Melania Trump's Former 'Best Friend' Has a Warning for Everyone Else: 'Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did'
The White House calls Stephanie Winston Wolkoff "deeply insecure" and "dishonest," but she says she had no choice but to share her side in a new book about the first lady
The White House tells a very different story.
In recent days, much as she has since 2018, Wolkoff, 49, found herself on the dueling end of President Donald Trump's administration. Aides derided her as a delusional paranoiac and a liar over an extensively documented new book, Melania and Me, which traces her East Wing work, the unraveling of her friendship with the first lady and everything that came after.
Even in the ever-lengthening list of accounts by former Trump insiders, positive or negative, scathing or sycophantic, Wolkoff's stands out for its intimacy.
She describes years of lunches with the first lady, whom she first met in 2003, and quotes their emoji-laden texts and emails. She writes of the friction between Mrs. Trump, 50, and her stepdaughter Ivanka, which she witnessed as an adviser to the first lady after the 2016 election.
And — in the book's big mystery, still awaiting a denouement — Wolkoff writes of the bamboozling cost of the Trump inauguration, which she was invited to help organize and for which she says she was scapegoated two years ago.
(Wolkoff, a high-profile events planner in New York City and former Vogue lieutenant, had long helped run the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala and then worked at Lincoln Center as its fashion director.)
The Trump inaugural committee raised about $107 million — a record. While the committee has said it "operated in compliance with the law" and didn't do anything wrong, questions have persisted about where the tens of millions were spent. Prosecutors in Washington, D.C., allege the committee overpaid for certain services in order to enrich the Trump family. Wolkoff has been cooperating with investigators.
At one time, however, the White House tried to lay the blame with her, she says.
In 2018, after public filings disclosed that Wolkoff's events firm had received some $26 million — much of which she said was disbursed to other vendors, while she retained a $480,000 fee — the first lady's office said her contract as an adviser had been terminated.
Sources around the Trumps reportedly said they were angered by the cost and that the first lady had been unaware of the payments.
Lies, lies, lies, Wolkoff says now.
"Literally a headline destroyed my life and took away everything that I'd ever built," she says.
"At the end of the day, [the first lady] toed the line. She did not want to step out of line. That's the reality of it," Wolkoff says now. "I would not go along with a false narrative."
If that sounds dramatic, even wounded — well, Wolkoff can sound dramatic and wounded. She seems truly taken aback by her final years in the Trump orbit.
Since then, she says, she has been trying to ferret out the truth.
"All I know is what happened to my $482,000," she says. "Other than that, I don't know where the bank account was. I don't even know the bank number. I didn't have a check. I didn't have authority to sign anything. All I did was complain about everything that was illegal."
The end result is her book, though that wasn't how she originally envisioned it.
"When all this happened, I came home and I started writing an op-ed. I was like, I'm going to explain what happened to the money — the $26 [million]. I was going to focus just on that," she says.
"I was just writing to write. I needed to get my emotions out," she says.
But she soon realized, in her words, "I can't even put it together. I couldn't put together how I was feeling. I couldn't put together who all the people were. ... I needed to first literally step all the way back to day one."
For her memoir, Wolkoff relied on a trove of corroboration: years of text messages between her the Trump family, particularly the first lady, as well as emails and other documents and, yes, audio of their conversations.
"I did not record until after I was literally accused of criminal activity and thrown under the bus," Wolkoff tells PEOPLE. "I did after that."
"Everyone should just leave me alone, you know what I mean?" she says. "Knowing I'm working with three different investigations, knowing what I have and what they've seen I have. Don't you think they'd be smart enough to leave me alone?"
Though there had been news reports the surreptitious audio would be released — which left some White House aides scrambling — it has yet to be made public. Wolkoff played one of the recordings for PEOPLE, as she has done for other reporters.
She says she has not ruled out releasing what she has, including the audio, in response to future attacks on her credibility.
"If the White House is going to continue to say things that are against my character, I'm not going to wait another two years to say something," Wolkoff says.
The first lady's take?
"Anybody who secretly tapes their self-described best friend is by definition dishonest," her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said in a statement blasting Wolkoff and her book — one of several such denials aides gave the press.
"The book is not only full of mistruths and paranoia, it it is based on some imagined need for revenge," Grisham said in her statement. "Wolkoff builds herself up while belittling and blaming everyone she worked with, yet she still managed to be the victim. Sadly, this is a deeply insecure woman whose need to be relevant defies logic."
