Publisher's wife played undisclosed role for Melania Trump

Source: Politico | June 30, 2020 | Daniel Lippman and Tina Nguyen

The owner of The Hill helped arrange his wife’s unpaid advisory role in the first lady’s office.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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  •  Consistent #40659

    This story explains why The Hill keeps tweeting interviews from Trump campaign’s webcast, Real News Update.

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