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The owner of the news outlet that published the columns at the center of the Ukraine scandal helped secure an unpaid White House position for his wife — a fact the publication did not disclose to readers.
Jimmy Finkelstein, a wealthy Manhattanite who owns The Hill, was sufficiently involved that he personally discussed his wife’s arrangement with White House lawyers. His wife, former CNN producer Pamela Gross, is a longtime friend of Melania Trump, and she volunteered to help the new first lady find her footing in the East Wing.
“Hope we can get contract soon as Pamela looks forward serving [sic] the country and the First Lady,” Finkelstein emailed Stefan Passantino, the White House’s top ethics lawyer at the time, on July 5, 2017.
The White House never announced Gross’ hiring, though she spent around six months advising the first lady. Gross primarily worked from New York, but her arrangement had some trappings of White House employment: She filled out a security clearance questionnaire and was granted a White House email and cellphone, and a temporary access badge for use when she was in Washington.
Many a White House has deployed the president’s spouse to soften her husband’s hard edges, though Melania Trump, a reticent figure by the standards of recent first ladies, has shied away from the role’s more political aspects. Her primary initiative is “Be Best,” a program aimed at helping children develop healthy habits that developed out of Gross’ work.
Gross’ unpaid arrangement was not disclosed in the several dozen articles The Hill published about the first lady while Gross was advising her from August 2017 to February 2018, nor were more than a select few Hill employees informed that their boss’ wife was an East Wing adviser.
The Hill covers Washington and politics, including frequent coverage of Trump and the White House. The publication late last year endured fierce criticism for a series of investigative articles on Ukraine by journalist John Solomon that figured prominently in the president’s attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden. A monthslong internal review of Solomon’s work concluded he had failed to identify “important details” about his sources, and faulted the outlet for blurring the line between opinion and reporting in his columns. Solomon has stood by his work.
When reached for comment, Finkelstein disputed the idea that his wife’s work for the White House posed any conflict of interest.
“Pamela was proud to help the first lady serve our country and the nation’s children in this way. For Pamela, this was not simply a very worthwhile effort. It was deeply meaningful on a personal level. As the daughter of a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor sent to the Auschwitz death camp as a child, she felt that joining the first lady in helping children, here and around the globe, was tremendously humbling and personally rewarding.”
Gross’ arrangement was codified as a “gratuitous service agreement,” a multi-page document that laid out the terms of her work for the White House. She also signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevented her from telling most people about her position, according to several people familiar with the situation.
“It’s somewhat like being a special government part-time employee but not exactly the same,” said a person familiar with the arrangement. At the time, White House employees did not think Finkelstein’s direct involvement in helping his wife secure the job was unusual, several of them said. It is unclear, however, whether they knew he owned a prominent Washington news outlet.
The arrangement had been in the works for months during Trump’s first year in office, as the White House untangled several potential logistical and financial disclosure issues surrounding Gross’ potential work for the East Wing.
“I believe I recall you stating that you are most comfortable with the ‘friend’ or ‘contractor’ option because neither prohibits the earning of outside income, family asset disclosure, or many of the conflict of interest restrictions that accompany being an ‘employee’ of one form or another,” Passantino, the White House ethics lawyer, wrote to Gross and Finkelstein on July 21, 2017.
By August 2017, Gross had left her job at CNN as a producer for “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon” to begin her work with the first lady’s office on what would eventually become the Be Best initiative. Gross specifically worked on the social and emotional aspects of the program, which focuses on the well-being of children.
“She wanted to be with Melania more than anything in the world,” said a person familiar with the arrangement. “She wanted to do the work together. She wanted to create the initiative to help children.”
Aides who worked for Michelle Obama’s East Wing office did not recall the former first lady engaging her friends for unpaid work.
Stephanie Grisham, who served as Melania Trump’s spokesperson before becoming White House press secretary — and is now back in the East Wing as her chief of staff — attributed the unorthodox nature of Gross’ engagement to the first lady’s fiscal discipline — though she also said it was Gross’ choice not to accept payment for her work.
“We never looked into how Mrs. Obama paid her staff of over 30 people,” Grisham said. “Mrs. Trump does things her own way, as evidenced by the small and effective team she has in place, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Grisham noted that Gross was one of two unpaid advisers the White House hired “on a temporary basis in order to assist Mrs. Trump in getting the East Wing set up.”
