Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is one of those patriotic Americans who went to work in the Trump White House, only to come soaring back over the gates, rejected by the host organism. Like many before her, she decided to write a book about her experiences, Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady, and she proffers it to us as an act of public service, although possibly also as a comprehensive case for the defense if this whole acid trip ends up at The Hague. She is another member of Plastic Camelot, the ever-changing group of personal friends, celebrities, and weirdos whom the Trumps bring close to them and then, in the manner of bored kings, dispatch to the tombs. Maybe they’re no more disturbing a collection of advisers and jesters than the men and women on whom other presidents have depended. Who’s to say that Omarosa is so much worse than Henry Kissinger? She certainly has a better record on human rights.
Collectively, Plastic Camelot represents a pillar of the Trump family’s success: their awareness that a substantial percentage of Americans who can’t handle anything more challenging than Supermarket Sweep can be manipulated into holding the fate of the world in their hands.
Wolkoff managed to upsell her 15-year friendship with the first lady into a job helping produce the inauguration and then into a briefly held and unpaid position as her special adviser, and now into a book, which is as sordid as it is fascinating. It’s sordid in part because Melania doesn’t seem to have done anything cruel to Wolkoff; her problems were entirely of her own making. Still, at last we have a glimpse into the feelings and nature of our first lady, who has stalked through these past four years in high heels and a perfect blowout, her gaze pitiless as the sun.
Ever since the dawn of the television age, the woman in the role of first lady has softened our understanding of the president, presenting him as a family man as well as a politician, and creating her own unassailably good and noncontroversial initiatives, things that call her to travel around the country, spreading goodwill and serving as kind of PR woman for the administration. George W. Bush bombed Iraq, but Laura Bush was a reader, and she seemed nice. You get to know the first lady in a hundred ways: wearing couture in Vogue and blue jeans in People; sitting on the couch of a morning show or next to the host of a late-night talk show, who treats her gently and laughs as she gamely makes a few scripted jokes. But here we are, possibly at the end of this administration, and Melania is as mysterious now as she was the day her husband bounded up the White House stairs to shake hands with the Obamas, leaving her to get out of the limo and trail behind him with her unwanted gift, the Tiffany-blue box matching the color of her outfit and nobody very glad to see her.
“I was there at the beginning,” Wolkoff tells us, as though she had witnessed the separation of the Earth from the firmament, not bumped into a model in the Vogue offices. The two women—both 32—were there because Melania Knauss had a meeting about a modeling job and Stephanie Winston worked in the events department. The friendship took off like gangbusters. They were Ethel and Lucy, Wolkoff says, Snookie and JWoww. “Philosophically speaking,” she writes, taking the matter more seriously, “Melania seemed to follow Plato, the Greek philosopher who believed in the control and mastery of emotion.” For her part, Wolkoff preferred “the philosophy of Plato’s best student, Aristotle.” Perfectly fine, but which one of them was JWoww? Wolkoff attended the Trumps’ wedding and Melania’s baby shower, and the two embarked upon what Wolkoff describes as a “lunch based” friendship, meeting regularly at one formal restaurant or another, Wolkoff the rushed working mother with too much on her mind, Melania the unhurried woman of leisure, immaculately dressed and groomed to “glam room” perfection—sometimes not even carrying a purse, bringing only her green American Express card.
Wolkoff goes to some lengths to suggest that she was a vaguely apolitical person when Trump entered politics, that she’d never even voted for president until 2016. But she also lets slip that she has known Michael Cohen “for years,” that Steve Mnuchin is a “family friend,” and that Mnuchin’s second wife, Heather, is one of her best friends. At Mnuchin’s third wedding, in Palm Beach, Wolkoff and her husband sat at a table with the Trumps. So she emanates from Trump’s world.
She describes Melania as sure of herself, unflappable, exceedingly strong, and deeply private. Despite JWoww, Lucy, and Plato, she can’t quite decide what kind of friend Melania was to her. At times she seems a good but somewhat distant friend, always remembering Wolkoff’s birthday with an arrangement of white flowers and always eager to listen to Wolkoff’s stories of work and family, but rarely offering any such stories in return. At other times, she describes a deep and singular friendship: “To the many, Melania is glacial and impenetrable,” she writes, “but to the few she was warm and sweet and I was her girl.”
Melania seems to have been content with her self-indulgent life of riches. She mostly stopped modeling once Barron was born, and after a couple of attempts at selling her own products—a skin-care line that was somehow infused with caviar, and a QVC line of fancy-looking costume jewelry for the peasants—she settled into a life of pleasure. She remains devoted to her son and to her parents, who live with her part-time in the White House. Wolkoff doesn’t present Melania as vapid, exactly. She’s too strong and too sure of herself for that. But she seems to have lacked professional or intellectual ambitions of any kind.
