President Trump’s inaugural committee paid $26 million for event production services to a firm connected to a friend of first lady Melania Trump, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who serves as a volunteer adviser in the East Wing, according to officials and newly released tax filings.
The firm passed along the vast majority of the funds — $24 million — to other vendors who provided entertainment, staffing and other services, according to a committee document detailing the spending. Wolkoff, who employed about a dozen staff members for the event, retained $1.62 million for consulting and executive production, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.
The payments that flowed to Wolkoff represented a quarter of the $104 million spent by the inaugural committee, a nonprofit group that raised $107 million from wealthy donors and corporations to celebrate Trump’s inauguration.
The revelation that Wolkoff controlled such large sums for the event raised eyebrows among some White House officials, who described her East Wing status as unusual.
Wolkoff has a pass that allows her access to the White House grounds, but lives in New York and travels to Washington every few weeks for meetings, according to two White House officials.
Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the first lady, said Wolkoff has never received a government salary and is considered “a special government employee.”
“Simply put, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is a contracted volunteer with the Office of the First Lady and has specified duties as outlined in her contract,” Grisham said.
Wolkoff did not return calls seeking comment.
Wolkoff was tapped to manage the inaugural event production by the committee chairman, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a close friend of President Trump who was familiar with work she has done in New York, according to a spokesman for Barrack.
In a statement, Barrack said that the committee put on more than 20 events that were “executed in elegance and seamless excellence.”
The inaugural committee’s tax filings, which were first reported by the New York Times, show that it paid $26 million to WIS Media Partners, a company established in California in December 2016. Corporate filings do not mention Wolkoff, but an individual familiar with the firm said she is connected to it.
Wolkoff is a well-known figure in New York fashion, charity and event-planning circles. She was an events planner for Vogue magazine, where she was close to editor in chief Anna Wintour. Wolkoff also helped stage the Met Gala, one of Manhattan’s premier events.
As Wintour’s right-hand woman in the events department, Wolkoff earned a reputation for being organized, disciplined and hard-working. In her role in planning the Met Gala, she oversaw the evening’s seating — complete with its hierarchies and personalities — and helped managed the egos of the A-list guest list.
Wolkoff has been friends for two decades with Melania Trump, who hired her as a White House adviser as she made the transition from New York socialite to first lady. In 2013, Melania Trump tweeted birthday wishes to Wolkoff, complete with a heart emoji.
In a pre-inaugural New York Times story, Melania Trump said she was enamored of Wolkoff’s “impressive work ethic” and that “she has a way of connecting with people — motivating them to get the job done in the best way possible.”
Along with the payments to Wolkoff’s company, the inaugural committee also paid $25 million to another event company, Hargrove Inc. of Maryland.
Tax filings showed that the committee contributed $5 million to charitable causes, including $1 million each to the American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, the White House Historical Society and the Salvation Army, $750,000 to the Vice President’s residence, and $250,000 to the Smithsonian Institution. The committee , which has $2.7 million in cash on hand, said that it plans to contribute more if funds are available after paying its expenses.