“Pamela was an asset to the East Wing who worked tirelessly to help the first lady’s office in a variety of areas and asked for nothing in return,” Grisham added. “Some people choose to work quietly and don’t require attention or recognition — a trait that is admirable.”
Finkelstein, who fielded questions on his wife’s behalf, characterized her work for the White House as that of an “unpaid part-time volunteer.”
“She was not an employee; she never even submitted for reimbursement of her expenses; and she did most of her volunteering from New York, not D.C.,” he said.
And Finkelstein disputed the idea that he had an obligation to publicly disclose the arrangement, which he said was nevertheless “widely known … by our friends, those at CNN, as well as by the editor-in-chief and others at The Hill.”
“Pamela’s volunteer work had no impact on Hill coverage, and any suggestion that it did is an antiquated form of bias, reflecting the view that a spouse, particularly a woman, should not pursue important work because the spouse is incapable of doing her job without unduly influencing her husband,” Finkelstein said.
Bob Cusack, The Hill’s editor in chief, confirmed he was told of Gross’s arrangement by Finkelstein, but did not respond to follow-up questions asking whether he informed others at The Hill.
Eight current or former Hill reporters, several of whom had worked on stories related to the first lady, said they had no inkling that the owner’s wife worked for Melania Trump.
During Gross’ tenure at the White House, The Hill published at least 56 stories about the first lady, including her anti-bullying speech at the United Nations and a trip she took to a Detroit middle school to bring awareness to child inclusion during National Bullying Prevention Month, none of which disclosed Gross’ work for the East Wing or her close relationship with Melania Trump.
The friendship between the two women stretches back decades. In 2006, a report in Vogue magazine noted that Gross helped host a private baby shower for Melania Trump’s inner circle, including Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who also worked for Melania at the White House, and Judith Nathan Giuliani, then married to Rudy Giuliani.
Finkelstein often bragged about this connection to others at The Hill, said several former employees. “He had been talking about it for years. He talked about it all the time. ‘Oh, well, my wife is best friends with Melania,’” said one former employee.
Finkelstein stressed that The Hill is a nonpartisan news organization and that he had donated to members of both political parties in the past. If anything, its high volume of stories reflects a bias toward viral web traffic rather than any discernible political tilt. But on at least one occasion, staffers there perceived him as eager to curry the Trumps’ favor.
As Trump’s path to the nomination became nearly certain, Hill employees became worried that Finkelstein had started affiliating himself closely with Trump. Two employees who were on the business side at the time told POLITICO they spotted Finkelstein at a victory party for Trump’s primary campaign on April 26, 2016, while watching cable news, and C-SPAN footage shows him standing behind the then-candidate as he addressed the media. (Finkelstein did not dispute this.)
One former employee recalled that in 2016, during the Republican National Convention, Finkelstein called Cusack and Ian Swanson, the managing editor, upset that The Hill had run an article about the speech the first lady had given, parts of which were widely deemed as plagiarized.
Asked what Finkelstein’s concerns were, the person said: “It was the critical part. He didn’t want it to be critical of Melania.” Swanson was “upset” and nearly quit over the incident, this person recalled. (Neither Swanson nor Finkelstein responded to questions about the encounter.)
The Hill went on to publish 20 articles about Melania Trump’s convention speech, with headlines that largely chronicled campaign surrogates rushing to her defense: “Trump camp blames Clinton, media for plagiarism accusations”; “Trump: Media spent more time analyzing Melania than FBI spent on Clinton” and “RNC official offers ‘My Little Pony’ defense for Melania Trump’s speech.”
Current and former Hill reporters told POLITICO that, as far as they knew, there was no process in place at the time for disclosing conflicts of interest, nor did Finkelstein, Cusack or Swanson respond when asked whether such a process existed. The only such guidance POLITICO could find came in the Hill’s review of Solomon’s work: “Disclosures are vital to credibility in journalism, and reporters and editors must tell their readers when there might be a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Gross worked closely on East Wing projects with Winston Wolkoff, whose prior involvement in the president’s inauguration planning became the subject of critical reporting in The New York Times in February 2018 that embarrassed the White House, leading to the end of her work there. In comments that were aggregated by The Hill, she later said she had been “thrown under the bus.”
Gross’ own arrangement with the White House also ended in late February 2018, but her departure was much quieter: Melania Trump sent both women an email on Feb. 20 thanking them for their work and saying their friendship would continue.