Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, MELANIA AND ME

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, MELANIA AND ME

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff: I’ve been listening to your podcast. Amazing. Thank you.

Zibby Owen: Thank you. Thanks for listening to it.

Stephanie: Really interesting. Very interesting.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book.

Stephanie: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Let’s discuss Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady. When did you decide you were going to write about your experience?

Stephanie: The first thing to say is that my experience with Melania and the White House and the presidential inauguration committee was fast and furious. I am a meticulous recordkeeper. I’ve always been. It’s just who I am. My intent in having all the administrative things that you would do normally under any circumstance as part of your job — mine was very much about budgets with my work that I’ve done. Things just didn’t seem to add up. Let’s just put it that way. After the presidential inauguration committee, producing the events, I then went into the White House with Melania because she had no one else. I mean, no one.

Zibby: Maybe I should back up. I was so interested. I just wanted to hear you answer that question so badly, but maybe I should provide more context, which is that you and Melania were friends. You met, in part, through your kids. You would go to lunches. You would hang out. She considered you one of her inner circle, essentially, beforehand and would always give you birthday gifts and call you if she needed favors and recommendations. You were her go-to. That’s the context.

Stephanie: The orchid was yearly. That was the birthday gift, the orchid.

Zibby: Yeah, the orchid. Sorry, not flowers. Orchid.

Stephanie: I think it’s really important because, for me at the time, every year I would get them and I would think to myself, oh, my god, she remembered. Your friends remember these things. She wasn’t the one ordering it. It was a yearly — those were the things that I had to pick up on and take a step back and go, yes, it was a lovely gesture and it was wonderful to be acknowledged and have your friend write — all you want is your friends to reach out in a text and say happy birthday. At the time when was so much was going on, you think, wow, that was really nice. I considered it more care than maybe really what it was.

Zibby: You don’t think that it was from a place of care at all?

Stephanie: No, not at all. I definitely think it was from a place of care, but that’s just who she is. It’s part of her makeup, is to make sure that things are recognized on behalf of others, a thank you note. She’s very cordial. She does things very formally. That’s more how I was thinking of it versus my scattered brain where I’m all over the place. I’m, last minute, writing my friends and calling them. Life, between work and kids —

Zibby: — Wait, just teasing this out, so do you think that she had it in her calendar and that it’s less care?

Stephanie: Not that it’s less care, but it is in her calendar. Melania does have assistants and people that take care of those things. She had to want to do it. It’s that next step where not only do you see it on your iCal, but you take the time to make sure that it gets there and you ask and you talk about it. It was a very kind gesture.

Zibby: You think it was a kind gesture, but it seemed kinder than it actually was because of how it was — I don’t want to keep dwelling on this. Anyway, let me just let it go. That ended up happening. Then as you had gotten closer and you recorded a bunch of your emails and all this stuff —

Stephanie: — I didn’t record.

Zibby: I’m sorry. That was the wrong word. You were just saying you’re a great recordkeeper, so I think that’s why it was in my head that you keep meticulous records and everything. Then you have so many of the emails you exchanged in the book. Like everybody, they save.

Stephanie: Absolutely. That’s the thing too. One of the most important things for me in writing this book was to clear my conscience because it was immediately after I was fed to the wolves, thrown under the bus, and accused of a financial crime and headlined all over the world as, Melania’s friend gets twenty-six million dollars. Then the following week, Melania’s friend gets fired. They attached it. They made it culpable. Neither headline was true. Again, that’s why I felt like I had to take a big step back. I started writing because I was writing an op-ed. I was trying to put this into an op-ed thinking if I write what happened in eight hundred words — I’m trying to fit this in so everyone can understand. That op-ed just kept going and going and going and going because I couldn’t get enough out.

Zibby: Now your op-ed is this long, is basically what happened.

Stephanie: There it is. That’s my op-ed based on all facts. There’s not a line that’s disputable. When the White House kept coming after me saying I was delusional, I made things up, those are the reasons why you hear some of those recordings now.

Zibby: For people who don’t know what happened, you went into the White House. You were hired to help with the inauguration. You had a whole history running the Met Ball for many, many years and were a complete superstar event producer and a thousand trillion other amazing, reputable things in society. You go. Melania says she wants you to be part of the inauguration. You orchestrate that in your way that you are used to doing. Then what happens?