Her marriage to the grand buffoon has been the topic of endless speculation. In one sense it’s no puzzle: a model and a rich guy, fused together in a “cheaper to keep her” relationship. But ever since the beginning of the last campaign, we’ve been attuned to the atrocious way he treats her: apparently sleeping with other women soon after Melania had delivered their only child; bragging about his ongoing and abusive womanizing; allegedly paying off women to keep quiet about his dealings with them. (Trump denies the affairs and says he had no knowledge of the payments.) But while Wolkoff characterizes the marriage as an arrangement (whose isn’t?), she also presents Melania and Trump as having something I wouldn’t have guessed: affection, and perhaps also respect—two great dealmakers, tipping their hats to each other. When they’re out to dinner, Trump, the great narcissist, wants everyone to listen to him, but in particular he wants his wife to admire him. He will seek her attention if she seems not to be listening: “Hey, baby, did you hear that? Hey, baby, am I right?” He comes home at the end of a long day and is happy to see her.
Most telling, perhaps, is the advice Melania gives Wolkoff when she says she’s going to confront her husband about all the golf he plays on the weekends. Melania counsels her not to do it: He will golf anyway, and she will only introduce tension into the marriage. It seems that Melania does whatever she wants, Donald does the same, and on the occasions when the planets align and they’re in the same place, Melania makes sure that he is happy to see her. Although a wife, there is clearly something of the mistress in her: She never nags or wheedles, only soothes and welcomes.
One thing Melania did not want to do was go out on the campaign trail in 2016. She had other, more relaxing and enjoyable things to do with her time. “In Palm Beach. Wish to stay here. So gorgeous!” she would text Wolkoff, and “In the Caribbean—so gorgeous! Just want to stay here.” She made so few appearances during the campaign that many people assumed she had no plans to go to the White House, or possibly to stay in the marriage, if Trump won. But when she was needed, when there was a crucial job that no one else could do, Melania turned out to be a clutch player. The Access Hollywood tape came out just a few weeks before the election, and as with all sex-related scandals that emerge in the life of a politician, the country wanted to know: What does the wife think? How is she holding up? Is she humiliated? Is she staying? Anderson Cooper scored the big interview, and we imagined the familiar and ratings-goosing event: the downcast, middle-aged wife grimly forgiving her husband, talking about how all marriages have their painful moments and how the work ahead is what matters most to her. But this was nothing like that.
Melania was more like the triumphant girlfriend, not the heartsick old bag. She was serene, beautiful, and unflappable. She was unshakable from her talking points: The tape was unacceptable and Trump had apologized for it, but it was no big deal. It was just boys’ talk. “He was 59,” Cooper interjected—and she laughed prettily. “Sometimes I said, ‘I have two boys at home,’” she replied. “‘I have my young son and I have my husband.’” The real problem was the dishonest left-wing press that was organized against her husband. No matter what Cooper asked her, her hands remained calmly folded in her lap, and she had an answer for him: her husband was good and kind; her husband was a gentleman; it was the liberal left-wing media that were dishonest. Melania, it turned out, had the heart of an assassin and sound political instincts.
Wolkoff affirms what so many others have told us: that many in Trump World had no expectation of victory. On Election Night, they were as shocked and unprepared for the possibility of a President Trump as the rest of the country. They had no concrete plans for the inauguration, and a few days after the election, Melania asked Wolkoff to work on it. Flattered and excited, she agreed. The team she joined was disorganized, largely inexperienced in the ways of Washington, and lacking clear leadership. And it had a great big pile of money sitting there, at its disposal.
Wolkoff describes working the inauguration as the 13th labor of Hercules, but how hard could it have been? Even Meat Loaf was a hard pass, and booking Jackie Evancho to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” can’t have been heavy lifting. Page after page of the book is devoted to a frantic, granular accounting of the event, right down to the fact that she, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, footed the bill for the minibar M&Ms she offered to potential staffers when she interviewed them in her room at the Trump Hotel. She seems desperate to convince the reader of something with all of these carefully documented expenses. But what?
Would Melania even attend the inauguration? She did indeed, in an eye-catching Jackie K outfit designed by Ralph Lauren and high heels, seeming at times to be miserable. When she announced that she would remain in New York until Barron finished the school year, many people assumed she was never coming to D.C., but she really was planning to move into the White House—she was merely doing exactly what she wanted to do, and Trump didn’t interfere. She was not especially interested in assembling a staff, or in spending much time designing any initiatives, but Wolkoff was always on her, wanting to plan some grand platform of “social and emotional” learning. She’d determined that Melania could use her position to make profound differences in the world: for refugees, for children, for everyone. With her help (of course), she seemed to imagine that Melania could be like Michelle Obama.
