Melania Trump's Former Adviser Details First Lady's Rivalry with Stepdaughter: 'Operation Block Ivanka'
For the first time, the veil of privacy surrounding First Lady Melania Trump is being swept away by someone from her inner circle.
Trump's friend and former adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is about to release her highly-anticipated memoir, Melania and Me. In an exclusive excerpt featured in New York magazine's Intelligencer, Wolkoff gives shocking details about the oft-reported rivalry between the first lady and her stepdaughter, Ivanka Trump.
Wolkoff describes her "petty" attempt with Mrs. Trump to keep Ivanka (whom Mrs. Trump nicknamed "Princess") out of the best photo ops during Inauguration Day in 2016. They called their efforts "Operation Block Ivanka," writes Wolkoff, a former producer of the Met Gala who was brought on to help organize the inaugural events. New York also described Winston Wolfkoff as thinking she was the first lady's "best friend."
In her book, she writes of the first daughter's blatant attempts to overtake the East Wing, according to the excerpt.
A source from the Trump transition team disputes Wolkoff’s account that Ivanka wanted to take over the East Wing, telling PEOPLE: "I was there during all of this stuff and there was absolutely no desire for her to take the East Wing … She wanted to focus on policy in the West Wing. She didn't want to focus on the social aspects."
"They firmly deny the East Wing office [conflict] was a thing," the source says, adding, Ivanka "wanted to focus on policy."
A White House spokeswoman for the first lady did not respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.
"It was Donald's inauguration, not Ivanka's," writes Wolkoff, according to the magazine. "But no one was brave enough to tell her that. Melania was not thrilled about Ivanka's steering the schedule and would not allow it. Neither was she happy to hear that Ivanka insisted on walking in the Pennsylvania Avenue parade with her children."
Ivanka texted Wolkoff an image of former President Barack Obama on his swearing-in day, surrounded by family, and wrote, "It is nice to have family with him for this special moment." That's when Wolkoff and Mrs. Trump launched "Operation Block Ivanka," Wolkoff writes. They went so far as to rearrange the family's standing positions during the ceremony, so stepdaughter and stepmother weren't next to each other, per the excerpt.
"Yes, Operation Block Ivanka was petty," Wolkoff writes, according to Intelligencer. "Melania was in on this mission. But in our minds, Ivanka shouldn't have made herself the center of attention in her father's inauguration."
Ivanka's other attempts to steal the spotlight were either ignored or thwarted, the former socialite explains.
As a source in both New York and Florida circles, where the Trumps travel, previously told PEOPLE: It's "no secret” that the first lady "isn’t pals with the three older Trump kids."
The White House has previously denied that Mrs. Trump and her stepdaughter have friction. In 2017, Vanity Fair reported that Ivanka had taken over an office in the West Wing and rubbed elbows with world leaders — some of the same duties usually performed by the first lady. The magazine also reported that two sources noticed that there was an icy relationship between the two, which the White House adamantly denied. "Ivanka and Mrs. Trump have always shared a close relationship, and that continues today," the first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told Vanity Fair.
Mrs. Trump's former adviser doesn't remember it that way.
A friend of Mrs. Trump's from her days in New York, Wolkoff became mired in negative headlines starting in 2018, with reports she made too much money from helping organize the inaugural events.
President Trump's inaugural committee raised a historic $107 million — of which a firm Wolkoff incorporated, WIS Media Partners, received approximately $26 million.
The White House subsequently claimed that Wolkoff, who served as a confidante and adviser to Mrs. Trump in the East Wing, was ousted, according to The New York Times.
But she denied being fired.
"Was I fired? No," she told the paper in a statement in 2019, a year after she left the administration. "Did I personally receive $26 million or $1.6 million? No. Was I thrown under the bus? Yes."
Melania and Me details the women's friendship, Wolkoff 's time serving as an informal adviser and her devastating exit from the White House, which still haunts Wolkoff to this day, according to Intelligencer. Mainly, Wolkoff feels "betrayed" by her former friend, Intelligencer reporter Olivia Nuzzi writes in the introduction to the excerpt.
Wolkoff feels like she was a scapegoat for possible misdeeds by the inauguration committee and feels like the first lady "abandoned" her, according to Nuzzi. In the excerpt, Wolkoff writes that she now realizes that “a Trump is a Trump is a Trump."
Wolkoff 's realization echoes other reports about the fiercely independent first lady.
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"The secret to Melania Trump’s confidence and to her survival as first lady?" CNN reporter Kate Bennett writes in Free, Melania. "She doesn't care what anyone thinks about her. Whether people assume she is complicit in Trump's beliefs and actions by being married to him and staying married to him or whether they think she is standing by his side because she is a noble adherent to traditional marriage—it doesn't matter to her."
Mrs. Trump, according to Bennett, "just does what she wants to do. As goes Trump and his rule-breaking presidency, so goes Melania and her rule-breaking first ladyship."
In her first couple of years as the first lady, Mrs. Trump was most notable for her absence. (She has not fallen into the traditional role of first lady, an unpaid but highly-watched position that involves unending public appearances, championing of various causes, and supporting the president's vision for the country.)
Mrs. Trump hasn't followed in the footsteps of other first ladies, but that doesn't mean she wants her stepdaughter to become her substitute in the East Wing. Even before President Trump entered the White House, reports revealed that Ivanka, a senior adviser to her father, wanted a voice in administration policy.
“You’re a goddamn staffer!” Steve Bannon reportedly yelled at Ivanka, according to Bob Woodward's harrowing White House tell-all, Fear. The outburst came as Bannon was informing Ivanka that she had to go through then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to talk to the president, like any other Trump staffer.
“You walk around this place and act like you’re in charge, and you’re not,” Bannon reportedly roared. “You’re on staff!”
“I’m not a staffer! I’ll never be a staffer,” Ivanka fired back, according to Woodward. “I’m the first daughter.”
Another of Ivanka's power plays was witnessed by Wolkoff during the transition, according to the excerpt of her memoir.
Wolkoff got word that Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, who also serves as a senior adviser to the president, wanted to claim offices in the East Wing for his staffers.
"I called Melania to tell her what was going on," Wolkoff writes, per the excerpt. "And she said, 'This is ridiculous! You have to do something!' "
Wolkoff immediately put notes on the doors to claim the offices and "blocked those offices with my body," she writes in the excerpt.
But the fight was far from over.
"Later, as the transition wore on, it felt like they wanted to keep the East Wing offices empty, as if the budget and vetting process was being used like a weapon to prevent Melania from filling them," she writes, according to Intelligencer. "They seemed to enjoy disenfranchising the East Wing so they could totally control Melania.
"Ivanka was relentless and was determined to be the First Daughter Lady and to usurp office space out from under Melania," Wolkoff continues, "She wanted to be the only visible female Trump on the premises."
Melania and Me will publish on Sept. 1.
• With reporting by ADAM CARLSON