Stephanie: I was working with a lot of people during the inauguration. There were a lot of things going on around me that I wasn’t accustomed to but I also wasn’t familiar with. I would constantly bring up to Donald and Melania, a lot of inconsistencies and inaccuracies of things that didn’t add up and also didn’t make sense. After the inauguration, we planned eighteen events. I was only supposed to go in to do creative on a couple events. I ended up being the central figure. I became the face of the inauguration for some odd reason. I do know there was a meeting a couple days, a week, before that. “Steph, you need to go out front. We’re going to do a New York Times article. We need you out there to show everyone that you’re in support of this.” I hadn’t done any press. I had no intention of doing press. I was just doing it actually out of honor because it is the United States of America. I am a producer. I felt it’s an amazing thing to be asked to do. Melania’s my friend. Nobody else would do it. The reality is even if other people would’ve done it, it’s my own fault, I didn’t take policy into consideration at the time at all, neither was I that familiar with it. I’ve had to educate myself. Quite honestly, I thought I could separate politics and ethics. The way I was able to live my life was to work on humanitarian, contribute in producing like the inauguration, but I always blocked out the noise of politics. You cannot live your life like that. That is my fault for going into this and saying yes to something that I knew nothing about.

This was no fairy-tale. This was no New York Fashion Week. This was a different world, a different beast, and I didn’t know enough. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned. No matter how close you are to someone, you’ve got to ask questions. You’ve got to make sure you understand who the players are before you agree to jump into anything that you do in your life. I wanted to believe that good over evil — it doesn’t matter. It does not work that way in politics or in this world that I was dealing with with these people, but I always felt Melania had my back, and Donald. It was really with the support of Melania — when I came back to New York, literally two days later I flew to DC. She had no one else. I mean, no one. I was interviewing everyone for her office during the inauguration. As I was planning the inauguration and I was working on Ralph Lauren and organizing her for the swearing in, every step of the way working on production and broadcast, I was interviewing and met and hired a few people for the East Wing. When I went back to the White House, it was empty. It was an empty, dark place. I was alone. I turned on the lights. I remember calling her and being like — there I was standing in Michelle Obama’s office. To me, I was like, oh, my god, I’m standing in Michelle Obama’s office. She was like, no big deal. I’m FaceTiming her. I just remember that moment. I’m like, “My god. Look where I am. I’m in your office. This is the White House. This is the United States of America.” She just moved on, laughed, and moved on to what’s next, which is the redecorating and the staffing. She didn’t really want to even talk about that. Again, I think I held the regard. I was obviously projecting what I felt onto her.

That’s another thing that I see in retrospect. Because I was in a position to help her and the proximity to her, the power that she wielded, the platform that she had at her fingertips, obviously, it was something that I — people say, you wanted the power. No, no. There’s so much about children and social/emotional learning that’s very personal to me because of my children, and the importance of not identifying children based on how they look. Are they typical? Are they not? Our family’s been through a lot, the journeys that we’ve had to take to understand how important it is for children to be able to, first of all, understand themselves and be able to express themselves. They need the tools to know how to do that. That’s all about prevention. It’s not about intervention. When you go into kindergarten, you need to learn that — “I don’t feel well,” what does that mean? Express your feelings. Understand what that means. Regulate yourself. These are things that my husband and I and my kids learned over ten years. I felt that every child should have this because it’s not just for children with learning disabilities and differences. It’s for every child. The fact that she only wanted to focus on cyber bullying — she was open to a bigger umbrella. For me, I was working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Aspen Institute, Tim Shriver. We had an amazing team of people that truly — Ivanka wanted to usurp the first lady. The West Wing did not want her to continue moving on on a platform, honestly. There’s so much going on at once. I apologize. I was banging my head against the wall every day about her and about the position I put myself in and also looking forward and tunnel vision to get it done.

Zibby: Basically, you took an assignment and then didn’t totally process because who could know what would come with it? Then you find yourself in this new environment. Then you didn’t have your one ally, you feel, enough.

Stephanie: I had her until I had her. I did, I had her until they needed to place blame. They heard there was an investigation opening up into the presidential inauguration committee. As soon as that happened, she turned her back on me when I needed her most. All I needed her to do was speak the truth. She says it to me personally. People say, I can’t believe you recorded a friend. No, no. They had already accused me of getting twenty-six million dollars. They accused me of being fired and all the other accusations that came with it. I already had hired a lawyer when I was in the White House still in January. She knew about it because there was this setup to taking me down, and I was aware of it.

Zibby: Why did they want to take you down?

