Stephanie Winston Wolkoff was the mastermind event producer behind Trump’s inaugural celebration, which has since come under S.D.N.Y. investigation. Now, taped conversations reveal Wolkoff’s concerns with how money was being spent, the general chaos of the process, the involvement of the Trump family, and the people in charge, namely Rick Gates and Tom Barrack.
Last summer, months after federal agents executed search warrants on his home, office, and hotel room—seizing more than a dozen devices and hundreds of records—Michael Cohenmade a phone call to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. For years, Cohen and Wolkoff had operated in a shared milieu. Both lived on the same block on the Upper East Side. More notably, both were crucial supporting players in the Trump orbit. Cohen had been an indefatigable booster of Donald Trump, helping to arrange his real-estate deals, paying off alleged mistresses, and quashing would-be damaging stories regarding his boss. Wolkoff, for a time, was a lesser-known, but equally diligent enforcer for Melania Trump.
The two women had met years earlier, when Wolkoff helped produce the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Benefit. (Anna Wintour, who hosts the gala, is editor-in-chief of Vogue and the artistic director of Condé Nast, Vanity Fair’s parent company.) Over the years, Wolkoff would become a member of Melania’s small inner circle. After Trump’s surprise electoral-college victory, she went on to help the First Lady in Washington, serving as a senior adviser to her official governmental office on matters large and small. Wolkoff helped facilitate Melania’s transition to the White House, and advised her on policy platforms, East Wing décor, and her overall messaging.
The two were close enough that Wolkoff could openly express divergent views. According to sources familiar with the conversations, Wolkoff told Melania and East Wing staffers that the name for her anti-bullying initiative, “Be Best,” sounded illiterate. (The First Lady, according to these sources, feared that an alternative, “Children First,” was too similar to her husband’s “America First” branding.) They also disagreed about the infamous “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket that the First Lady wore to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Melania, according to these sources, thought the trip would not get attention without such a brazen fashion gesture. In an interview with ABC News in October, she said that she wore the jacket for the media and people who were criticizing her, and wondered aloud whether the trip would have received similar attention without it.) But the two women remained close, nevertheless. On trips to D.C., Wolkoff would sometimes spend the night in the White House residence; other times, she would book a room in the Trump International Hotel down Pennsylvania Avenue. According to e-mail exchanges from the time, she was given the friends and family rate of $345 a night, and told to submit receipts to Reince Priebus.
Cohen and Wolkoff also had something else in common: they both endured very public splits from the Trumps. Cohen, of course, went from being one of the president’s closest confidants to one of his most bitter and dangerous adversaries. Wolkoff’s separation was less public, but is increasingly newsworthy. Through her company, WIS Media Partners, Wolkoff oversaw Trump’s sprawling week-long inaugural festivities—she sourced and managed third-party vendors, entertainers, and broadcasters, and oversaw the themes and production of all the concerts, dinners, balls, and programming. She worked in close proximity to the Trump family and inaugural chair Tom Barrack, a billionaire private-equity real-estate investor who had been a close friend of the president for years. And yet a year after the swearing-in ceremony, Wolkoff left the White House amid an uncomfortable public-relations crisis regarding the president’s inaugural committee.
Last February, The New York Times published an article centered on WIS, headlined “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 million to Firm of First Lady’s Adviser.” The inaugural committee had raised a stunning $107 million—about twice what Barack Obama had hauled in 2009—from donors such as Sheldon Adelson and corporations like AT&T. But as the Times reported, the tax form revealed profligate spending—nearly $10 million on travel; $4.6 million on salaries and benefits; and $100,000 to Rick Gates, the former campaign aide and deputy chairman of the inauguration who, about a week later, became one of Robert Mueller’s first major cooperating witnesses. Some $40 million was publicly unaccounted for. Wolkoff, as the event planner in charge, became the face of the disarray. The Timesstory quoted an official from a government watchdog group accusing her of “fiscal mismanagement at its worst.”
