Authors: Michael Wolff
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Kellyanne Conway first met Donald Trump at a meeting of the condo board for the Trump International Hotel, which was directly across the
street from the UN and was where, in the early 2000s, she lived with her husband and children. Conway’s husband, George, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, was a partner at the premier corporate mergers and acquisitions firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. (Though Wachtell was a Democratic-leaning firm, George had played a behind-the-scenes role on the team that represented Paula Jones in her pursuit of Bill Clinton.) In its professional and domestic balance, the Conway family was organized around George’s career. Kellyanne’s career was a sidelight.
Kellyanne, who in the Trump campaign would use her working-class biography to good effect, grew up in central New Jersey, the daughter of a trucker, raised by a single mother (and, always in her narrative, her grandmother and two unmarried aunts). She went to George Washington law school and afterward interned for Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin. Then she became the assistant to Frank Luntz, a curious figure in the Republican Party, known as much for his television deals and toupee as for his polling acumen. Conway herself began to make appearances on cable TV while working for Luntz.
One virtue of the research and polling business she started in 1995 was that it could adapt to her husband’s career. But she never much rose above a midrank presence in Republican political circles, nor did she become more than the also-ran behind Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham on cable television—which is where Trump first saw her and why he singled her out at the condo board meeting.
In a real sense, however, her advantage was not meeting Trump but being taken up by the Mercers. They recruited Conway in 2015 to work on the Cruz campaign, when Trump was still far from the conservative ideal, and then, in August 2016, inserted her into the Trump campaign.
She understood her role. “I will only ever call you Mr. Trump,” she told the candidate with perfect-pitch solemnity when he interviewed her for the job. It was a trope she would repeat in interview after interview—Conway was a catalog of learned lines—a message repeated as much for Trump as for others.
Her title was campaign manager, but that was a misnomer. Bannon was the real manager, and she was the senior pollster. But Bannon shortly
replaced her in that role and she was left in what Trump saw as the vastly more important role of cable spokesperson.
Conway seemed to have a convenient On-Off toggle. In private, in the Off position, she seemed to regard Trump as a figure of exhausting exaggeration or even absurdity—or, at least, if you regarded him that way, she seemed to suggest that she might, too. She illustrated her opinion of her boss with a whole series of facial expressions: eyes rolling, mouth agape, head snapping back. But in the On position, she metamorphosed into believer, protector, defender, and handler. Conway is an antifeminist (or, actually, in a complicated ideological somersault, she sees feminists as being antifeminists), ascribing her methods and temperament to her being a wife and mother. She’s instinctive and reactive. Hence her role as the ultimate Trump defender: she verbally threw herself in front of any bullet coming his way.
Trump loved her defend-at-all-costs shtick. Conway’s appearances were on his schedule to watch live. His was often the first call she got after coming off the air. She channeled Trump: she said exactly the kind of Trump stuff that would otherwise make her put a finger-gun to her head.
After the election—Trump’s victory setting off a domestic reordering in the Conway household, and a scramble to get her husband an administration job—Trump assumed she would be his press secretary. “He and my mother,” Conway said, “because they both watch a lot of television, thought this was one of the most important jobs.” In Conway’s version, she turned Trump down or demurred. She kept proposing alternatives in which she would be the key spokesperson but would be more as well. In fact, almost everyone else was maneuvering Trump around his desire to appoint Conway.
Loyalty was Trump’s most valued attribute, and in Conway’s view her kamikaze-like media defense of the president had earned her a position of utmost primacy in the White House. But in her public persona, she had pushed the boundaries of loyalty too far; she was so hyperbolic that even Trump loyalists found her behavior extreme and were repelled. None were more put off than Jared and Ivanka, who, appalled at the
shamelessness of her television appearances, extended this into a larger critique of Conway’s vulgarity. When referring to her, they were particularly partial to using the shorthand “nails,” a reference to her Cruella de Vil-length manicure treatments.
By mid-February she was already the subject of leaks—many coming from Jared and Ivanka—about how she had been sidelined. She vociferously defended herself, producing a list of television appearances still on her schedule, albeit lesser ones. But she also had a teary scene with Trump in the Oval Office, offering to resign if the president had lost faith in her. Almost invariably, when confronted with self-abnegation, Trump offered copious reassurances. “You will always have a place in my administration,” he told her. “You will be here for eight years.”
But she had indeed been sidelined, reduced to second-rate media, to being a designated emissary to right-wing groups, and left out of any meaningful decision making. This she blamed on the media, a scourge that further united her in self-pity with Donald Trump. In fact, her relationship with the president deepened as they bonded over their media wounds.
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Hope Hicks, then age twenty-six, was the campaign’s first hire. She knew the president vastly better than Conway did, and she understood that her most important media function was not to be in the media.
Hicks grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her father was a PR executive who now worked for the Glover Park Group, the Democratic-leaning communications and political consulting firm; her mother was a former staffer for a democratic congressman. An indifferent student, Hicks went to Southern Methodist University and then did some modeling before getting a PR job. She first went to work for Matthew Hiltzik, who ran a small New York-based PR firm and was noted for his ability to work with high-maintenance clients, including the movie producer Harvey Weinstein (later pilloried for years of sexual harassment and abuse—accusations that Hiltzik and his staff had long helped protect him from) and the television personality Katie Couric. Hiltzik, an active Democrat who had
worked for Hillary Clinton, also represented Ivanka Trump’s fashion line; Hicks started to do some work for the account and then joined Ivanka’s company full time. In 2015, Ivanka seconded her to her father’s campaign; as the campaign progressed, moving from novelty project to political factor to juggernaut, Hicks’s family increasingly, and incredulously, viewed her as rather having been taken captive. (Following the Trump victory and her move into the White House, her friends and intimates talked with great concern about what kind of therapies and recuperation she would need after her tenure was finally over.)