Stephanie: Again, in the book, but it was the importance of mitigating the negative response to any type of headline for the first lady in reference to me working for her because of the accusations of the pick. Now, I’m the one who raised all the red flags. I didn’t have any signing powers. I didn’t have budget powers. I was a piece of chewing gum between everyone. I was being pulled and pushed in every direction. I never even had access to a bank account. I never had a checkbook. I was kicked out of financial meetings. I could run over to their apartment at Trump Tower and show them things and say, oh, my god, I’m going to end up in the bottom of the Potomac because I’m pointing this out to you. They would pick up the phone and fire Rick Gates. At the end of the day, I had no financial responsibility, which made it even worse, so the fact that this worked — internally, there were these sixty-two questions that went around the White House for a year. Inauguration’s over in January 2017.

In February 2018, they released the 990. It’s form 990 that’s going to the federal election committee. When they did that, they list the top five companies. You don’t list individuals ever. As was created — for full transparency, it’s literally four people from Tiny Horse and myself. Again, we were only supposed to be overseeing $1.62 million. How it got to where it got to is a whole nother story. I’m working with the United States attorney general for the District of Columbia. I know I’m going all over the place. I apologize. I’m involved in three different investigations. I was subpoenaed by the grand jury of the Southern District of New York, the intelligence committee, as well as working with DC NOW. It took over my life. I pressed record after I was in the White House, after I had already hired a lawyer because they wanted me to create a narrative. I wouldn’t go along with theirs, which was, this was the most peaceful transition of power and everything was done by the book. I wouldn’t do it. This is when I’m sitting in the first lady’s office creating her initiatives. I was a problem. I was a problem for everyone. I actually expressed that to the lawyers. I was very vocal about the fact of what had happened during the inauguration. I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut. Not only did they not want the initiative to move forward, they needed me to stop talking about the improprieties.

Zibby: I get everything. I did read your book. I followed you on the news.

Stephanie: I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, no, I just want you to know I do have some background. Part of this is teasing out what happened. I am sorry for what’s happened to you. I can sense your fear, really. There’s a lot going on. A lot of it is out of your control. All you’ve done is work hard. Yet all this stuff is happening to you. I can tell how unfair you feel that is, and justifiably.

Stephanie: It took over my life, financially, socially, emotionally, physically. I was in the hospital for over a month. I almost died. I gave up all my businesses. I literally gave up all my partnerships to go do this for her. That’s why that betrayal was so hard. It still affects me. It wasn’t like your friend just didn’t call you back. I gave up twenty-five years of my life’s work, my career, my livelihood. My three children had to watch this.

Zibby: Do you think she had the free will, almost, enough to do — from just how it looks on the outside — I shouldn’t say that. Do you think that she was an independent actor enough to have, if she wanted to, have had your back? Do you think she could have?

Stephanie: That’s when I have the recordings. That’s where she couldn’t have, and she told me. These are her words.

Zibby: It’s almost like, is it really her fault? Not to say that there’s not a huge amount of wrongdoing here. It seems like with the book at least, the point of view of the book is the friend who does you wrong. I’m not saying she didn’t. I’m just wondering, is all the rage and the frustration and justifiable sentiment you feel, is it really because of her, or is it because of this whole situation?

Stephanie: Had it not been for her, I wouldn’t have put myself in that situation. The first story that said I got twenty-six million dollars, which to begin with wasn’t true, whatever. It was the second story where all she had to do was say I wasn’t fired. That made me culpable to the money. It made it look as if I was on a contract that was terminated due to Jared and Rob Porter’s security clearances. It had nothing to do with the pick. She asked me to keep it quiet about my contract because there was only one other person who had the same contract. Had I actually said that and told the world that, then they could have made me culpable to the first article. Again, the persuasiveness to keep my mouth quiet — talk to a lawyer, but keep your mouth quiet. I had the NDA, so I was gagged. I couldn’t say a word. When your friend tells you to get over it and don’t be so dramatic after that happens to you, that’s not a friend. There was no empathy. There was no understanding. This came to that because of politics. Those were her words. Again, I didn’t need for her to do anything with the presidential inauguration committee misdeeds. She wanted to stay out of that. I just needed her to say I wasn’t fired because I wasn’t.

