By LACHLAN MARKAY and ASAWIN SUEBSAENG   SAUL LOEB/GETTY The White House chief of staff shared the story with a room of reporters and Trump administration officials Friday.   Reporters gathered at the White House on Friday were stunned when Chief of Staff John Kelly shared a very embarrassing story about outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.The reporters were there with senior White House officials for an off-the-record meeting with Kelly, who was attempting to tamp down speculation about an impending administration According to those sources, Kelly recounted a very awkward conversation with Tillerson during which he informed the secretary that President Donald Trump would very likely soon fire him. The awkwardness was less a result of the contents of the conversation than its setting. Tillerson, Kelly told the room, was suffering from a stomach bug during a diplomatic swing through Africa, and was using a toilet when Kelly broke the news to him. Sources were stunned that, even in an off-record setting, Kelly would say this—to a room filled with White House officials and political reporters—about Tillerson, who does not officially leave the State Department until the end of the month. Kelly is routinely touted as one of the more mature members of Trump’s top brass and has often been branded as one of the “adults” in charge. The comment was especially bizarre given Kelly’s reported past cover for Tillerson. The chief of staff tried for months to keep the secretary of state in his post, The New York Times reported, and fumed at his dismissal.

By BEN WHITE and CRISTIANO LIMA   Gary Cohn left Goldman Sachs, where he was president and chief operating officer, to join the White House in 2017. | Alex Wong/Getty Images The White House National Economic Council director had differences with the president over tariffs.   Gary Cohn is resigning as National Economic Council director amid a battle over tariffs within the Trump administration, the White House said Tuesday. "It has been an honor to serve my country and enact pro-growth economic policies to benefit the American people, in particular the passage of historic tax reform," Cohn said in a statement provided by the White House. "I am grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity and wish him and the Administration great success in the future." Cohn, who left his post as president and chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs to join the White House in 2017,had urged Trump not to impose steep tariffs. He was widely seen as likely to exit after Trump announced plans to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. His next steps are unclear. A person familiar with Cohn's thinking said he had not ruled out a return to Wall Street. Cohn's decision caps an uneven tenure in the White House. He almost quit his job last year over the president’s comments about a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, even drafting resignation letters. But he stayed, and he landed a policy victory with the passage late last year of the Republican tax plan. Cohn told staff that he was resigning during a meeting late Tuesday afternoon, according to a White House official who was there. "We weren’t necessarily bowled over by the news because we knew it was going to happen at some point," the official said. "But it happened a little more quickly than we thought.” Cohn's resignation came after Trump repeatedly sought to downplay reports of discord in his administration, tweeting earlier Tuesday that claims of "chaos in the White House" were "fake news." But Trump also alluded to looming changes to West Wing personnel, saying, "I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection)." On Tuesday night, he tweeted specifically about Cohn's position: "Will be making a decision soon on the appointment of new Chief Economic Advisor. Many people wanting the job — will choose wisely!" Several high-profile White House staffers have left or announced plans to leave, including communications director Hope Hicks and Dina Powell, a fellow Goldman Sachs alum who became deputy national security adviser. Pressed on the matter during a press conference with the Swedish prime minister, Trump said there was "tremendous energy" in the White House and that "many, many people want every single job." "Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They all want a piece of that Oval Office; they want a piece of the West Wing," Trump told reporters. "And not only in terms of it looks great on their résumé; it's just a great place to work." During the summit Tuesday, Trump again voiced his intention to impose new tariffs, even though the idea has been widely criticized by Republicans and by free-trade supporters in the administration. Cohn and his backers launched a last-ditch effort to change Trump's mind, planning a White House meeting for Thursday with executives from industries likely to be hurt by big tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The administration appears to still be working through the details of the tariffs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that Canada and Mexico could be carved out, depending on how trade talks go with those countries. One White House official said Cohn's exit did not mean the details of tariff proposal were "set in stone." Trump told reporters Tuesday that the administration had "no choice" but to move forward, even after European leaders vowed to respond with their own punitive economic measures against the U.S. "I am convinced that increased tariffs will hurt us all in the long run,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said at the press conference. Cohn had been discussing leaving for several weeks, the White House said, adding that he would leave in the next few weeks. The person familiar with Cohn's thinking said he will remain in the administration for at least another week to continue to work on Trump's tariffs proposal. Though Cohn has not yet determined what his next steps will be, the person said, several Fortune 500 companies have reached out to him. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who Cohn worked under during his time at the company, reacted to news of the resignation by praising his work in the administration. "Gary Cohn deserves credit for serving his country in a first-class way," Blankfein tweeted. "I’m sure I join many others who are disappointed to see him leave."   Source: Politicio - Matthew Nussbaum and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.

