If anyone is capable of plumbing the shallows of the enigma that is first lady Melania Trump, it should be Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, her lovey-dovey, emoji-wielding close friend of nearly two decades who has written an "I was betrayed!" book to beat all.
"Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady" (Gallery Books, out Tuesday) joins the recent crop of Trump family take-down books as the November election nears, including "Too Much and Never Enough," the best-selling psychological dissection of Mary Trump's uncle, President Donald Trump.
Wolkoff's book is no psych workup of Melania Trump, 50, although the reader may come away with somewhat better insight into the character and personality of America's most elusive first lady since the 1940s.
Wolkoff adored Melania Trump (the book is littered with their texted emojis and "I love you" exchanges, plus many exclamation marks). She so wanted to show how "special" her friend was that she took on Herculean tasks (helping organize the inauguration and the first lady's office, staff, FLOTUS initiatives and White House residential quarters) for which she was not fully prepared and ended up in the hospital with an excruciating back malady exacerbated by the stress.
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And then she was "fired," even though she was an unpaid FLOTUS advisor, and "thrown under the bus," in her famous words to the New York Times, by West Wing enemies who sought to make her the sole scapegoat for the incompetence and alleged corruption in planning and spending for the inauguration.
USA TODAY reached out to Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's chief of staff and spokeswoman, for a response.
“This book is not only wildly self-aggrandizing, it’s just not truthful,” Grisham told USA TODAY in an email. “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 very brief role in the White House to this degree.”
Wolkoff feels her reputation and integrity were permanently damaged by the Trump White House, aided by "inaccurate" reporting by the media and by Melania Trump's failure to defend her. At the time, she couldn't even defend herself fully because she had signed an NDA, yet another reason why signing non-disclosure agreements can be risky.
Thus, this book is tell-all revenge. But note: Wolkoff still cares enough about Melania Trump to dedicate the book to her.
It's built on three main themes: Who is Melania Trump? Who in Trumpland traduced Wolkoff and why? And what's the gossip about relations between Melania Trump and stepdaughter Ivanka Trump, her father's favorite who was dismissed as "Princess" by her stepmother?
Just who is Melania Trump?
As Wolkoff tells it, the scales have finally dropped from her eyes: Melania Trump turns out to be as mysterious to her as she is to many Americans – someone she thought she knew. She paid a price for her mistake.
She was warned. Wolkoff, 50, was fixture in the New York fashion/arts/charity scenes and used to work for another enigmatic woman, Anna Wintour of Vogue, and helped organized nine annual Met Galas. She first met Melania Trump through Vogue and liked her immediately.
But after the 2016 election, she was repeatedly told by her other New York friends not to work with the Trumps – any of them. "R.U.N!" was the message she got.
"My sixth sense warned me not to trust the Trumps. By my heart said, 'Melania is not one of them. She's one of us.'"
This was the wrong assessment, Wolkoff writes – emotionally, mentally, physically, financially, socially and professionally. "I thought I had an amazing friend. But when it really counted, Melania wasn't there for me. It suddenly became painfully real to me that she wasn't really my friend, in the true sense of the word."
Remember the first lady's "I Really Don't Care, Do U?" jacket? It could be her motto, the way Wolkoff tells it. The first lady explains to Wolkoff she really doesn't give a fig what her critics say about her – not about her clothes or shoes, her speeches and Be Best initiative, her frequent absences, her decision to remain in New York for the first five months of the administration, her refusal to engage with the media, her husband's tweets – nothing.
"It's my life, it's nobody's business," she tells Wolkoff, in her "impenetrable, unflappable, inexplicably calm" Melania Trump way.
"Why do you care so much?" Melania Trump would ask Wolkoff when she was freaking out about something in the media, which was often. Melania Trump never freaked out about anything. "You can't win," she would shrug.
But Wolkoff thought she could win over the media, and the public, "to love Melania" as she did. Melania Trump wasn't interested.
"The secret to her happiness is to be authentically and unapologetically skin-deep," Wolkoff writes. "Her behavior hasn't changed from her pre-first lady days; she's just more visible now."
How did Wolkoff get picked for the Presidential Inaugural Committee?
Wolkoff was so apolitical she had never voted in a presidential election before 2016 (she voted for Trump because he was her friend's husband), so naturally, to the Trumps, she was perfect to help produce the inauguration festivities being organized by the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee. And it was Ivanka Trump and "the family" who offered her the job.
She took it, she says, because it was her "patriotic duty," and to protect Melania Trump's interests: Both feared Ivanka Trump's alleged desire to be the top female Trump on the big day. Wolkoff was Melania Trump's "spy" on the PIC, and a big portion of the book is taken up with the 69-day nightmare countdown to Jan. 20, 2017 – a farrago of failures, missteps and confusion, as she describes it.
She made herself anathema to others on the committee, headed by billionaire Trump pal Thomas Barrack, by repeatedly complaining about the slapdash way the committee operated and what she saw as "irregularities" in the budgeting and accounting of millions of dollars.
The cost of eight days in the Trump International Hotel in Washington was going to be $3.6 million? Surely not, she thought. Wouldn't Trump be donating the space or charging at a steep discount? "There was no way this was the going rate. The amount appeared to be quadruple the standard price. Besides the problematic optics, it seemed ethically wrong."
Now three state and federal investigations have launched to look into possible wrongdoing. Wolkoff is cooperating with the investigations, having turned over her voluminous documents and receipts of her time on the committee.