Melania? Melania, who loves to luxuriate in her glam room, whose big activity is lunch and climbing into the back seat of an SUV and motoring smoothly away to pick up her child? Melania didn’t even go to any of Wolkoff’s food-allergy benefits! Or even RSVP to the invitations! Which stung, let me tell you, it stung. And it should have been a lesson that Melania had no intention of using the position as a matchless force for good.
Wolkoff is forever texting Melania about what needs to be done, one time receiving the message that she is in the residence, happily working on her albums, which just fries Wolkoff. The woman was scrapbooking when there were experts in social-emotional learning to be interviewed! She spends time trying to figure out the perfect restaurant for the first couple to have a Valentine’s Day dinner, but Melania tells Wolkoff that they don’t celebrate that particular holiday. Can you imagine anything more hilarious than Donald and Melania Trump gazing at each other over a slice of Valentine’s Day tiramisu? Meanwhile, the rest of the East Wing staff is driven to distraction by Wolkoff’s constant demands and imperious ways. They start treating her coldly and leaving her out of meetings. Wolkoff is furious when Melania doesn’t take special care of her. When Melania doesn’t arrange to have her stand at the very front of the group during a guided tour of the Holocaust Museum, she’s beside herself.
But the real villain in the story Wolkoff tells isn’t Melania at all; it’s Maggie Haberman, whom Wolkoff comes to hate with the fire of Vulcan. The book should really have been called Maggie and Me. Haberman and Kenneth P. Vogel publish a shocking story in The New York Times, “Trump Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to Firm of First Lady’s Adviser.” Wolkoff seethes with outrage and fear. She texts Melania, “URGENT! READ THIS!” She wants to sue the Times for defamation; she can’t leave the house; she composes a letter revealing that her time with Donald Trump was not for naught—she has learned the power of all caps:
ONLY YOU CAN REPAIR THIS TERRIBLE INJUSTICE TO ME, MY REPUTATION AND MY INTEGRITY BY ISSUING A STATEMENT.
Why would she imagine that a statement from Melania could repair anyone’s reputation? And what was at hand was an issue not of her reputation, but of proving that she hadn’t pocketed the $26 million. Melania gives her the sound advice to publish her receipts and papers and thus exonerate herself, but Wolkoff won’t do it.
After the inauguration financing comes under suspicion, Wolkoff leaves the White House and goes back to New York. She would later insist that she had been scapegoated by the administration and that the media coverage was “completely unfair.” Desperate for solace, she complains to Michael Cohen—breast of human kindness—who visits her apartment offering succor and calls her up several months later: “Hello, Steph,” he says. “The FBI and SDNY have the recording I made of our conversation.” He’d been secretly taping her during his mission of mercy. All of these people deserve one another.
Back at the East Wing, Melania soldiers on with her own dingbat set of initiatives (fighting cyberbullying? Was she punking us?), and making regular visits to pediatric hospitals and schools, which she seems genuinely to enjoy. With her fancy clothes and gentle way, she must seem like a fairy princess to the children, and they are drawn to her. They sit around her quietly as she reads them a Dr. Seuss book, haltingly and with a touching sense of triumph each time she gets to the end of a page. For those few minutes of the visit, and maybe for many years afterward, they must love her.
Her hatred for the press tops her husband’s, so much so that she wears the famous jacket—“I Really Don’t Care, Do U? ”—to visit children at the border, which causes the press, understandably, to lose its collective mind. But reporters probably wouldn’t have treated her any better if she’d worn a sackcloth and ashes. Unlike the sick children, they hate her.
Around this time, Wolkoff leads Melania into at least one long, sympathetic phone call and secretly records it. She seems to think that this recording is as consequential as the Nixon tapes, but the private conversations of Melania Trump and Stephanie Winston are not the Algonquin Roundtable. The longest of the excerpts Wolkoff has made public involves Melania bitching about the press—in exactly the same terms as Hillary Clinton is said to have used in private. The book has engendered the inevitable lawsuit, with the Justice Department suing Wolkoff for violating her nondisclosure agreement and breaching her fiduciary duty as an adviser to the first lady; Wolkoff has issued a statement averring that the suit is an attempt to silence her and is a violation of her “First Amendment rights.”
But Wolkoff has done the one thing that Melania would never, ever do. She has dropped her robe and stood naked in the footlights, and so she is rapidly becoming a bore. Unless she releases some shocking new conversation excerpt, she will plummet into oblivion, less than a footnote.
Melania, too, may be nearing the end of her term of national interest, as this acid trip must go the way of all acid trips, with a hard landing and a desperate need for a glass of water. She has left the lightest of imprints on the nation, and history will judge her by her willingness to stay by Donald Trump’s side as he rampaged through the country.
She really doesn’t care about any of that. She cares, principally, about herself. When Wolkoff explains that she will have to wear the clothes of an American designer to the inauguration, Melania is horrified. Her soul wounded, she cries out to the gods: “But I want to wear Lagerfeld!”