Zibby: Do you think she feels remorse? Do you think she feels anything? In the book, you paint her as somebody who doesn’t have that many emotions. Sometimes we’re like, how can she stand by? How can this not bother her? That’s the common thing. She seems so, you describe it as calm, but it’s also, can she feel the feelings? Is she capable of remorse? What do you think? That’s sort of different. That’s like a kid at school who doesn’t have the ability, necessarily. We’re all very up to date, Child Mind, different socioemotional stuff. Is it that she lacks the ability, or is it that it was intentional?

Stephanie: There are many different angles to Melania. There are many different Melanias. What’s consistent is that, I say that she’s unapologetically skin deep. If she cannot control how you think about her, she will not even consider how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. That’s a fact. She must be able to control the narrative. She says it over and over, I don’t care. Somebody hurts her, somebody does something mean to terrible to her, they expose her nudies on the cover of a magazine; politics. The RNC speech; politics, liberal media. She literally says about those type of things, it’ll pass in a day. We had a lot of conversations, she and I, where I said, I wish I could live my life somewhat like that. I can’t. I wear my heart on my sleeve. She does and did express how she is able to move on and people need to just stand up, hold your head up high, and move on and get on with it because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, the next week, the next month. These are her words. She did say I love you and I’m sorry. That’s not enough.

Zibby: You have the letter in here where she’s apologetic-ish and saying “Love, Melania” and all this stuff to the end. Did you ever think of yourself as a person who would write a book about a friendship gone wrong type of thing, your other friendships and all the rest?

Stephanie: Never. I literally looked at my husband one night. I was like, “I’m an author?” I never ever, ever, ever — this was me to be able to understand what happened to me and the world around me because I could make sense of, who is Melania, then? How is it possible that she could be so callous yet at the same time I was drawn to her because she had such great common advice, because she was so strong and independent? What that is, there’s a barrier. She feels it, but she’s not going to internalize it ever.

Zibby: I totally get that you need to figure her out and process it. You must have just a trillion feelings about this whole thing, but that’s one bucket. Another bucket is taking it and sharing it with the entire world.

Stephanie: The entire world needs to know she supports him. She’s his biggest cheerleader. She thinks that he should be very strong and assertive about everything that he’s doing. She is not at all concerned about what you think, nor does she want to tell you what’s really going in the incident with the meme Free Melania. As you know, Barron accidently kicked her in the foot. She will never reveal to anyone the source of what’s happening because she doesn’t want you to know her emotions. She doesn’t want the reader to know who she is. She doesn’t want anyone in the world to have any inkling. The truth is, she does not care. She really doesn’t. If it’s good for Melania, it’s good for Melania. Forget about me. I’m talking about everyone else from anyone else’s situation to the way I watched her deal with certain people that were very close friends. She will ask, “How’s that person doing?” She really doesn’t care.

Zibby: Do you think that anyone doesn’t believe that she supports her husband?

Stephanie: I do. That’s one of the reasons why I did release the tape in addition to the fact that they were calling me a paranoid liar. People need to hear it from her so they understand that Melania, in order for her to do something, she needs to be recognized for doing it. That’s where she and Donald are very similar, but he’ll cry about it if someone’s beating him up. She doesn’t care. You could say anything you want about her. That’s the difference between the two of them. They both want the attention. They both internalize it. But Melania, that’s where it ends.

Zibby: Based on your friendship before, do you feel like you had any loyalty to her to not share her inner stuff?

Stephanie: Honestly, the whole thing that happened with the recording yesterday, I, in my mind, never even went there. To think that that’s what it would turn into, a battle between Twitter, I honestly was sick to my stomach. Not my intent. Honestly, I wanted to write the book and move on. I really thought, I’m going to write this. I’m going to make sure that the world knows what really happened. I’m involved in these investigations, so I was leaving some breadcrumbs as well. Because of my NDA, I am still gagged. I worked with first amendment lawyers to be able to write as much as I could. There is a lot of bad going on in our administration. I mean, a lot. The people that are leading it are connected in so many different ways that people don’t even realize, the intricacies of what’s going on and how it’s affecting us and how it will affect our children and our children’s children. I felt like I’m still protecting them if I don’t release the tape as well. After the presidential debate, the way he acted to Joe Biden and then when she went on stage and admiringly looked at him and smiled, regardless of how they held each other because that’s a whole different — that’s not what they do anyway. All of a sudden, I felt my blood boil. I felt like it just wasn’t right. If it was my husband, I would’ve gone on stage regardless on cameras or not, I would’ve looked at him like, what was that? I understand he’s the president, but don’t treat people that way. It’s not okay. The disrespect, the lack of character and integrity, she stands behind that because that is who she is too. There is no Free Melania. There is no, oh, poor Melania.