This summer, before Melania and Me was released, both the Department of Justice and the Trumps' personal attorneys sent Wolkoff letters, she says.
"They had tried to stop me," she says. And still her book came out.
"You think I would go out and write one single one of these things without 150 percent backup? I wouldn't," Wolkoff says. "If I don't know something, I'll tell you I don't know it," she adds. "If I'm not sure about something, I'll say I'm not sure."
"There's no paranoia here," she says. "I have it in paper. I have it in documents. I have it in writing."
Wolkoff recently spoke at length to PEOPLE — both on and off the record — about Melania and Me, her experiences with the first lady and working in the White House.
Below are edited highlights from that interview.
Wolkoff says hers was a one-on-one connection with the future first lady and she said yes to the White House thinking they could accomplish influential things like a children's welfare initiative that became "Be Best."
There was so much that I thought I knew about her. It was really me and she together. It was just the two of us. It wasn't like we ever went out and shopped and did all these things. It was this intense time. She was a great listener.
I thought I had this unbelievable friend that I was protecting that had no one to help her. She was all alone. Regardless of my entire industry, my entire family, my life ... people just couldn't believe that I was willing to help her. I believed otherwise.
It's like, why didn't you just walk away? I asked myself that. But this platform would have been incredible for these children.
When I was with her, there was affection. We did share something very special, and I loved her. It wasn't all made up. It just wasn't.
And [yet] it is corrupt and it is terrible and at the same time, she's complicit. That's part of her story.
Wolkoff writes extensively of the work she did preparing for the launch of "Be Best," before she left the White House in early 2018 — including preparing a presentation for the team and gathering experts to inform them, sketching out a platform addressing technological addiction, drug use and bullying through social and emotional learning in schools to improve kids' lives.
Since "Be Best" started, it has featured the first lady making a number of attention-raising appearances but little in the way of policy proposals.
What does Wolkoff make of what the initiative became? She says the first lady chose a different direction.
She had the scientific evidence-based research in her hands and her office took it, ripped it up, turned it into — I don't know what they hell they turned it into. When she stood there in the Rose Garden speaking and having people stand up of all the places that she visited ... She could have been the voice about all these different programs as opposed to what it ends up being.
All of these doctors and therapists and experts came from so many different places. They all added different elements to help her understand it. She got it. She understood it. She knew that everyone was going to critique her for it [the anti-bullying]. She knew that people were going to say it starts at home.
When I asked her, I said to her, "Are you ready to take that on?" She's like, "Yes. They're going to say it starts at home." Just like with everything else, she didn't care because that's what she wanted to focus on.
The West Wing created its own obstacles, too — what Wolkoff describes as part of a pattern with how the East Wing was treated.
She would just never have been able to do it all. There were no budgets. There was no support. It was sabotaged and roadkill [with] head-banging every day.
Wolkoff says her book is designed as an eye-opener — a curtain-puller, a demystifier. Something to raise important questions. And she doesn't intend to be blindsided again.
At the end, I realized, well, there was something that I wanted to put in the book for protection. I knew if I needed something, I wanted to be able to protect myself. And there is that material.
Writing the book, at least part of me felt like, okay, I'm going to get at least 80 percent and let everybody else follow the trail. There's a lot of people now on the trail. There's a lot of great things happening — I say great, because people are investigating things they didn't before.
Wolkoff also writes in detail of the first lady's problems with Ivanka and of Ivanka's prized place in the family and the administration. Has Mrs. Trump ever gotten along with her stepchildren?
They actually did get along for quite some time. Because Melania wasn't the one who broke up the marriage. And so really they really did. They got along. And Melania did tell me, like when Ivanka was younger, she would come and talk to her for advice and talk to her about things. But I guess absolute power corrupts the family dynamic.
Tiffany, I don't want to hurt her. She's not included. Melania didn't mind having her or not having her. She just was never there. But Tiffany enjoyed when she was included in things and very much so. She never demanded. Tiffany's one who went out of her way to make sure it was okay if she wanted some extra information or if she needed some extra advice or if she wanted to include her voice.
Wolkoff dismisses rumors that the first lady and Barron, her teenage son with the president, spend some of their time in a D.C.-area residence away from the White House. The first lady gets things done — in her way — Wolkoff says.