Over the eighteen months of the campaign, the traveling group usually consisted of the candidate, Hicks, and the campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. In time, she became—in addition to an inadvertent participant in history, about which she was quite as astonished as anyone—a kind of Stepford factotum, as absolutely dedicated to and tolerant of Mr. Trump as anyone who had ever worked for him.
Shortly after Lewandowski, with whom Hicks had an on-and-off romantic relationship, was fired in June 2016 for clashing with Trump family members, Hicks sat in Trump Tower with Trump and his sons, worrying about Lewandowski’s treatment in the press and wondering aloud how she might help him. Trump, who otherwise seemed to treat Hicks in a protective and even paternal way, looked up and said, “Why? You’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,” sending Hicks running from the room.
As new layers began to form around Trump, first as nominee and then as president-elect, Hicks continued playing the role of his personal PR woman. She would remain his constant shadow and the person with the best access to him. “Have you spoken to Hope?” were among the words most frequently uttered in the West Wing.
Hicks, sponsored by Ivanka and ever loyal to her, was in fact thought of as Trump’s real daughter, while Ivanka was thought of as his real wife. More functionally, but as elementally, Hicks was the president’s chief media handler. She worked by the president’s side, wholly separate from the White House’s forty-person-strong communications office. The president’s personal message and image were entrusted to her—or,
more accurately, she was the president’s agent in retailing that message and image, which he trusted to no one but himself. Together they formed something of a freelance operation.
Without any particular politics of her own, and, with her New York PR background, quite looking down on the right-wing press, she was the president’s official liaison to the mainstream media. The president had charged her with the ultimate job: a good write-up in the
New York Times
That, in the president’s estimation, had yet failed to happen, “but Hope tries and tries,” the president said.
On more than one occasion, after a day—one of the countless days—of particularly bad notices, the president greeted her, affectionately, with “You must be the world’s worst PR person.”
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In the early days of the transition, with Conway out of the running for the press secretary job, Trump became determined to find a “star.” The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who had spoken at the convention, was on the list, as was Ann Coulter. Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo was also under consideration. (This was television, the president-elect said, and it ought to be a good-looking woman.) When none of those ideas panned out, the job was offered to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who turned it down.
But there was a counterview: the press secretary ought to be the opposite of a star. In fact, the entire press operation ought to be downgraded. If the press was the enemy, why pander to it, why give it more visibility? This was fundamental Bannonism: stop thinking you can somehow get along with your enemies.
As the debate went on, Priebus pushed for one of his deputies at the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer, a well-liked forty-five-year-old Washington political professional with a string of posts on the Hill in the George W. Bush years as well as with the RNC. Spicer, hesitant to take the job, kept anxiously posing the question to colleagues in the Washington swamp: “If I do this, will I ever be able to work again?”
There were conflicting answers.
During the transition, many members of Trump’s team came to agree
with Bannon that their approach to White House press management ought to be to push it off—and the longer the arm’s length the better. For the press, this initiative, or rumors of it, became another sign of the incoming administration’s antipress stance and its systematic efforts to cut off the information supply. In truth, the suggestions about moving the briefing room away from the White House, or curtailing the briefing schedule, or limiting broadcast windows or press pool access, were variously discussed by other incoming administrations. In her husband’s White House, Hillary Clinton had been a proponent of limiting press access.
It was Donald Trump who was not able to relinquish this proximity to the press and the stage in his own house. He regularly berated Spicer for his ham-handed performances, often giving his full attention to them. His response to Spicer’s briefings was part of his continuing belief that nobody could work the media like he could, that somehow he had been stuck with an F-Troop communications team that was absent charisma, magnetism, and proper media connections.
Trump’s pressure on Spicer—a constant stream of directorial castigation and instruction that reliably rattled the press secretary—helped turn the briefings into a can’t-miss train wreck. Meanwhile, the real press operation had more or less devolved into a set of competing press organizations within the White House.
There was Hope Hicks and the president, living in what other West Wingers characterized as an alternative universe in which the mainstream media would yet discover the charm and wisdom of Donald Trump. Where past presidents might have spent portions of their day talking about the needs, desires, and points of leverage among various members of Congress, the president and Hicks spent a great deal of time talking about a fixed cast of media personalities, trying to second-guess the real agendas and weak spots among cable anchors and producers and
Often the focus of this otherworldly ambition was directed at
reporter Maggie Haberman. Haberman’s front-page beat at the paper, which might be called the “weirdness of Donald Trump” beat, involved producing vivid tales of eccentricities, questionable behavior, and shit the
president says, told in a knowing, deadpan style. Beyond acknowledging that Trump was a boy from Queens yet in awe of the
, nobody in the West Wing could explain why he and Hicks would so often turn to Haberman for what would so reliably be a mocking and hurtful portrayal. There was some feeling that Trump was returning to scenes of past success: the
might be against him, but Haberman had worked at the
New York Post
for many years. “She’s very professional,” Conway said, speaking in defense of the president and trying to justify Haberman’s extraordinary access. But however intent he remained on getting good ink in the
, the president saw Haberman as “mean and horrible.” And yet, on a near-weekly basis, he and Hicks plotted when next to have the
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Kushner had his personal press operation and Bannon had his. The leaking culture had become so open and overt—most of the time everybody could identify everybody else’s leaks—that it was now formally staffed.