Stephanie Grisham is operating under a basic principle as President Donald Trump’s new chief spokesperson and communications director: Let Trump soak up all the media oxygen.
She has not appeared on Fox News, the president’s favorite channel, or taken reporters’ questions in a gaggle from the White House driveway.
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Apart from a single missive sent out last week under the official press secretary Twitter handle, she stayed out of the week-long explosions over the president’s fiery directive that four Democratic lawmakers and women of color should “go back” to their countries if they do not like the way the U.S. government runs. “So typical to watch the mainstream media and Dems attack @realDonaldTrump for speaking directly to the American people,” Grisham wrote in her July 15 Tweet. “His message is simple: the U.S.A. is the greatest nation on Earth, but if people aren’t happy here they don’t have to stay.”
Trump’s comments triggered harsh criticism from across the political spectrum in Washington, forcing the president to lurch between disavowing his comments and defending them. But Grisham was nowhere to be seen publicly.
Unlike her predecessors Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Grisham is not on her way to becoming a household name or the subject of a “Saturday Night Live“skit. Hicks could barely leave her Washington apartment without being photographed toward the end of her tenure. Most Americans do not know what Grisham’s voice sounds like — a rarity for a White House front man.
For now, she’s fine letting others do the talking, according to interviews with 10 current and former senior administration officials.
She still intends to put her own imprint on the West Wing. On paper, she’s brainstorming a potential new structure for the roughly 40-person press and communications shop that would leave much of the day-to-day management of staff and decision-making to deputies. She’s also considering bringing in additional staff. She does not plan to constantly appear on TV like senior adviser Kellyanne Conway or principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, both of whom the president likes on-air. Instead she’ll pick her spots when she speaks out publicly or goes on the attack, just as she did under the First Lady.
Grisham sees the key constituencies for her job now as serving both the president and the press, according to friends and current and former administration officials — to allow Trump to serve as his own best messenger and dictate the strategy while giving reporters as much direct access to him as possible. She’s been, so far, like a silent middleman.
And as for those seemingly dead daily briefings? Several senior administration officials stressed the president — and he alone — decides if and when those will reappear, even occasionally.
“The president is very happy with the way things are. I have no sense anything major will change,” said one former administration official. “If it does change, it will be the Cabinet officials who go out more.”
The president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Jonathan Karl, said that based on his initial conversations with Grisham, he believes she wants to bring back the briefings in some form once she settles into her new role.
The most concrete action she has taken so far inside the building is putting her nameplate on her new office door, meeting with staff individually and hiring a young new assistant from another White House office. She is also receiving briefings from White House experts to get up to speed on the vast policy portfolio, from economics to national security to foreign policy. Grisham declined to be interviewed for this story.
No one can say Grisham started off her tenure slowly. Her first weekend on the job in late June involved attending G20 meetings with Trump followed by a historic visit to the DMZ, accompanying the first president to ever visit North Korea. She earned kudos from the U.S. traveling press on that trip when she shoved aside North Korean security guards who were attempting to block U.S. journalists’ access to Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a video of the encounter, Grisham is seen pushing a guard to the side and then saying, wide-eyed to American journalists, “Go, go.”
Karl called it “a good start when she — literally — fought to get the White House press pool access.”
White House and senior administration officials have expressed relief that Trump chose her for the job and not an official from an agency or pundit from Fox News.
“People are really happy that it is someone within the building who already has familiarity with the operation. There is a drama-free nature to the transition, and so far, no one is killing anyone or fighting,” said one White House official.
Staffers, who usually call Grisham by her last name, feel like she is a known commodity who can build on her existing relationship with the president and First Lady — while keeping her teams firmly within the power structure of the White House and not marginalized.
Part of her first few weeks have involved spending more time with Trump, several senior administration officials say. The two talk throughout the day by phone, starting early in the morning and then meet in-person in the Oval Office throughout the work day. Grisham is also continuing to oversee the press operations of the First Lady, keeping up her close relationship with Ms. Trump. Both Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are fans of hers, say senior administration officials.
Her relationship with the Trump family dates back to the 2016 campaign, when she served as a traveling press director and helped to shepherd the national media on the Trump plane from event to event. That experience helped her get to know and earn the respect of national political reporters, but it also put her in the rarefied category of a “Trump campaign original” alongside officials such as Hope Hicks, Dan Scavino, Stephen Miller or Trump’s former body man Johnny McEntee.
“President Trump just trusts her completely in terms of that loyalty test he has with everyone,” said Cliff Sims, author of the White House memoir “Team of Vipers” and the former director of White House message strategy. “When she first moved over to the First Lady’s office, he used to talk about how much he missed her wrangling the press. When they’d keep yelling questions in the Oval after it was time to leave, he would say, ‘This never happened when Stephanie was here.’”
Following the campaign, Grisham briefly joined the White House press shop as a deputy under Sean Spicer before Ms. Trump poached her for the East Wing. This gave her early exposure to the White House’s sprawling press and communications operations including its processes and infighting.
Over in the East Wing, Grisham earned a reputation as a tough defender of the First Lady in a shop where there were almost no leaks. She made occasional TV appearances on behalf of Ms. Trump for events surrounding the “Be Best” campaign, the annual Easter Egg Roll and Halloween festivities. But mostly, she played a more behind-the-scenes role as a fierce defender of Ms. Trump, who occasionally put out strongly worded statements including one about a former top White House national security adviser who was later fired.
Ms. Trump was the one to announce Grisham’s move to the West Wing, writing on Twitter: “She has been with us since 2015 – @potus & I can think of no better person to serve the Administration & our country. Excited to have Stephanie working for both sides of the @WhiteHouse.”
Grisham’s position was even further cemented last week when the entire press and communications operation took a team photo in the Oval Office with the president to mark the transition and to say thanks to the younger staff members. The president specifically commended Grisham during the photo op, according to two officials, and it felt like the hallmark of a new era.
Grisham is the only person in the Trump White House to hold the title of both press secretary and communications director for both the West Wing and East Wing of the White House.
“The president is his own spokesperson, so we’re moving into a new era in terms of the press secretary’s core responsibilities. I think Stephanie will play a role similar to what Sarah Huckabee Sanders morphed into — a trusted adviser to the president on press and communications issues, who manages the team,” said Sims.
As a longtime visitor to the Trump orbit, Grisham also knows better than most what it takes to survive and thrive.
The people who last the longest “are the ones who are not constantly sucked into whatever the public relations, on-camera crisis of the moment and instead work to maintain a lower profile,” Sims added. “That is what Stephanie did with the First Lady. She picked her spots.”