Zibby: You don’t want us to feel sorry for her at all.

Stephanie: Neither does she. She doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s says, consequences or no consequences, I do what I do because I want to. She doesn’t feel it the way that everyone thinks she feels it. She just doesn’t at all. We’re a month away from this election. Having spent the time, these couple of years, learning about politics and learning about the fact that you’ve got to educate yourself and you have to know the differences not only between right and wrong — for me, it was never left versus right. It was always right versus wrong. You have to know the differences because, as I said earlier, your ethics, your values, have to be in line with your politics. I have a responsibility to myself, my children, my family. They watched me suffer and give up. I had a responsibility to learn what I didn’t know. Now I’m vocalizing it and verbalizing it so people understand that they need to know more.

Zibby: Is this helping you? I feel like you’re still really upset.

Stephanie: Can I tell you? There’s something that happened. Things got a little — again, I wanted to write the book and go like this. The fact is that I have so much information that people are still using because of the investigations. I’m a witness in all of them. The weight on me in not being able to talk about the things I know and the expectations from all of these prosecutors and people — again, I spent millions of dollars. Why? For what? So I can give the government the information that I kept calling out over and over and over? What’s happening? These people are still walking around — for me, the emotion is not so much, it’s not Melania. It’s not the betrayal because I really got it. I understand the fact that it’s inhumane. It is. Yet we have a humanitarian crisis in our back yard. That’s all anyone should be talking about. That’s all she should be doing. Yet what she did to the Rose Garden is just — I tie those things together and I say to myself, that’s what makes me angry, is that she’s in a position to make a difference, and she doesn’t. What still upsets me is that I am a voice that knows her and knows this family in a very different way. I know Melania to her core. I have sat with that family at dinner tables. Now, do I know Donald and the boys and Ivanka? Not anywhere near how I know Melanie at all. I know Melania. I can say to everyone, do not worry about her. Do not think that she has, remotely, any sad feelings or she’s locked up. I do have to vocalize. I must verbalize the fact that, I can’t say it enough, people really need to understand the politics of this all and how it’s going to affect our next generation. We’re not going to be here to protect them.

Zibby: Wow. This is intense.

Stephanie: I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, don’t be sorry. You have a lot going on. This is a lot to carry for anyone. It sounds like you’re using the book to sort out your feelings. You’re trying hard not to succumb to the things that have happened. You’re trying to look for why they happened. You’re angry and frustrated.

Stephanie: Here’s the thing. The truth is that what happened to me is happening to everyone else. Writing the book and expressing those sixty-nine days, I was able to tell it from my friendship with Melania because of the NDA. Through my friendship with Melania, I didn’t have an NDA. I wasn’t being paid for my work for Melania. Everything I did was on my own dime.

Zibby: I understand. I get it.

Stephanie: It was a journey.

Zibby: It’s a journey. We’re out of time already. I didn’t even ask you about the writing of the book.

Stephanie: I’m so sorry that I went off topic.

Zibby: No, I just feel like there’s so much to unpack in your experience. I feel like I am watching someone who is really struggling. That is really hard. Maybe I’m not. I’m blind saying that.

Stephanie: When I say I almost died, I’ve had two pulmonary embolisms. I had two spinal fusions. I wear a neck brace around my house. I can’t do the things I used to do. I am not the same person.

Zibby: Oh, god, I have to get my daughter.

Stephanie: Oh, my god, go. Go, go, go.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m like, let’s just ask a few more questions. Meanwhile, she’s waiting.

Stephanie: Well, you’re not wrong. Let me just say that. You’re not wrong.

Zibby: I hope that this book plays into your being able to find some sort of inner peace and make sense of what’s happened and move on because ultimately, you can’t save the world. You have to focus, maybe, on you.

Stephanie: A hundred percent. That’s why, again, writing the book and closing the door would’ve been perfect. It didn’t allow me to because of everything else that’s going on. It’s out of my control.

Zibby: I’m happy to continue this in another forum, but…

Stephanie: Thank you so much. Again, I’m so sorry that I over-spoke about other things.

Zibby: No, it’s very interesting.

Stephanie: If you want to speak some more even off the podcast, I’m happy to. I do apologize.

Zibby: No, please don’t apologize.

Stephanie: Thank you so much. This has been great.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on the show. Buh-bye.

Stephanie: Thanks. Bye.

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, MELANIA AND ME