By BERNARD CONDON, AP Business Writer   © The Associated Press This March 15, 2018 photo shows apartment buildings in the Astoria section of Queens, N.Y. The Kushner Cos. routinely filed false paperwork with the city declaring it had zero rent-regulated tenants in dozens of buildings… NEW YORK — When the Kushner Cos. bought three apartment buildings in a gentrifying neighborhood of Queens in 2015, most of the tenants were protected by special rules that prevent developers from pushing them out, raising rents and turning a tidy profit. But that's exactly what the company then run by Jared Kushner did, and with remarkable speed. Two years later, it sold all three buildings for $60 million, nearly 50 percent more than it paid. Now a clue has emerged as to how President Donald Trump's son-in-law's firm was able to move so fast: The Kushner Cos. routinely filed false paperwork with the city declaring it had zero rent-regulated tenants in dozens of buildings it owned across the city when, in fact, it had hundreds. While none of the documents during a three-year period when Kushner was CEO bore his personal signature, they provide a window into the ethics of the business empire he ran before he went on to become one of the most trusted advisers to the president of the United States. "It's bare-faced greed," said Aaron Carr, founder of Housing Rights Initiative, a tenants' rights watchdog that compiled the work permit application documents and shared them with The Associated Press. "The fact that the company was falsifying all these applications with the government shows a sordid attempt to avert accountability and get a rapid return on its investment." Kushner Cos. responded in a statement that it outsources the preparation of such documents to third parties that are reviewed by independent counsel, and "if mistakes or violations are identified, corrective action is taken immediately." "Kushner would never deny any tenant their due-process rights," it said, adding that the company "has renovated thousands of apartments and developments with minimal complaints over the past 30 years." For the three Queens buildings in the borough's Astoria neighborhood, the Kushner Cos. checked a box on construction permit applications in 2015 that indicated the buildings had zero rent-regulated tenants. Tax records filed a few months later showed the company inherited as many as 94 rent-regulated units from the previous owner. In all, Housing Rights Initiative found the Kushner Cos. filed at least 80 false applications for construction permits in 34 buildings across New York City from 2013 to 2016, all of them indicating there were no rent-regulated tenants. Instead, tax documents show there were more than 300 rent-regulated units. Nearly all the permit applications were signed by a Kushner employee, including sometimes the chief operating officer. Had the Kushner Cos. disclosed those rent-regulated tenants, it could have triggered stricter oversight of construction crews by the city, including possibly unscheduled "sweeps" on site by inspectors to keep the company from harassing tenants and getting them to leave. Instead, current and former tenants of the Queens buildings told the AP that they were subjected to extensive construction, with banging, drilling, dust and leaking water that they believe were part of targeted harassment to get them to leave and clear the way for higher-paying renters. "It was noisy, there were complaints, I got mice," said mailman Rudolph Romano, adding that the Kushner Cos. tried to increase his rent by 60 percent. "They cleaned the place out. I watched the whole building leave." Tax records show those rent-regulated units that numbered as many as 94 when Kushner took over fell to 25 by 2016. In Kushner buildings across the city, records show frequent complaints about construction going on early in the morning or late at night against the rules, improper or illegal construction, and work without a permit. At a six-story walk-up in Manhattan's East Village that was once home to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the Kushner Cos. filed an application to begin construction in late 2013 that, again, listed zero rent-regulated tenants. Tax records a few months later showed seven rent-regulated units. "All of a sudden, there was drilling, drilling. ... You heard the drilling in the middle of night," said one of the rent-regulated tenants, Mary Ann Siwek, 67, who lives on Social Security payments and odd jobs. "There were rats coming in from the abandoned building next door. The hallways were always filled with lumber and sawdust and plaster." A knock on the door came a few weeks later, and an offer of at least $10,000 if she agreed to leave the building. "I know it's pretty horrible, but we can help you get out," Siwek recalls the man saying. "We can offer you money." Siwek turned down the cash and sued instead. She said she won a year's worth of free rent and a new refrigerator. New York City Council member Ritchie Torres, who plans to launch an investigation into permit applications, said: "The Kushners appear to be engaging in what I call the weaponization of construction." Rent stabilization is a fixture of New York City that can bedevil developers seeking to make money off buildings. To free themselves of its restrictions, landlords usually have to wait until the rent rises above $2,733 a month, something that can take