Biden’s Justice Department Drops Lawsuit Against Melania’s Former Aide

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff Photo Source: Stephanie Winston Wolkoff (Getty Images via

Americans are fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous. But few people actually know what they are really like. And those “lucky ones” usually have to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that carry heavy consequences for telling all. Melania Trump’s ex-aide is one of them. She wrote a book about her experiences in the White House, and President Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) sued her. The new DOJ, however, has dropped the suit.

On February 8, the current DOJ filed a one-sentence voluntary dismissal of the suit, without explanation. It succinctly said, “Please take notice that Plaintiff voluntarily dismisses this action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41 (a) (1) (A) (i).” It was signed by Brian Boynton, Acting Assistant Attorney General, who is also head of the Department’s Civil Division, since no permanent Attorney General has yet been confirmed.

The suit’s defendant, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former Vogue staff member, had been a volunteer advisor to the First Lady for much of her husband’s term in office. Among other duties, she was instrumental in planning the inauguration. When she published Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady, Trump’s DOJ sued her last October for breach of her fiduciary duty, violation of contractual obligations and to recoup the profits from her revealing memoir. Wolkoff signed the restrictive NDA in August 2017.

Lorin L. Reisner, a lawyer for Wolkoff, told the New York Times, “We are very pleased that the Department of Justice has dismissed this lawsuit.”

The original 17-page suit was filed by Jeffrey A. Hall and Elliott M. Davis, attorneys with the DOJ’s Civil Division. They filed the complaint against Wolkoff in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in October 2020. In part it said: Ms. Wolkoff agreed, among other things, “that [she was] specifically prohibited from publishing, reproducing or otherwise divulging any such information to any unauthorized person or entity in whole or in part.”

The NDA also said that she promised not to disclose her “work with FLOTUS and [the Office of the First Lady] . . . to any person or entity to whom disclosure has not been authorized in writing by FLOTUS, the Chief of Staff to the First Lady or the Office of the White House Counsel,” and to refrain from “us[ing] or referenc[ing] [her] gratuitous services in connection with any merchandising or other commercial activity.”

The filing also discussed the importance of the first lady and the need for NDAs. It stated, “The traditional role of the First Lady in connection with the President and the Government would be impaired if a confidential advisor could wholly ignore her nondisclosure obligations, voluntarily undertaken.”

There was also the matter of profits. “Defendant Wolkoff has been, and will continue in the future to be, unjustly enriched in the amount of profits, advances, royalties and other advantages resulting from publicity given to the unauthorized disclosures contained in her book,” the suit charged.

At the time of the filing, several prominent attorneys immediately discounted the legal value of the suit. Mark Zaid, who represented the Ukraine whistleblower whose information led to the first impeachment of President Trump said, “This is a complete abuse of the Justice Dept to pursue this case for personal reasons,” adding “And it’s legally unenforceable.” Others commented that Wolkoff’s First Amendment rights may override Trump’s DOJ in their quest for retribution on his behalf.

Wolkoff and her lawyers claimed that the lawsuit was “merely a taxpayer-funded effort” to punish the author. There were also allegations that DOJ administrators were abusing their power for retribution. Legal scholars also pointed out that first ladies do not enjoy executive privilege.

An anonymous current DOJ employee told Politico, “The Department evaluated the case and concluded that dismissal without prejudice was in the best interests of the United States based on the facts and the law." In its story about the dismissal, Politico wrote, “The move was one of the first by the Biden administration to throw in the towel on litigation initiated by the Trump administration.”

It is not unusual for the government to sue employees for divulging secrets. Charges of violating NDAs have been filed against CIA agents and others who threatened American interests by giving information that might threaten national security or harm current investigations.

In previous years, quite a few White House staffers told their stories to a fascinated public. During his administration, President Trump sued many former employees including Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault-Newman, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and attorney Michael Cohen for their books. But employees of a first lady have never been sued.

Many people first learned about Wolkoff when they heard her taped conversation with Melania Trump about White House Christmas decorations on CNN. It was there that the former first lady said: “who gives a fuck about Christmas stuff and decorations?” The language was not bleeped out and quite shocking to many. Wolkoff had other recordings as well, including a controversial account of why Mrs. Trump wore the jacket that had the words “I really don’t care, do u?” on the back during a visit to immigrant camps for children in Texas.

Wolkoff’s book, however, seemed less shocking. In fact, several reviewers wondered what the fuss was all about. In The Guardian’s review, Lloyd Green writes, “Yet for all the hype around Wolkoff having secretly taped Melania, her book is sedate, not tempestuous. It informs, but it lacks the bombshell revelations that can make this genre compelling or darkly entertaining. Melania & Me should not be confused with… (books) by Mary Trump or Omarosa.”

The New York Times review by Elizabeth Egan recounts the friendship between the former first lady and Wolkoff, a former Vogue staffer. She reveals the rivalry between Melania and Ivanka and poses the possibility that the first daughter was behind the embarrassing plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican national convention in 2016. It also boasts about Melania’s policy victory when she caused the President to delay his decision to “lift the ban on the import of big-game trophies from Africa,” an idea that was advanced by his sons Donald Jr. and Eric.

It may not contain blockbuster revelations, but it made headlines when Trump’s Justice Department went after it. Now, it’s back to business as usual for the agency. When President Biden nominated Judge Merril Garner to be his attorney general he said, “You are not the president or the vice president's lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It's to the law, the Constitution.”

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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