What Does Rhona Graff Know? Meet Donald Trump’s Longtime Gatekeeper
When Republican strategist and longtime Trump associate Roger Stone wants to get a word with the President, he doesn’t contact the traditional White House staff. Instead, he calls Rhona Graff, the woman who has been the President’s personal assistant and functional gatekeeper to the Trump Organization for nearly thirty years.
Normally, you would have seen a picture of Graff at the top of this article. We would have led with a high-quality image of her exiting Trump Tower, or boarding a campaign plane. However, despite her decades of following one of the most photographed men of our time around, there are less than a handful of shots of Graff herself. A few glimpses of her at Fashion Week and a blurry tabloid are her only digital footprints.
In an age of limited internet privacy, Rhona Graff has managed to all but not exist. With Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election closing in on White House staff and expanding into possible financial crimes committed by Trump and his associates in the past, this is sure to change very soon.
Once nicknamed “Donald Trump’s right hand,” by Page Six of The New York Post, Graff is known in certain circles as the best way for former business partners to get a word with the President. During the campaign, she was in charge of handling Trump’s personal schedule, leading many to approach her if they wanted to offer advice or schedule lunch when the then-candidate was in Mar-a-Lago. In a 2004 interview, Graff herself spoke to how integral her role in the Trump Organization is:
“Everybody knows in order to get through to him they have to go through me.”
This apparently hasn’t changed since Trump’s inauguration, according to reporting from various outlets, creating concern that calls to Graff are in violation of the Federal Records Act — which requires the recording of the President’s correspondence.
Recently, Graff made headlines when Donald Trump Jr. released a June 2016 email exchange with British publicist Rob Goldstone that led to the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Despite contradictory initial statements, the meeting was held in an effort to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives.
In the email chain, Goldstone discussed using Graff as a conduit for further conversations which might include the senior Trump:
“What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly? I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.”
According to an ABC News report, congressional investigators have expressed interest in speaking to Graff herself, to better deconstruct the complex spider web of disinformation surrounding the 2016 meeting. Regardless of whether or not she was ever contacted by Goldstone, her unique connection to Trump is worth exploring.
Graff is one of the few people with intimate knowledge of who talks to the President behind closed doors — and if history has taught us anything, this closeness breeds loyalty that deserves special attention.
Like the President, Graff is a New York native born and raised in Queens. She began working for the Trump Organization in 1987, under Trump’s then assistant, Norma Foerderer. She reportedly got her job by walking into an employment office and taking the only position available.
Now a senior vice president at the Trump Organization — which the President supposedly no longer oversees, at least in regards to day to day management — Graff has risen through the ranks to become a key figure in the Trump universe. She even spent a few seasons with a co-starring role on The Apprentice, gaining enough name recognition that people began asking for her specifically in hopes of being patched through to Trump himself.
In order to make sure only his closest associates were able to get through to him, he would supply them with a secret code that only Graff knew. If they got the correct code, they’d be able to talk to the man in charge. Without the code, Graff functioned as the last line of defense against unwanted callers.
She took a more active role in certain calls as well. It’s been well-documented that the President has a long history of recording calls with associates, but less attention has been paid to the fact that his secretaries often listen into his calls. In 2016, after being disconnected from a call with Trump, Washington Post reporters reached back out to Graff who mentioned that she had been on the line with them:
“Yeah, I heard you got disconnected. I heard some of it, though. Boy, those were really negative questions. Do you have any good questions to ask him?”
While she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, the few interviews she has given over the years make clear that Graff is steadfastly devoted to Trump. She refers to him as “Mr. Trump” or “Mr. T”, and is considered by many to be part of the Trump family.
It’s no surprise that Graff is intensely loyal to her employer. The President cultivates employees that are dedicated to protecting his interests. With Special Counsel Robert Mueller rapidly closing in on White House officials in his investigation regarding potential collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign, the pool of people Trump can rely on is getting smaller and smaller.