years given the small increases allowed each year. Submitting false documents to the city's Department of Buildings for construction permits is a misdemeanor, which can carry fines of up to $25,000. But real estate experts say it is often flouted with little to no consequences. Landlords who do so get off with no more than a demand from the city, sometimes a year or more later, to file an "amended" form with the correct numbers. Housing Rights Initiative found the Kushner Cos. filed dozens of amended forms for the buildings mentioned in the documents, most of them a year to two later. "There is a lack of tools to go after landlords who harass tenants, and there is a lack of enforcement," said Seth Miller, a real estate lawyer who used to work at a state housing agency overseeing rent regulations. Until officials inspect every construction site, "you're going to have this incentive for landlords to make life uncomfortable for tenants." New York City's Department of Buildings declined to comment specifically on the Kushner documents but said it is ramping up its monitoring of construction, hiring 72 new inspectors and other staff under laws recently passed by the City Council to crack down on tenant harassment. "We won't tolerate landlords who use construction to harass tenants — no matter who they are," said spokesman Joseph Soldevere. Exactly how much money the Kushner Cos. earned from the buildings mentioned in the documents is unclear. Of those 34 buildings, only the three in Queens and a fourth in Brooklyn appear to have been sold. The company also likely made money by reducing the number of rent-regulated tenants and bringing in those who would pay more. Jared Kushner, who stepped down as CEO of the Kushner Cos. last year before taking on his advisory role at the White House, sold off part of his real estate holdings as required under government ethics rules. But he retained stakes in many properties, including Westminster Management, the Kushner Cos. subsidiary that oversees its residential properties. A financial disclosure last year showed he still owns a stake in Westminster and earned $1.6 million from the holding. Back in Queens, the mailman Romano was one of the few rent-regulated tenants who fought back. He hired a lawyer who found out he was protected from the Kushners' 60 percent rent hike by law, something Romano did not know at the time. And his rent, which was set to increase to $3,750, was restored to $2,350. Romano is still in the building where he has lived for nine years, with his wife, four children and his guests from the construction days — the mice. "I still haven't gotten rid of them."

By Jonathan Chait   You’re going to have to pay me… One Billion Dollars! … Sorry, One Hundred Billion Dollars! Photo: Warner Bros; Getty Images Earlier this week, President Trump raised eyebrows when he told reporters of a phone call he had held with North Korea, in which he warned the dangerous rogue state it must de-nuclearize. (His administration later admitted quietly Trump had actually spoken with South Korea, not North Korea.) This week, Trump ventured another strange foreign policy pronouncement. He had asked China to produce a plan to reduce its trade deficit by One Billion Dollars. He even capitalized it to underscore the significance of the towering sum he proposed to extract: This demand was incredibly puzzling to trade economists, and regular economists, and anybody who had ever read a couple paragraphs in a random business story. China runs a trade surplus of $375 billion with the United States. Trump was demanding a reduction of 0.3 percent, or less than a single day’s worth of imports. The Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei reports that the demand was actually supposed to be $100 billion. It is not clear how the Trump administration arrived at this figure, but it is a round number, which Trump is known to prefer, and is also the sum Dr. Evil demanded from the United Nations after also mistakenly opening the negotiation by demanding too little: This is not the kind of deft maneuvering Americans expected when they elected a famed negotiator to the presidency to make the Best Deals. Alas, The Art of the Deal does not include any chapters about starting off a negotiation by making a ludicrously tiny ask because you don’t understand anything about the scale of the numbers involved. Donald J. Trump‏Verified account @realDonaldTrump China has been asked to develop a plan for the year of a One Billion Dollar reduction in their massive Trade Deficit with the United States. Our relationship with China has been a very good one, and we look forward to seeing what ideas they come back with. We must act soon! 7:10 AM - 7 Mar 2018

