The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Melania Trump used private email accounts while in the White House, says former colleague and friend

First lady Melania Trump speaks during the Republican National Convention last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This story has been updated with a statement from the White House.

Melania Trump regularly used a private Trump Organization email account, an email from a domain, iMessage and the encrypted messaging app Signal while in the White House, according to her former senior adviser and close friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who says she corresponded multiple times a day with the first lady. “Melania and I both didn’t use White House emails,” says Winston Wolkoff, in an interview with The Washington Post, upon the publication of her tell-all memoir, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady.”

The Post has viewed messages dated after the inauguration that appear to be from private email and messaging accounts used by Melania Trump. The messages contained discussions of government hires and contracts (including Winston Wolkoff’s), detailed schedules for the president and first lady during the Israeli and Japanese state visits, strategic partnerships for the first lady’s Be Best initiative, the logistics of the Easter egg roll, and finances for the presidential inauguration, key parts of which Winston Wolkoff, an experienced New York City events producer, planned.

Members of the Trump administration have already faced scrutiny for using private email. The House Oversight Committee last year began looking into the use of private accounts for government business by Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also has used private email to conduct government business. Donald Trump spent much of the 2016 election cycle drawing attention to the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state, calling it “worse than Watergate.”

After berating Hillary Clinton for her email scandal, President Trump's own administration has grappled with officials violating communication policy too. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The White House initially did not respond to requests for comment. After this story was published online, Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and chief of staff, said in a statement to The Post: “In consultation with White House ethics officials, from the beginning of the Administration, the First Lady and her staff have taken steps to meet the standard of the Presidential Records Act, relating to the preservation of records that adequately document official activities.”

A first lady is not a government employee, said Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, but “if she is doing United States government business, she should be using the White House email.” Use of personal accounts is allowed under the Presidential Records Act, but it’s risky: If those records are not carefully maintained, the White House might not be able to produce them in response to a subpoena. (Also illegal: discussing anything classified on unofficial accounts.) Bush’s White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove got in trouble for losing records with personal emails in 2006.

“It’s total hypocrisy,” said Painter. “They got elected acting as if Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail for using the wrong email.”

Melania Trump’s email habits have not been previously reported and are not described in Winston Wolkoff’s book. She told The Post she left it out of the book because she “just had so much” to write about and was concentrating on telling the story of her personal interactions with the first lady and others in the White House.

She says she decided to discuss Melania Trump’s personal email use — along with recordings she made of her conversations with the first lady — with The Post after the White House attacked her integrity in response to the book.

Winston Wolkoff's book is unique in the landscape of books about the Trumps, as the first insider's look at the first lady's private world. The two women had a 15-year friendship, says Winston Wolkoff, beginning in New York City and continuing through Trump's first year in the White House, where Winston Wolkoff was her unpaid senior adviser.

Winston Wolkoff’s time at the White House ended badly. She was ousted from her role and subsequently cooperated with multiple investigations into spending on President Trump’s inauguration.

She felt “betrayed” by the first lady, she says, because she didn’t publicly come to her defense when an inauguration committee tax return, and news reports, named an event planning firm she and business partners had created for producing the inauguration as the recipient of a $26 million payment. Most of that money was used to pay an independent subcontractor for a pair of two-hour live broadcasts, plus the costs of producing multiple inaugural events. (Winston Wolkoff personally retained $484,126 for her services, according to financial documents she showed The Post.)

In the book, she chronicles what she saw as extensive mismanagement and opaque accounting she witnessed while working on the inauguration. She writes that the first lady’s needs seemed not only to be an afterthought, but on many occasions appeared to be actively thwarted. And she portrays a tense relationship between Melania and Ivanka Trump.

The White House has released several statements recently saying Winston Wolkoff’s book is full of falsehoods. In a statement to The Post, Grisham panned the book as “revisionist history.” She also attacked Winston Wolkoff’s motives and character, suggesting she wrote her book “based on some imagined need for revenge.”

“Literally everyone she worked with was an obstacle in her mind, people she belittled and blamed for everything,” Grisham wrote. “This is a deeply insecure woman whose need to be relevant defies logic.”

Winston Wolkoff says that “everything in the book is 100 percent verifiable and factual” and showed The Post what appeared to be extensive digital and physical archives of emails and emoji-laden texts from the first lady that she is prepared to use to back up her claims — and played some audio recordings.

Winston Wolkoff told The Post she began recording her phone conversations with the first lady in February 2018 and until they stopped talking or texting on Jan. 1, 2019. She decided to do so, she says, the day after the White House terminated her contract, out of fear of becoming a “fall guy” as scrutiny of inaugural spending intensified. And, she says, because the first lady had made it clear she would not support her publicly or clear up matters in the press that Winston Wolkoff says were untrue.

On one recording, a voice that sounds like the first lady’s is heard saying, “Don’t be so dramatic. Because you were not fired. This came to that because this is politics.”

“Anybody who secretly tapes their self-described best friend is not only dishonest, they’re deceitful,” Grisham said in the statement.

This was at the height of the Mueller investigation, Winston Wolkoff says, when protecting herself from the Trump family and the machinery of White House palace intrigue had suddenly started to seem very important. “I didn’t record a friend. I would never record a friend,” Winston Wolkoff told The Post. “But — this is very important — she was no longer my friend when I pressed record.”

In her New York life, Winston Wolkoff, 49, was Anna Wintour's right-hand special events planner at Vogue, the lead in producing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala — the fashion world's premier annual event — for a decade. She then spent several years overseeing Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, which usually had an attendance of more than 120,000 people, and she started her own firm.