Privately, Wolkoff refuted the characterization. According to bank statements, checks, and internal documents that I’ve reviewed, the $26 million in payment to WIS was largely distributed to third-party vendors and labor. Nearly $24 million was paid for projects related to the work of a subcontractor, Inaugural Productions, an independent organization affiliated with television producer Mark Burnett,which was responsible for staging several events. Around $1.6 million was used to compensate 15 contract workers who worked with Wolkoff as staffers. Wolkoff herself received $500,000 for her work on the inauguration. She had submitted audited records to the inauguration committee in March 2017, a month after she signed a gratuitous-services contract to work as an unpaid strategist and senior adviser to the First Lady.
After the Times article, given her established documentation, Wolkoff urged Melania to defend her. But the administration demurred. Stephanie Grisham, the First Lady’s spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail, “This messaging is the best way to go in order to minimize the negative press stories of today and protect FLOTUS & this administration.” A week later, Wolkoff left the East Wing after the White House instilled new security protocols in the wake of the Rob Porter scandal. A member of the White House Counsel’s Office called her on February 20, 2018, to let her know that the White House would be terminating all gratuitous-services agreements, including hers. It had nothing to do with her work on the inauguration, this person told her. “I am sorry that the professional part of our relationship has come to an end, but I am comforted in the fact that our [friendship] far outweigh[s] politics,” Melania wrote her in an e-mail later that day. “Thank you Again! Much love.”
Later that evening, in a phone call, Wolkoff told the First Lady that she worried it appeared as if she had been fired on account of her work on the inauguration. The First Lady urged her not to be “dramatic.” Less than a week later, however, the Times published a story stating that the severance of Wolkoff’s contract had been “prompted by displeasure from the Trumps” over the $26 million payment. Grisham told the Times that Melania “had no involvement” with the inaugural committee, and “had no knowledge of how funds were spent.” The president would create similar distance. Sarah Huckabee Sanderswould later say, “The president was focused on the transition during that time, and not on any of the planning for the inauguration.” (A spokeswoman for the First Lady declined to comment for this story, as did the White House.)
By the time Cohen and Wolkoff spoke last summer, she had returned to her life in New York. He would soon plead guilty to eight counts in a federal courthouse downtown. But Cohen let Wolkoff know that, among other documents and recordings, the F.B.I. had seized hours of their own conversations that he had taped. According to people familiar with the recordings, some of the taped conversations dealt directly with the inauguration. In them, Wolkoff detailed her own contemporaneous concerns with the inauguration—about how money was being spent, the general chaos of the process, and the involvement of Trump’s adult children. During these conversations, Wolkoff also raised her issues with the two men in charge of the committee: Gates and Barrack.
These recordings, in part, led the Southern District of New York to launch a criminal investigation into how the inaugural committee spent its record $107 million. Now, the investigation appears to be advancing. In December, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that prosecutors are examining the committee’s spending, and investigating whether foreign donors from nations including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates funneled money to the committee in an effort to influence U.S. policy. On Monday, the inaugural committee received a subpoena from the S.D.N.Y. requesting documents related to spending and donors, vendors, and benefits handed out, as well as documents related to a wealthy donor who had once registered as a foreign agent working on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. The Journal reported that prosecutors have asked Gates about the inaugural fund’s spending and its donors. (Lorin Reisner, an attorney for Wolkoff, said in a statement: “Stephanie is not going to comment on these reports. She remains proud of her work on the inauguration, and we are confident that her conduct was proper in all respects.” Cohen did not respond to a request for comment.)
The subpoena is the latest sign that, while the Mueller investigation could be winding down, the Southern District may be probing a variety of Trump-adjacent avenues into the foreseeable future. An inquiry into the inauguration might also be acutely poignant, given Trump’s concurrent association with both his business and his incoming administration in its earliest days. It involved big money and outside influence. And it involved the Trump family in intimate, important ways. Wolkoff, suddenly and unexpectedly, could find herself in the middle of the maelstrom.
Wolkoff had made a career in the events business, but she knew from the outset the inauguration would be a unique, and uniquely Trumpian, experience. First, she was a political novice who knew little about what an inauguration entailed. Then, there was Trump’s controversial reputation. Upon accepting the post on the Friday after his election, Wolkoff quickly reached out to her network of vendors. Most of them, according to people familiar with these conversations, resisted the opportunity to work with Trump. Even Burnett, who Trump enlisted to conjure up reality-show-like gimmicks (such as flying a gaggle of drones over the crowd), wanted to keep his involvement private. (Burnett did not respond to a request for comment.)