  While Trump cracked a few jokes during his speech at the Gridiron Club on Saturday night, he turned serious when he mentioned North Korea and said he was in direct contact with the regime. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) BY Jessica Chia NEW YORK DAILY NEWS   A White House official had to clear the air on Monday after President Trump confused North and South Korea in an astounding blunder that left foreign policy experts scratching their heads. While Trump cracked a few jokes during his speech at the Gridiron Club on Saturday night, he turned serious when he mentioned North Korea and said, “It was headed for disaster and now we’re talking. And they, by the way, called up a couple of days ago and said, ‘We would like to talk.’” “And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to denuke,’” according to Trump. A U.S. official said earlier this year that the president had never spoken to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un directly, despite trading barbs on the international stage. But an official on the National Security Council told Yonhap News Agency that Trump was referring to a March 1 phone call with South Korean President Moon Jae In — not the North’s dictator Kim Jong Un. But an official on the National Security Council told Yonhap News Agency that Trump was referring to a March 1 phone call with South Korean President Moon Jae In — not the North’s dictator Kim Jong Un. (Reuters/Getty) “President Trump did not have a call with the North Koreans,” the official said. Moon briefed Trump on recent developments during the call and the two leaders agreed “any dialogue with North Korea must be conducted with the explicit and unwavering goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” the official told Yonhap News. Paid Content by yoox.com MM6 MAISON MARGIELA   On Tuesday, Moon sent a South Korean envoy to the North’s capital in the first meeting with Kim since his rise to power after his dictator father’s death in 2011. North Korea’s state media said Kim expressed his desire to “write a new history of national reunification” during a dinner Monday night that Seoul said lasted about four hours. This picture taken on March 5, 2018 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) shaking hands with South Korean chief delegator Chung Eui-yong (C). (STR/AFP/Getty Images) Given the robust history of bloodshed, threats and animosity on the Korean Peninsula, there is considerable skepticism over whether the Koreas’ apparent warming relations will lead to lasting peace. North Korea, some believe, is trying to use improved ties with the South to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure, and to provide domestic propaganda fodder for Kim Jong Un. But each new development also raises the possibility that the rivals can use the momentum from the good feelings created during North Korea’s participation in the South’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last month to ease a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and restart talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

Trump misspelled Baldwin’s name twice in the unhinged rant. By Lee Moran   President Donald Trump took a break from dealing with the turmoil in his administration to lash out once again at actor Alec Baldwin in an early-morning Twitter rant. Earlier this week, Baldwin told The Hollywood Reporter that portraying Trump on “Saturday Night Live” had become “like agony.”  “Anybody over this guy,” said Baldwin. “It doesn’t matter. We have to get rid of him.” Baldwin’s comments apparently struck a nerve for Trump, whose administration is reeling from a string of setbacks this week, including the departure of one of his closest confidants, Hope Hicks. He’s also been criticized for appearing to cave to the NRA just a day after he promised to tackle gun control. The president responded to Baldwin’s comments with a rambling error-strewn post, in which he twice misspelled the actor’s name, as well as the word “dying.”  Trump also urged “SNL” to bring back Darrell Hammond, who portrayed the then-reality star on the show until 2016. The tweet remained live for around 10 minutes before it was deleted. Trump quickly replaced it with this correctly spelled post: Criticizing Baldwin has become something of a habit for Trump. He repeatedly tore into Baldwin over his “SNL” portrayal during the 2016 election campaign and has been taking regular shots at the actor ever since.   Source: HuffPost

Reuters Staff   WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A day after announcing steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. Trump said on Thursday that the United States would apply duties of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum to protect U.S. producers, although White House officials later said some details still needed to be ironed out. “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump’s tweet read. “Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore-we win big. It’s easy!”   Fears of an escalating trade war triggered selloffs on Wall Street and in Asia and Europe, hitting the share prices of steelmakers and manufacturers supplying U.S. markets particularly hard. Trump believes the tariffs will safeguard American jobs, but many economists say the impact of price increases for users of steel and aluminum, such as the auto and oil industries, will destroy more jobs than curbs on imports create. Australia’s trade minister said the measures risked triggering retaliation from other economies and could cost jobs, on Friday, while China predicted harm to trade if other countries followed the example of the United States. In Brussels, the European Commission called the step a blatant intervention that amounted to protectionism. However, while promising to act “firmly”, it made no mention of retaliation but instead spoke of counter-measures that conformed to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Brussels will join other countries in challenging the measures at the WTO and says it will also look into safeguard measures.

