Stephanie Winston Wolkoff suggests chaos in the inaugural committee might have allowed millions to go unaccounted for.
The woman who organized Trump’s inauguration still has questions about where millions of dollars raised for the celebration went, and makes new allegations about how the Trump family tried to use the money to line its own pockets in her book “Melania and Me,” out Tuesday.
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former close friend and confidant of the first lady, describes the chaotic weeks leading up to the January 2017 inauguration, including an anecdote in which she was told donations to the Presidential Inaugural Committee might have exceeded the $107 million reported on federal tax forms by several million dollars.
“Honestly, the presidential inaugural committee is a s___ show,” Winston Wolkoff says she told president-elect Trump and Melania at Trump Tower in New York as the inauguration neared. “They are disorganized, incompetent, and can’t produce the material we need.”
She also provides insight into the frosty relationship between first lady Melania Trump and first daughter Ivanka Trump, and recounts the demise of her own friendship with Melania.
According to the book, Trump friends like casino magnate Steve Wynn, TV producer Mark Burnett, and billionaire Thomas Barrack all played roles in the whirlwind planning for the inauguration, but Winston Wolkoff, a professional event planner, handled most of the logistics. Her company was paid $26 million, the bulk of which was paid to a vendor handling broadcast production of two events.
She describes her concern with runaway budgets, and quotes from emails she sent trying to keep costs in check, particularly at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.
In an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Winston Wolkoff said, “The time I questioned where the money was going or how much everything cost, I was asked to not attend any more budget meetings.”
Emails from Winston Wolkoff and deputy Trump campaign chair Rick Gates warned the inaugural committee that it was being overcharged by the Trumps’ D.C. hotel, according to the book.
The meticulous records that Winston Wolkoff kept would later prove helpful to Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine.
She provided tens of thousands of electronic documents to Racine, who used them to file suit against the inaugural committee, Trump Hotels and the Trump Organization, alleging misuse of non-profit funds to enrich the president’s family business.
The committee spent over $1 million at the Trumps' D.C. hotel over the course of a few days, including hundreds of thousands of dollars for a private party for the Trumps' three older children, according to the lawsuit.
Gates, who features prominently in the book, reassures first daughter Ivanka Trump in one email that the party at the Trump Hotel “is more for you, Don and Eric.”
All three defendants have filed motions to dismiss and a judge’s decision on those motions is pending.
A spokesperson for Trump Hotels said in a statement in January that "the AG’s claims are false, intentionally misleading and riddled with inaccuracies.”
A spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee said in a statement in response to this story that the PIC “disagrees with Stephanie’s characterizations of this historic event but given that it was only active for a few months, and ceased regular operations more than two years ago, it will decline to engage in her effort to sell books.”
Gates pleaded guilty to lying and conspiracy related to his work for foreign clients as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and in December 2019 was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years probation.
Winston Wolkoff has spent the past two years pouring through her emails and correspondences to try to understand where the inaugural money raised went.
She told Maddow, “I have lived with this on my shoulders for the last several years, trying to make sense of it all, trying to understand what happened while I was working at the inauguration, but also what happened while the pressure was building and mounting around the 990 [tax form] and the releasing of where $107 million was spent.”
In her book, Winston Wolkoff also describes the tension between Melania and Ivanka Trump — a tension many observers claimed to see on display during a shared moment onstage during last week’s Republican National Convention.
During the inauguration planning Melania Trump referred to Ivanka as “Princess,” says Winston Wolkoff, who also says she and Melania made certain that the inaugural stage would be configured so Ivanka would not be right next to Donald Trump as he was sworn in as president.
Melania Trump is portrayed as self-contained, self-interested, and unfazed by outside criticism.
After the Access Hollywood tape was released just weeks before the 2016 election — a tape in which candidate Trump is heard using offensive language about women — Winston Wolkoff describes a lunch with Melania Trump who acted as if nothing were wrong.
Throughout the book, Winston Wolkoff expresses her heartbreak at what could have been during Melania’s tenure as first lady. She describes being side-lined in the East Wing with few staff, eventually agreeing to work without pay as an adviser to Melania.
Winston Wolkoff’s relationship with Melania Trump, once full of warm emoji-laden texts, began to sour after a New York Times headline posted to the newspaper’s website that read “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to First Lady’s Friend.”
Winston Wolkoff felt burned. She asked Melania Trump to put out a substantial statement defending her work.
Winston Wolkoff acknowledges that she was paid $480,000 and that is “a lot,” but says she also worked around the clock to pull it off.
The statement defending her never came from the first lady’s office, and two weeks later, Winston Wolkoff’s unpaid advisory role was terminated. The timing, she was told, was coincidental: all special contracts like the one she was working under were terminated.
Winston Wolkoff is frustrated that the narrative in White House statements and in the press gave the impression she was fired, when she was told that she was one of several people whose unique contracts were eliminated and the decision had nothing to do with her performance.
When she expressed concern, Melania told her, “Don’t be so dramatic. You weren’t fired,” according to Winston Wolkoff’s account in the book.
“Please clear my name,” Winston Wolkoff wrote that she begged the following day.
That never happened. Winston Wolkoff wrote, “The woman I once considered my close friend is gone.”
Winston Wolkoff quotes extensively from text messages, phone calls and conversations with Melania Trump and others and journalist Yashar Ali reported on Twitter that she had taped some telephone conversations. In a interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, she confirmed that she had taped conversations with Melania.
Winston Wolkoff also told Maddow that in the weeks leading up to publication of her book she’d been contacted by both the White House and the Justice Department to stop publication.
“A couple of months ago, I had a cease-and-desist [warning]… The last thing that any of these people want is for the truth to be told,” she said.
In a statement from the first lady’s office, spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said, “Anybody who secretly tapes their self-described best friend is by definition dishonest. The book is full of mistruths and paranoia and clearly based on some imagined need for revenge."
In the end, Winston Wolkoff wrote she regrets how she tried to help her friend and is disgusted by the current administration’s policies.
“A Trump is a Trump is a Trump,” she wrote. “All along I thought [Melania Trump] was one of us. But at her core, she’s one of them.”