Column: Melania Trump’s former bestie reveals the high price she paid for the friendship
For most of her husband’s administration, Melania Trump has been a cipher.
She launched her ungrammatical “Be Best” campaign while married to the world’s No. 1 cyberbully. Seriously?
She set off to visit migrant children in a Texas shelter wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words, “I really don’t care, do you?” Really?
She wore stilettos to a hurricane, then changed into blinding white tennis shoes for a tour of the damage.
She and her husband rarely show affection in public. In fact, their occasionally odd interactions spark viral memes: She flicked his hand away as they walked from a plane on a visit to Israel. She set the internet aflame at his inauguration, when she was seen smiling at her husband one moment, then frowning as soon as he turned away.
Is she an ingenuous immigrant who happened into an almost fairy tale expression of the American Dream? Or is she just another empathy-challenged Trump out for herself and her family?
This week, I curled up with “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady,” a new memoir by her former friend and advisor Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, hoping to understand what, exactly, makes our first lady tick.
The pair met in the offices of Vogue magazine in 2003, where Wolkoff was director of special events and a mentee of Anna Wintour, and Melania Knauss was a model and girlfriend of Donald Trump.
Melania projected confidence from the get-go, writes Wolkoff.
The future Mrs. Trump appeared in an early episode of Trump’s then-new reality show, “The Apprentice,” giving contestants a tour of Trump’s gilded penthouse.
“You’re very lucky,” said one.
“And he’s not lucky?” Melania replied.
The years-long friendship between Melania Trump and Wolkoff was marked by regular lunches, expressions of love and affection in tons of emoji-laden texts, talk about children. But in most of their interactions, Wolkoff wrote, “I was the giver. Melania was the receiver, always looking for more.”
Wolkoff, whose event-organizing experience included the annual Met Gala, was asked by the Trump family to organize several of its inauguration events. The Presidential Inauguration Committee raised $107 million, more than twice what the inaugurations of Presidents Obama and Bush had raised. With little time and fending off palace intrigues, Wolkoff drove herself to pull it all off, ignoring excruciating pain until after the inauguration, when she had surgery for a bulging disc and large bone fragment that were compressing her cranial nerve.
After the inauguration, she writes, she went to work for Melania full time, often sleeping at the White House, for no compensation at all. She spent her time trying to secure resources for the first lady’s office, and fighting off Ivanka Trump, whose attempts to encroach on her stepmother’s turf, Wolkoff wrote, were endless. (According to Wolkoff, the president’s daughter tried to transform the first lady’s office into a “Trump family office,” she almost took over the first lady’s box at Trump’s first address to Congress and tried to insert herself into the first lady-hosted luncheon for International Women’s Day. “Princess,” writes Wolkoff, using Melania’s nickname for Ivanka, “wanted to render Melania irrelevant.”)
When Wolkoff became ensnared in investigations around the $107-million inauguration extravaganza, she discovered that her dear friend would do nothing to help her clear her name. The New York Times reported that Wolkoff’s company had received $26 million from the inaugural committee with the strong implication that she had inappropriately profited. But most of that money had been spent on production and broadcast costs, Wolkoff says, and she was paid closer to $400,000.
“Only you can repair this terrible injustice to me, my reputation and my integrity by issuing a statement,” Wolkoff pleaded in a letter to Melania.
Melania told her that White House lawyers told her not to get involved.
“When it really counted,” wrote Wolkoff, “Melania wasn’t there for me. She wasn’t really my friend. In fact, I wish I’d never met her.”
As it turns out, Wolkoff has been accused of no malfeasance and is cooperating with prosecutors investigating whether inauguration funds were misused.
Melania, as portrayed by Wolkoff, really does not care what anyone thinks of her and shares her husband’s disdain for the press.
“She never apologized for putting her needs first,” writes Wolkoff. “Over the years, I’d hear her say, ‘Pleasing anyone else is not my priority!’ ”
That jacket with the flippant message?
“I’m driving liberals crazy!” she told Wolkoff. “You know what? They deserve it!”
Her penchant for privacy reaches almost absurd levels, at times.
For instance, she refused to release the menu for one of her first official dinners, an evening devoted to governors of all 50 states.
“I don’t want to put out the details,” she told Wolkoff. “No one needs to know what we’re eating.”
When Melania visited children at New York-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan, her office wanted to send a press release that included the line, “Barron and I have read ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’ repeatedly and it inspires us and captivates us each time.”
The first lady nixed it: “It’s no one’s business what I read to my son,” she told Wolkoff.
The White House response to Wolkoff’s book is predictable: “…not only self aggrandizing, it’s just not truthful,” the first lady’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, told USA Today.
I find Wolkoff entirely believable if loyal to a fault. For whatever reason — and it’s never really clear — she was devoted to a friend who was not devoted to her at all.
I’m not sure if Wolkoff’s book dedication represents a perverse nostalgia for a friendship gone bad, or a slap in the face.
“To Melania,” it says.
I’m going with the slap.
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