The fact that Graff was mentioned in relation to connecting the information Veselnitskaya had with Trump himself brings many questions to the table. Was she aware of the meeting, and if so, how likely is it that she alerted her boss to it?
Given this knowledge, her closeness to the President, and her long-standing relationships with many of his associates, it makes sense that she would merit investigatory spotlight. Especially considering the strange places her name has shown up over the years…
An Email And An FEC Violation
Trump Jr.’s June 2016 correspondence wasn’t the first time Graff’s name appeared in controversial emails. In the fall of 2015, just as the presidential race was starting to heat up, a Colorado GOP operative named Mike Ciletti sent a solicitation email to a long time GOP donor and Trump associate regarding a super PAC that supported Trump. In the body of the email, Ciletti referenced Graff as the way he acquired the contact information he was using.
The email began (emphasis added):
Subject: Trump Super PAC
If you have a moment I would like to discuss Make America Great Again, the Super PAC for Donald Trump. I apologize for reaching you at this email address, it is the one that Rhona had on file.
Federal law prohibits super PACS from coordinating directly with campaigns. While this law is relatively murky and often circumvented, gathering information from Graff — who was part of the campaign’s staff — crosses important legal lines.
The discovery of this email and its subsequent connection with Graff set off a myriad of inquiries that led to shutting down of the “Make America Great Again” super PAC. The Washington Post discovered multiple monetary connections between the Trump campaign and the PAC.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, the campaign directed $56,000 to WizBang Solutions, a Colorado-based printing company that Ciletti served as director. The campaign also paid $33,000 to a telemarketing firm connected to Ciletti during the same time he was working for the PAC.
Federal rules only allow such a connection if there is a “strict firewall in place to prevent coordination.” Reporters were unable to get any member related to this issue to comment on whether or not such protections existed.
The Trump campaign repeatedly ran on the principle that they did not endorse any super PACs nor did they receive funding from them. Trump himself criticized many of his opponents for relying financially on the support of super PACs.
When asked about the campaign’s connections to the group, then-campaign manager Corey Lewandoski furiously denied that they had given the group its blessing.
“I want to be crystal clear,” Lewandowski told reporters. “There is no sanctioned super PAC.” Lewandowski himself originally denied knowing, or having any connection to Ciletti. However, as has become the custom of Trump associates, he later changed his story when facts tying the two together became public knowledge.
Ciletti’s company WizBang Solutions worked extensively with Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative advocacy group where Lewandowski served as a director. In a 2013 email, Ciletti even referred to Lewandoski by his first name as a reference for how efficient his company was.
It’s important to note at this point that the discovery of how enmeshed the Trump campaign was with this super PAC only came after the mention of Graff’s name. Her relationship with Trump and other high-level officials around him is so invaluable that she provides an incredible access point into the behind the scenes action of whatever her boss is doing.
If one mention of her name in a 2015 email led to all of this, what will her presence in the Trump Jr. email exchange reveal?
As revelation after revelation continues to emerge in the ongoing Trump-Russia investigation, the connecting thread is the controversy surrounding the President’s close associates. From former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation to ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort’s rumored impending indictment, it’s only a matter of time before the house of cards begins tumbling down.
The question remains where Donald Trump’s right-hand woman fits in all of this. With multiple investigations dissecting the June 2016 meeting and surrounding events, her name is sure to appear again. In nearly 30 years, wherever one found Trump, his loyal assistant was sure to be right behind him. Through divorces, debt, failed and successful political campaigns, Graff has been there, making sure important associates and business partners are able to speak to her boss.
With Mueller’s investigation expanding to include potential financial crimes (such as tax evasion and money laundering) committed by Trump and associates, Graff is likely to come into the spotlight. She has fielded Trump’s communications over the last three decades, which makes it highly predictable that any discovered wrongdoing would implicate her as well.
Graff has spent decades in the room where it happens, so to speak. As for what this will reveal, only time will tell — but history has given us a little guidance.
Richard Nixon had Rose Mary Woods, and Donald Trump has Rhona Graff.
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