Moreover, and perhaps not surprisingly, Trump’s family wanted to be involved in certain aspects of the coordination. Part of this, of course, was because they were going to be included in many of the events and, logistically, they had to know where to be and what to wear. It was also because Trump’s adult children have always been involved in affairs pertaining to their father, from his businesses to The Apprentice to his campaign. Each week, Wolkoff met with senior inaugural-committee members to present itemized, detailed updates on the status of her planning and financial reports from each vendor and for each event. She was also making regular presentations to Trump, Melania, and the Trump family about various decisions, so that they could weigh in. (White House spokespeople have previously denied that the Trumps were involved in any planning, and said they knew little about the events.) Trump and Ivanka were briefed on Burnett’s drone idea, for instance, after they had met with singer Andrea Bocelli in his office in Trump Tower about the possibility of him singing at an event. (The Italian tenor did not end up performing.)
Trump was focused on the big-picture theatrics. He wanted to arrive on the Mall in a military plane with a military escort, much as he had arrived for tapings of The Apprentice on Trump Organization helicopters. He also wanted to have a full military parade, as well as tanks and helicopters on the ground. Ivanka, meanwhile, had more particular interests, according to e-mail and text exchanges and people familiar with the conversations. Originally, Ivanka wanted to host an event for women on the Wednesday before her father’s swearing-in ceremony. (The plan was ultimately scrapped.) To be helpful, she suggested a photographer who had once shot her for Town & Country as someone who could take the official family portrait. She also offered a D.J. friend of hers from New York as a possible performer. She texted photos of the Obama family standing onstage together, with Sasha and Malia prominently situated in the middle of the frame. “FYI regarding the swearing in, it is nice to have family with him for this special moment,” she wrote.
In large part, Wolkoff worried about potential ethical issues surrounding the First Family-elect and their businesses. After all, Gates had been staying in a suite at the Trump Hotel for most of the inaugural planning. More than a dozen inaugural staffers had also been staying there. The Times reported last month that WIS alone had charged $31,000 for hotel rooms in the span of less than two months, including almost $18,000 at the Trump International Hotel. That did not include what was charged for room service, meals, and travel. In all, the Trump International Hotel was paid more than $1.5 million in inaugural funds, according to the Times. (Wolkoff’s contract states that the inaugural committee would reimburse WIS for travel, long-distance phone calls, mail-delivery services, and expenses connected to the performance of its work. WIS stands for “Who Is She,” Wolkoff’s play on her own anonymity.)
During the course of planning, Wolkoff had corresponded with Ivanka about the cost of using the Trump Hotel for events leading up to the swearing-in ceremony. On December 10, 2016, a Trump Organization employee sent an estimate for a ballroom rental and food and beverage minimum to use the Trump Hotel space for eight days. The price she quoted was $3.6 million, according to an e-mail. A week later, Gates e-mailed Ivanka about the cost. In this exchange, first published this past December by ProPublica and WNYC, Wolkoff flagged her concern. “These events are in PE’s [the president-elect’s] honor at his hotel and one of them is for family and close friends. Please take into consideration that when this is audited it will become public knowledge,” she wrote. (Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Ivanka’s counsel Abbe Lowell, said in a statement: “When contacted by someone working on the inauguration, Ms. Trump passed the inquiry on to a hotel official and said only that any resulting discussions should be at a ‘fair market rate.’ Ms. Trump was not involved in any additional discussions.”)
For an event producer used to detailed lists and punctilious itemization, Wolkoff was often caught off guard by the ad-hoc nature of the committee. According to the two people familiar with the matter, Gates approached a couple individuals working on the inauguration and asked if they would be willing to be paid directly for their work by a donor, rather than by the inaugural committee. They had received more donations than they’d initially anticipated, Gates told these people. Skirting the usual payment route could allow the inaugural committee to avoid reporting the full amount raised from donors. (A lawyer for Gates did not respond to a request for comment.)
