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Melania Trump's 'best friend's' book and email revelations should trouble U.S. watchdogs

A new book about the first lady offers tantalizing bits of palace intrigue. But revelations about the email servers should be of interest to a much broader audience.
Image: Melania Trump, Independence Day Celebrated At The White House
First Lady Melania Trump attends an event on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2020.Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images file

The revelation that Melania Trump regularly used a private Trump Organization email account and an account from a domain and the encrypted messaging app Signal while in the White House is no surprise. Dispensing with rules about preserving records and hiding communications has been common practice in the Trump White House from the beginning.

Dispensing with rules about preserving records and hiding communications has been common practice in the Trump White House from the beginning.

And it doesn't really matter to the functioning of the U.S. government if the first lady doesn't store her apparently heart- and emoji-flecked messages for posterity while communicating with the small number of people she considers friends — including the now ex-pal, New York fashionista Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who spilled the beans about the private servers in interviews and in her new book, "Melania and Me."

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But it does matter to watchdogs and investigators trying to track millions of dollars that flowed in and out of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which was spent in part on events that the first lady and Winston Wolkoff were organizing. And it does matter to national security if she shared government information on private servers — as the Trump echo chamber repeated hourly during the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton.

For the American public, perhaps, the H-word still matters, too. I don't mean "Hillary" and her emails, without which Trump would have lost one of his bigger campaign planks. No, I refer to "hypocrisy" — a concept that seems to be less of a character flaw and more of a job requirement in Trumpworld.

Ignoring the Presidential Records Act, which requires occupants of the White House to preserve communications about government business for history, is nothing new for the Trump claque. In fact, it was likely the first law they flouted once inside the White House. Days after the inauguration in January 2017, I was tipped off by a computer expert that high-level staffers had email accounts on a private Republican National Committee email server. I published a story about it and almost immediately fielded a call from a member of the Trump White House, who shouted into the phone that I was "a little fool" and demanded that the article be taken down.

It remains online to this day, of course.

Later, the White House itself found that senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump used a personal, nongovernmental account throughout 2017 to communicate with White House aides, Cabinet officials and her assistants, an account on a domain she shared with her husband, Jared Kushner — who also seems to have improperly conducted official governmental business. Other advisers had private accounts, as well, according to The New York Times.

To be fair, the Trumpers are not alone, nor are they the first in their disregard for the public records law. Trump spent the better part of a year arguing that his presidential opponent's home server was proof of criminality, and in fact he still brings it up. But the last time the Republicans held the White House, they "lost" 22 million Iraq war-related emails, written during the months in 2003 when the Bush administration was ginning up support for war — and misleading and lying to the public about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush White House blew off congressional subpoenas and ran out the clock. When President Barack Obama came in, the emails were found, but they were saved in a manner that experts believe will make them impossible to retrieve once the national security statute on them runs out and they become public.

To be fair, the Trumpers are not alone, nor are they the first in their disregard for the public records law.

Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in 1978, requiring that all presidential and vice presidential records created after Jan. 20, 1981, be preserved. The public, not the president, owns these records. But soon after, the growing volume of nonpaper email communications grew so large that the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations didn't bother to maintain them. President Bill Clinton's administration was finally forced by a lawsuit to create a system that prevented White House staff members from erasing emails. George W. Bush's administration managed to "lose" key emails anyway.

Melania Trump's private server communications — judging from her ex-best friend's new book — don't have to do with war. But they are alleged to have covered government operations and Trump team activities of interest to authorities, including potential monkey business at the Presidential Inaugural Committee, under investigation by at least three entities, including federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

"Melania and I both didn't use White House emails," Winston Wolkoff told The Washington Post. Winston Wolkoff shared some of her communications with the newspaper, including emails about more substantive matters, such as government hires and the comings and goings of international leaders.

According to The Post, emails shared by Winston Wolkoff "contained discussions of government hires and contracts (including Winston Wolkoff's), detailed schedules for the president and first lady during the Israeli and Japanese state visits, strategic partnerships for the first lady's Be Best initiative, the logistics of the Easter egg roll, and finances for the presidential inauguration."

The inaugural fund investigations are apparently still proceeding behind closed doors, but Winston Wolkoff's book provides some new clues into how the Trump team raised and spent more than $107 million — around twice what Obama and George W. Bush raised for their inaugurations.

Winston Wolkoff reports that she is working with several prosecutors looking into the inaugural finances. The process has "taken over my life," she told The Post.

Winston Wolkoff 's book is partly self-exoneration and partly insider dish. She reveals, for example, that during her former boss' first visit to the White House, Trump announced that she would need a new toilet and shower. "Melania did not conduct her most personal business on a previously used john," Winston Wolkoff writes.

During a 15-year friendship with the first lady, Winston Wolkoff also had a ringside seat to the competition among the Trump women, and she has peppered her book with entertaining accounts of scheming and snubbing. After Donald Trump's first ex-wife, Ivana, claimed that she had a direct line into the White House, Melania announced: "No more Mar-a-Lago for her!"

The book also confirms the frosty rivalry between Melania Trump and her stepdaughter Ivanka. Ivanka Trump is "always sunshine and light" on the surface, and she "never let down her mask, not an inch, not for a second," while scheming to one-up her stepmother, Wolkoff writes.

These tidbits are interesting if you care about palace intrigue. But the issues with the email servers should be of interest to a much broader audience — not to mention federal and state authorities. However fractious Melania and the other Trump women might be in private, their first instinct is always to hide, secrete, bury and cache history and to embellish and preserve the Trump brand. That fealty comes first — before friends, before truth and, at least in terms of the Presidential Records Act, before the law itself.