The 'takedown' of Wolkoff
Wolkoff believes she was set up by her enemies (read: Ivanka Trump) in the West Wing to be the focus of public outrage when the committee finally revealed its numbers in February 2018: $107 million raised, with $26 million to Wolkoff's company partnership. It looked like Melania Trump's "best friend" had walked away with a huge chunk of change. But in fact, she says, the money went to vendors contracted by her company, who were unmentioned in the White House statement. Only her name was mentioned.
Soon, the New York Times posted a story and headline, based on White House "sources," that left the impression, Wolkoff believes, that the first lady had handed her "party planner" pal a cushy job, and that she had raked in millions and been fired as a consequence. In fact, she had already resigned out of exhaustion and ill health.
Worse, the East Wing issued a statement that Melania Trump had no involvement with the committee and no knowledge of how the funds were spent.
The facts, as Wolkoff writes: "Melania knew it all, every detail," from the screw-ups to the salmon served at dinner, from the inconsistencies in the budgets to the failure to attract A-list entertainers. ("I don't think Donald likes Kenny Rogers," Melania Trump told Wolkoff during the talent search.)
The story blinking on her laptop sent Wolkoff into a wailing heap on her kitchen floor. In her melodramatic way, for which Melania Trump sometimes reproved her, Wolkoff felt "publicly shamed," that her "core self" was demolished. "What a fool I was thinking I could make a difference in the middle of this den of thieves," she writes.
Who gets called out in Wolkoff's j'accuse?
Some of Wolkoff's targets include The New York Times' White House reporter Maggie Haberman and CNN's Kate Bennett, who covers FLOTUS full time. Wolkoff believes they published sloppy and inaccurate stories about her and Melania Trump, and goes into detail in explaining how.
Stephanie Grisham – who was the first lady's spokeswoman, then became the president's, and now back with the first lady as chief of staff – is described as "mean" and "horribly disrespectful" to the media, to Wolkoff and to others on the East Wing staff. If Melania Trump had a talk-to-the-hand approach to engaging with the press, Grisham had a talk-to-the-finger attitude, which hurt the first lady, Wolkoff believed. Also, she was convinced Grisham was Ivanka Trump's minion in the East Wing, and was placed in the job while Wolkoff was in the hospital to keep an eye on Melania Trump.
Rick Gates, second-in-command of the PIC, was another of Ivanka Trump's suspected minions, according to Wolkoff. She describes him as untrustworthy and fumbling as a colleague in inaugural planning, and pointedly notes the Republican lobbyist later was indicted (and eventually pleaded guilty) to conspiracy and making false statements in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Michael Cohen, the president's longtime lawyer and "fixer" who paid off an adult film actress to keep quiet about a one-night stand with Trump (and who is also publishing a tell-all memoir), turns up at her apartment in the depths of her despair to comfort her, and secretly tapes her in order to "make a memo to exonerate you and clear your name," he tells her later.
This tape ended up in the hands of federal prosecutors after Cohen's office was raided. Wolkoff was not pleased. Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations in connection with the porn-star payoff, was sentenced to three years in federal prison and was released recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Melania vs. Ivanka
By now, much of the gossipy portions of the book about Melania and Ivanka's Trump strained relationship are out, to much glee among Trump critics. There isn't anything actually new about this; they aren't best friends and it's been mentioned in previous books. But Wolkoff sheds more light on the extent and depth of the enmity behind those impassive faces.
Wolkoff believes Ivanka Trump tried to undermine and constrain Melania Trump's position as first lady. She says the West Wing tried to snatch up limited office space in the East Wing for West Wing staffers; poached potential East Wing staffers for the West Wing; tried to take over events traditionally carried out by FLOTUS; called in Wolkoff for meetings to wheedle information out of her about what Melania Trump might be up to; and gobbled up the highest-paid staff positions so the East Wing couldn't hire the best staff (one of the reasons Wolkoff says she didn't take a salary as Melania Trump's initial advisor.) She believes this was all done following Ivanka Trump's lead.
Ivanka Trump, Wolkoff declares, had a reputation as a known leaker, especially of stories that made her and husband Jared Kushner look good and "everyone else look bad."
"Operation Block Princess," in which Wolkoff and Melania Trump successfully plotted to keep Ivanka Trump's face from being too close to her father during the swearing-in ceremony, was "petty," Wolkoff admits. But they believed Ivanka Trump should not be the center of attention in her father's inauguration.
The "Finding Dory" movie screening in the Family Theater of the White House 10 days after the inauguration was the final Ivanka Trump straw for Melania Trump and Wolkoff. The story leaked just as the president signed the controversial Muslim travel ban, making the choice of movie – about a fish separated from her parents who's detained by authorities while trying to reunite with them – seem tone-deaf. But Melania Trump and son Barron Trump were back in New York; the first lady didn't order the movie for her family, but believed Ivanka Trump ordered it for hers, and she was furious.
"Melania decided to draw a line in the sand," Wolkoff writes. "No one would be allowed to enter the Residence, her home (eventually) without prior approval of the first lady, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. "That is my home," Melania told Wolkoff. "Do they come walking into my apartment in New York whenever they want?"
Nope, as FLOTUS would say in her texts to Wolkoff.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'What a fool I was': Revenge tell-all book 'Melania * Me' isn't sweet