In her book, she writes of initial tension with the residence staff as well.
I have to say when I was there with her, we really did work. I'd review everything with her. We'd go over different bullet points. We'd do speeches together. She was involved in all of those things. Now, was that more than a couple of hours? No. But the time that she did put into it, she took it seriously.
We were all there to help Melania. We were all on the same mission. At least, I thought we were. I wanted people to respect her, and I wanted her family to just give her some support. It's terrible the way Ivanka has usurped her.
Melania was always cordial and polite to them [the White House staff] and vice versa. I spent more time with the executive residence staff, as I spent a lot of time up there with her and slept over. The staff and I got along very nicely.
Wolkoff is unsparing in her assessment of Ivanka and Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, also a senior White House adviser. (An Ivanka spokeswoman has called Wolkoff a "clearly very insecure and paranoid former employee. Ivanka came to Washington to focus on policy that uplifts hardworking Americans and their families. This book is a sad attempt at relevance.")
I don't think our country would be in such a bad position as it is today if they weren't there. As bad as Donald is and as crazy as he is, I think that things would have been better if the two of them were not there. I know they would be, because I know some of the things that they've done.
By the way, I don't think he's [the president is] completely stupid. He knows exactly what he's doing, and he's the best gaslighter in the world.
What Wolkoff learned about the woman — and family — she thought she knew:
I wanted clarity. I wanted to figure what happened and I just wanted to tell the true story. I wanted people to know the true story, and I wanted people to know who was in the White House.
These are the people that are running our country. I have three children that I'm raising and this next generation is growing up in this chaos. I couldn't believe that I thought I could departmentalize Melania from Donald or Melania from the rest of them, but I really was hoping I could.
She [the first lady] is not an enigma. She is not mysterious. That's why it's so important, the perception people have of her. That iron curtain around her, that slapping of the hand, it's all part of the game. It's all part of keeping her mysterious.
I think it's a transactional marriage for both of them. They knew what they were both getting out of it.
She was not a supermodel before she met Donald. I lay out for you [in the book] who she was ... And how she was created in this image of what he needed to legitimize himself, which was this Vogue cover model that went to all of these events and was crowned with these titles. But only because she went to them or because he was funding them. They were at one of his resorts. Or it was part of the Vogue cover shoot.
People need to wake up. They are not different. They are not doing anything differently. Ivanka is just Donald's spitting image and he has made her into this beast to take over the world and make people believe that she's like this honorable woman and Melania is there for Donald. She is his legitimacy. She tones him down. She is the only one who can tell him how she really feels. And she does. She's the only one not shaking in her boots. She's the only one who's not scared to say, "Why did you do this?" Or ask questions about things.
Wolkoff also says the first lady has brushed off the accusations of affairs and sexual misconduct against her husband — "it's just politics."
She knows who she married. Does she get angry? Sure. But she doesn't want to go to Valentine's Day, she's not going to go to Valentine's Day dinner. She does what she wants to do and he has to deal with it, because he's going to do things to her. And he does.
Her whole motif of "boys will be boys" and "this is just the way it is" and you can't change people and why do you care so much — she was telling me over and over who she is, but I wanted to believe otherwise.
Wolkoff writes in her book that she voted for Trump in 2016. Not again.
I feel it is my civic duty to share my story and to tell the truth because of what I witnessed firsthand working with the Trumps and their cohorts. They lack honesty and loyalty and they will destroy you if it serves their needs. They also have a character history of graft. They are not decent or ethical and are taking advantage of their base for their own benefit.
I made a life-changing mistake. I continued working for Melania, and at the White House, even though the environment was toxic, because I believed I could make a difference.
There are people trying to warn Americans. People warned me not to work for them. And now, I can tell you, having seen it firsthand that no one will escape the destruction created by these people.
I, like many people trying to warn America, have a history of working hard, of ethical behavior at my job. I have always been held accountable, just like most of the rest of the country. It is my moral obligation to vote for Biden because I do not believe that Trump is a decent person and I believe in my heart that Biden is.
I should have listened to Melania when she said, "Why are you trying so hard? Why do you care so much?" She'd told me in her way that she was not part of the solution, she was part of the problem.
Most people in the world don't think that Trump would screw them over. Don't make the same mistake I did. Wake up America! You're next.