By S.V. Date   Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s failure to get a top-level security clearance raises questions about how he can do his job. WASHINGTON ― The presidential son-in-law charged with crafting a Middle East peace plan now cannot even legally read U.S. intelligence reports about the region. Last week chief of staff John Kelly’s directed top-level security clearances to be canceled for those unable to pass a necessary FBI background check, and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is among those affected. The White House did not respond to HuffPost queries about how Kushner would be able to continue in his task without the “top secret, sensitive compartmented information” clearance he had been given on an interim basis at the start of Trump’s presidency 13 months ago. “Mr. Kushner has done more than what is expected of him in this process,” a Kushner spokesperson said in a statement. “Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for these clearance reviews to take this long in a new administration, and that the current backlogs are now being addressed. No concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application. As General Kelly himself said, the new clearance policy will not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president.” Others familiar with security clearances and secret materials, though, said the downgrade dramatically hurts Kushner’s ability to do his assigned job. “This is not a role one could do effectively without access to top secret information,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. Bradley Moss, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in security clearance applications, said negotiating a peace agreement requires knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. And that requires having access to information coming from agents as well as from listening posts and spy satellites ― so-called signals intelligence. “That type of work requires access to intelligence about the players involved, any side discussions they’re having ― that’s where signals intelligence comes into play ― and the situation on the ground,” he said. “I don’t see how you do the equivalent work of a Secretary of State with only a ‘secret’ clearance.” While the “TS/SCI” interim clearance is the highest available, “secret” is only a step above the lowest. “A lot of the relevant information that would inform the US negotiating position — not just with the Israelis and Palestinians, but other international actors — is very sensitive,” said Colin Kahl, once the national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. “And every other member of the US interagency working with Kushner would also have to worry about divulging classified information. It’s not tenable.” On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to answer questions about why Kushner’s security clearance had run into problems. “I’ve been very clear that we don’t discuss security clearances,” she said. “That’s not changing today. It didn’t change yesterday. It’s not going to change tomorrow. Probably not going to change next week.” That assertion, however, is not true. White House officials discussed the security clearance of former staff secretary Rob Porter in great detail after news accounts revealed his clearance had been held up because his two ex-wives told the FBI he’d physically abused them. It was in the swirl of that scandal that reports emerged that dozens of White House staff members ― include Kushner ― were still working with interim clearances because of problems with their background investigations. Kushner’s reportedly was held up because of questions concerning his finances and the interest foreign investors have shown in his family’s business, potentially as a way to influence him toward their own ends. His decision years ago to purchase an expensive office tower in Midtown Manhattan put the family firm deeply in debt. While these issues were known even during the campaign, Trump nevertheless replicated the small, closely held family business he had run for decades when he moved into the Oval Office. Both his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and Kushner were brought into the White House as top aides. Early in Trump’s administration, Kushner’s portfolio appeared to include just about everything his father-in-law said he wanted to accomplish, from an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, to solving the opioid epidemic, to negotiating trade deals, to improving the Veterans Affairs system. Kushner was even put in charge of an “Office of American Innovation,” which was seemingly tasked with solving all problems in both the public and private sectors. A year later, Kushner’s public profile, at least, has diminished. He was a key figure in pushing White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon out last summer, but Kelly’s simultaneous arrival brought a new power structure to the West Wing. Everyone from that point forward reported to Kelly, including Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Previously, a number of staff members had effectively reported to no one but the president, bypassing the erstwhile chief of staff, Reince Priebus. At a brief joint news conference with the Australian prime minister on Friday, President Trump praised Kushner’s work but said the decision on his security clearance would be Kelly’s alone. “So that’ll be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot and General Kelly will make that call. I won’t make that call,” Trump said.   Source: HuffPost

