Three former White House lawyers who worked for the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations say a contract offered to Melania Trump’s former adviser and friend was unusual and inappropriate.
The contract presented to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in 2017, called a “Gratuitous Services Agreement,” required her to not disclose the work she was doing on behalf of Melania Trump unless she got express permission in writing. She agreed to do the work without pay.
Winston Wolkoff, a New York friend of Melania's, had planned the festivities for President Trump's inauguration in January 2017, work for which she was compensated. She told NBC News she continued advising the new first lady after the inauguration, then signed the contract in August 2017 to work as a volunteer on her initiative to promote children’s wellbeing, help write speeches, and help advise on her social media presence.
She is now being sued by the Justice Department for breaking the confidentiality agreement in the contract by writing her book, “Melania and Me,” a New York Times bestseller that describes the breakdown in their relationship.
“I would not have approved this agreement when I was White House counsel,” said Neil Eggleston, who worked for President Barack Obama.
In a statement, Winston Wolkoff said, “The president and first lady’s use of the U.S. Department of Justice to silence me is a violation of my First Amendment Rights and a blatant abuse of the government to pursue their own personal interests and goals.”
Donald Trump has a long-established pattern of asking employees and business partners of the Trump Organization to sign non-disclosure agreements. That practice continued in the White House, and NBC News reported that it also extended to doctors at Walter Reed hospital who saw Trump during an unscheduled 2019 visit.
Former White House lawyers said government employees are generally not forced to sign non-disclosure agreements like the one provided to Winston Wolkoff because they infringe on First Amendment rights. An exception is made for classified information.
White House employees are required to get security clearance, and to do so they must fill out a lengthy SF-86 form and file a financial disclosure form.
Winston Wolkoff’s contract, which NBC News has reviewed, states she is not a government employee, and does not specifically stipulate that she fill out an SF-86 or financial disclosure forms. It says, “A successful reference check, background investigation, criminal history inquiry, and/or income tax check will be a prerequisite to being cleared to provide these gratuitous services.”
Winston Wolkoff told NBC News, however, that she was asked to fill out an SF-86 and financial disclosure forms. She says she did so and received a White House pass and was allowed to use a government-issued phone and computer.
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, called the contract Winston Wolkoff was offered "bizarre" and “a fundamentally dishonest arrangement and a breach of public trust.” Painter said such a contract opens up the possibility of multiple people “running around the White House” who have not gone through the proper screening process.
“There's a question whether the contract is valid,” said Jack Quinn, White House counsel under President Bill Clinton, in part because Winston Wolkoff was unpaid. “A contract, to be valid, generally requires an offer, an acceptance and ‘consideration,’ the last meaning something of value, usually either being paid or done as work. It's hard to see what consideration this volunteer received.”
The Department of Justice wrote in its suit that working at the White House was of “tremendous” professional and personal value to Winston Wolkoff.
But at the time of the contract’s termination in 2018, Winston Wolkoff said that then-White House ethics lawyer Stefan Passantino told her the contract was a “risk” and the White House, Donald Trump, and Melania Trump had all agreed to terminate the contract. He told her she was welcome to visit the White House as a “friend” of the first lady, but was to stop all work she was doing on her initiative.
Passantino did not respond to a request for comment.
On Friday, Melania Trump criticized Winston Wolkoff in a blog post, saying Winston Wolkoff "hardly knew" her, "clung to her" after Trump's upset 2016 victory, and was now "trying to distort my character."