She and Melania Trump became friends in the early 2000s. At the beginning of that friendship, Trump was a Slovenian immigrant model best known for dating, and later marrying, Donald Trump, and Winston Wolkoff was an established Vogue staffer. Over the years, they’d have long lunches together, talk about their kids. Winston Wolkoff says she admired Trump’s cool confidence.

“Melania’s not lonely; she’s self-contained,” Winston Wolkoff told The Post. “People think she’s, like, sad and trapped, and she’s not.”

Before their falling-out, as Winston Wolkoff details in her book, she was the first lady’s confidante, a witness to her interactions with Donald Trump, and one of a handful of people with whom the first lady could joke about her rivalry with Ivanka Trump, whom she liked to call “Princess,” according to Winston Wolkoff. In one telling anecdote, Winston Wolkoff recalls conspiring with Trump to keep the first daughter out of certain photos during the presidential swearing-in, a plan she says they playfully referred to as “Operation Block Ivanka.”

Operation Block Ivanka was “petty,” Winston Wolkoff says, but in many ways felt like the only way to cope with the fact that “Ivanka would not stop trying to put herself in front of Melania” ­— figuratively and literally. Throughout planning for the inauguration, Winston Wolkoff told The Post, Ivanka Trump kept sending her text messages about exactly where she wanted to be standing in the swearing-in photo, “and ‘it’s so important for me to be with my father’ and literally sending me a picture of the Obamas” for reference, she says. “And I was like, ‘When does she stop?’ ”

And so Winston Wolkoff says she studied the seating chart and made sure that Ivanka’s face would be obscured from photos when she was seated, and that she would not be at the center of the photos while standing. Winston Wolkoff told The Post that she was operating to protect the interests of her friend Melania, but also because she felt that “people were overstepping their boundaries” and there was something wrong with the first daughter being so disrespectful to the first lady of the United States.

“It is traditional and appropriate for the children of the president to join in such a historic occasion,” said a person close to Ivanka. “A simple Google search could have helped Stephanie understand that.”

The records Winston Wolkoff kept from her friendship with Trump suggest her wariness about the first daughter’s motivations might have been shared by the first lady.

“You know how they are snakes,” read an August 2017 text that appears to be from Melania to Winston Wolkoff, in reference to a conflict with Ivanka and Jared Kushner over staffing.

Winston Wolkoff showed The Post the entire exchange for context — which is a bit complicated, but the short version is that Trump and Winston Wolkoff believed Ivanka Trump and Kushner were preventing them from hiring Kayleigh McEnany for the first lady’s office. This was the second time a “poaching” like this had happened, Winston Wolkoff says. (McEnany is now White House press secretary. Her deputy, Sarah Matthews, disputed Winston Wolkoff’s version of events.)

Winston Wolkoff tells other stories in her book about tension between the first lady and the first daughter: that Ivanka Trump tried to muscle in on planning a 2017 International Women’s Day luncheon with Melania Trump (despite the first lady’s objections) and wanted to read the first lady’s speeches in advance (which Winston Wolkoff says she refused); that Kushner attempted to take over offices in the White House’s East Wing (typically the first lady’s territory); that Melania Trump was not informed that she could bring guests to the president’s first address to Congress, and by the time she found out, the first lady’s box had been filled with guests of Ivanka Trump’s and Cabinet members. When Melania Trump tried to start hiring top staffers very early in the administration, Winston Wolkoff says, they were told there was almost no budget left for the first lady’s office and they lost qualified candidates. “Melania felt that her interests were being constantly stonewalled,” Winston Wolkoff told The Post, “and we knew that it was always Ivanka behind the friction and suspicion and distrust.”

Carolina Hurley, a White House spokeswoman who works with Ivanka Trump, said in a written statement, “These are absurd, petty and desperate accusations from 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.”

The president refused to take sides, according to Winston Wolkoff. “Again, it’s their type of normal marriage,” she told The Post. “Melania is not like any wife who would say, ‘Your daughter is blah blah blah.’ It’s not worth it to her. There’s an understanding between them that it just is what it is. And that’s how she’s decided she wants to live her life.”

The picture she paints of Melania’s relationship with Donald is sunny.

“They totally get along. It’s crazy,” she says. “I mean, they laugh together. She knows who she married. He knows who he married. They are one and the same.”

Winston Wolkoff had never voted in a presidential election, but when Trump's husband made his run in 2016, she cast a vote for Trump. She writes in her book that working for the Trumps was "the worst mistake of my life." Of the first lady, she writes, "I wish I had never met her."

She told The Post she has cooperated with prosecutors on three different investigations into inauguration spending (the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, the House Intelligence Committee and D.C.’s attorney general) and has gone “more than a million dollars into the hole” in lawyers’ fees since working for the Trumps.

As for Grisham’s assertion that she’s out for revenge, Winston Wolkoff told The Post that’s not the case. “This isn’t about me doing something to Melania,” she says. “This is about me sharing with the world who this family is and what goes on behind closed doors.”

Winston Wolkoff says she went through “a breakdown” after her ouster and the end of her friendship with Trump. She says that, for the first time in two years, she’s opening the shades of her apartment just a few blocks away from Trump Tower. That may be an exaggeration (“It was a year and a half at least,” she says), but she feels lighter now. “This is the last thing I wanted to do,” she says about talking to a reporter. “But I had to know what happened, if this friendship was real, and how I got myself in so deep. It’s upsetting to see them snow the country the same way they did it to me. They’re hurting so many people.”

After casting her first presidential ballot for Trump in 2016, Winston Wolkoff says she’s planning to vote again this year — for Joe Biden.