The story dropped the same day we learned Jared Kushner had lost his top-secret security clearance. By Nick Visser   Jared Kushner’s complicated financial holdings, business debt and political inexperience have prompted foreign officials in several countries to discuss ways they can manipulate the president’s son-in-law and close adviser, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. The report capped a complicated day for Kushner. Politico reported on Tuesday that he had his top-secret security clearance downgraded after months of working with an interim clearance due to ongoing issues with his FBI background check. And Axios said that deputy communications director and Kushner point man Josh Raffel will leave the White House after handling many news crises over the past year. Officials from at least four countries ― China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates ― have discussed ways to influence Kushner, although it’s unclear if they acted on such plans, The Washington Post wrote, citing current and former officials familiar with the intelligence reports. Some of these sources said that administration officials were worried Kushner was “naive and being tricked” during his dealings with foreigners, and that people occasionally asked to meet with him in lieu of more experienced staff. Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was initially “surprised” by some of Kushner’s foreign contacts and “wanted an explanation,” a source told the Post. A spokesman for Kushner’s lawyer called the news account “second-hand hearsay” in a statement to the Post. “We will not respond substantively to unnamed sources peddling second-hand hearsay with rank speculation that continue to leak inaccurate information,” spokesman Peter Mirijanian said.  Until last Friday, Kushner had been working in the White House with an interim security clearance that afforded him access to top-secret documents, including the president’s daily intelligence briefing. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said earlier this month that he would overhaul the interim clearance situation after critics noted that former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned over allegations that he had abused two of his ex-wives, had also been working for months with a temporary clearance.  Kushner reportedly resisted efforts to give up his top-secret access and said he felt personally targeted by Kelly.  But nonetheless he was officially downgraded from the SCI (sensitive compartmented information) level to the Secret level on Friday, according to Politico, and no longer receives the president’s intelligence briefing. It’s expected that his large portfolio of duties, many of which revolve around complicated foreign affairs issues, will also be reduced. “It really undermines his ability to do the work he’s supposed to be doing and makes him into more of a figurehead,” Brad Moss, a national security lawyer, told HuffPost earlier on Tuesday.

by Adam Edelman and Hallie Jackson First Lady Melania Trump is seen at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital on Feb. 5, 2018.John Sommers II / Reuters   WASHINGTON — First lady Melania Trump has cut ties with a top aide whose firm was reportedly paid millions of dollars by President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, a spokeswoman for the first lady’s office said Tuesday. The first lady has “severed the gratuitous services contract” with Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, confirmed to NBC News. "We thank her for her hard work and wish her all the best," Grisham said in a statement. Wolkoff’s termination comes two weeks after news emerged that the president’s inaugural committee paid nearly $26 million to an event planning company that was reportedly founded by her. The 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) — which organized Trump's inauguration last year and was led by Tom Barrack, a close friend of the president and a financial backer of the campaign — paid a company called WIS Media Partners $25.8 million for "event production services," tax returns released earlier this month showed.  Stephanie Winston Wolkoff Presley Ann / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images   The New York Times reported at the time that WIS Media Partners was founded in December 2016 — one month before the inauguration — by Wolkoff, a former fashion executive and event planner who'd previously been best known for planning the annual Met Gala. Melania Trump later hired Wolkoff as a senior adviser. At the time, a spokesperson for Melania Trump told NBC News that Trump "had no involvement with the PIC, and had no knowledge of how funds were spent." The first lady's office added then that Wolkoff is a special government employee for the office and is unpaid. The Times also reported that Wolkoff was personally paid $1.62 million of the $25.8 million.   Another $25 million of the overall inaugural spending went to Hargrove Inc. for "event production services," the tax filings showed, meaning that roughly half of the inaugural committee's record $107 million raised went to just two vendors. The group also donated about $5 million to charitable organizations.

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