she ever was, and I was the sucker who bought the fake watch on the street corner.”
One of the revelations that changed her perspective — and that the press is now buzzing about — was evidence, according to the author, that one emotion was genuine: The first lady’s indifference toward family separation at the U.S. border.
Melania’s decision to visit child detention centers wearing a Zara jacket that read, “I really don’t care. Do U?” raised eyebrows and sparked outcry — even as some believed it might be a misunderstanding.
A few days later, the first lady and the author shared a phone call, which it appears — given the timestamp and direct quotes — Winston Wolkoff recorded.
“The mothers, they teach their kids to say, ‘I’m going to be killed by gangs!’ so they are allowed to stay,” Melania said. “They are using that line and it’s not true. They don’t want to stay in Mexico because Mexico doesn’t take care of them the same as America does.”
“Her comments made me queasy,” Winston Wolkoff writes.
But then again, as she concludes in the last chapter, “A Trump is a Trump is a Trump.”