Wolkoff frequently told Melania about her concerns regarding Gates, these people said. She relayed her concern about the high access level of his security pass within Trump Tower and his closeness with the Trump family. In her view, these people said, he exacerbated a situation already fraught with potential conflicts of interest. Members of the inaugural committee talked about how he frequently worked out of Donald Trump Jr.’s office. He was in constant communication with the adult children in order to keep them in the loop about decisions surrounding the inauguration.
Wolkoff also questioned Gates and Barrack about pricing and budgets across the board, according to the people familiar with the conversations. She started to grow concerned about being left out of meetings, particularly as she raised more red flags. Because part of her responsibilities included reviewing all budgets from her vendors and presenting them to other members of the inaugural committee, she studied the line items in order to be able to explain them. At points, she could not justify the numbers coming in. After circulation of a quote from one of their largest event-production vendors, Hargrove LLC, Wolkoff was shocked that no one in the organization appeared willing to question the figures. She suggested that the quote seemed far beyond what the Obama inaugural committee would have been charged in 2009. She sent an e-mail to her team and Barrack on December 31, 2016. “I am DISGUSTED by [Hargrove’s] lack of transparency and entitlement to [the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s] funding,” she wrote. “I can not approve any budget line items because I do not have a clue what these numbers represent!!” (Hargrove did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
One of the most concerning aspects to Wolkoff’s team, according to the people familiar with the situation, was the amount of money and attention being spent on Barrack’s chairman dinner, which he hosted on an evening before the swearing-in. A draft guest list for the event from days before the dinner included the likes of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, G.O.P. fund-raiser Elliott Broidy, Michael Cohen, and key officials in the incoming administration. Among the list marked as confirmed were seven people described as “foreign ministers” for Saudi Arabia, one foreign minister from Qatar, and one from the United Arab Emirates. They were the only people on the list who were unnamed. (On Tuesday, ProPublica published a memo that showed Barrack’s investment firm planned to profit from its connections to the Trump administration. A spokesperson called it “an outline of a proposed potential business plan which was never acted upon or implemented.”)
A spokesman for Barrack declined to comment, but pointed me toward comments Barrack made in a Journal report published days before the inauguration. “The evening is intended to be the president-elect’s first fingerprint on the global canvas of social democracy and outreach,” Barrack said at the time, explaining that the evening was set up to reach out to local international diplomats and create a “hopeful tapestry of international cooperation and respect.”
Much has been made of the various problems with the inauguration, from the lackluster crowd size to the president’s own “American carnage” speech, which struck a tone so dark that George W. Bush was reportedly heard calling it “some weird shit.” But Wolkoff’s part, the event itself, went off without a hitch, and the family was pleased. The day after the swearing-in ceremony was Wolkoff’s birthday. The Trumps sent flowers to the Trump Hotel room where she had been staying. She flew back to New York on a military plane with Melania, her stylist, hairdresser, makeup artist, and the rest of the Trump family, apart from the president, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner, who remained in Washington.
Much is still unknown about how inaugural funds were managed, or if the unaccounted for $40-odd million will ever be publicly explained. It’s unclear whether there was foreign influence, or illicit attempts to profit off of proceedings. What Gates has offered investigators—about anything, really, but about the inauguration, in particular—is also unclear. How deep the Southern District’s investigation into all of this is yet unknown. But much like some of Cohen’s other taped conversations, the discussions with Wolkoff about the inauguration may have turned out to be consequential. On the witness stand during Paul Manafort’s trial in Virginia last summer, prosecutors asked Gates if he charged personal expenses to the committee. “It’s possible,” he responded.
As investigators continue to pursue the matter, they may find themselves in a familiar situation: seeking out former Trump allies-turned-adversaries who saw it all go down firsthand. One of the most inexplicable plot points in the whirling Trump drama has been the president’s public treatment of his former lawyer. Trump was aware that Cohen possessed all manner of damaging information about him, and yet he wasted few opportunities to disparage him publicly. Ultimately, Cohen implicated Trump in federal campaign-finance violations as he pleaded guilty. He spent more than 70 hours cooperating with federal investigators, opening his book to tell them what he knew about the president, his business, and the campaign. While Wolkoff’s treatment has been gentler, she’s been similarly isolated and publicly disparaged. And now, what she knows could be of interest to investigators, too.