Kellyanne Conway, an ‘insider’s insider,’ on life in Trump White House
Where others see "surviving," top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway sees "thriving." That's central to understanding one of the most influential voices in the White House.
Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
For Kellyanne Conway, the political bungee jump of a lifetime started almost two years ago – first as a top official for Candidate Trump, then as counselor to President Trump. She’s an insider’s insider on Team Trump, lasting longer than many of the president’s top advisers.
But don’t call her a “survivor” – despite the fact that she has witnessed the departure of many senior Trump White House colleagues, from the first chief of staff and spokesman, to two national security advisers, to several communications directors.
“I look at it as thriving more than surviving,” Ms. Conway told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
Conway speaks reverentially of her daily arrival at the White House, where she says “a daily prayer and begin[s] the day recognizing that I work for a man and a vice president … who are making decisions that impact people’s lives.”
She also praises the president for giving her and other women opportunities to succeed – not just in his campaign and administration, but also in his real estate career. Even Trump critics acknowledge that he did give women leadership opportunities in his business operations decades ago when such a practice was less common. For Conway in 2016, it was a matter of proving herself first as a campaign strategist before she was elevated to manager, after the firing of Paul Manafort.
“Look, I’m 51 years old. I was a pollster and a political consultant for years and years, and everyone knew who I was…. I worked on campaigns, I worked for corporate America, I had a great life, successful business,” Conway says. “However, it is Donald J. Trump that elevated me to campaign manager and counselor to the president. And women should look at that example.”
Conway will go down in history as the first woman to run a successful American presidential campaign – a point that would have gained more notice were she not a conservative Republican, says Conway friend and GOP campaign lawyer Cleta Mitchell.
“If she were a liberal Democrat, she’d be the toast of the country,” says Ms. Mitchell. “She’d be on the cover of every women’s magazine.… I mean, Donna Brazile ran Al Gore’s losing campaign, and they thought she was a genius.”
Left unstated is Trump’s “women troubles” – the 16 women who have accused him of sexual harassment and unwanted touching, and the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced a month before the election, in which Trump brags in crude terms about grabbing women.
It’s also not difficult to find comments by Conway in the not-too-distant past disparaging Trump, from her days early in the 2016 presidential campaign working for a super political action committee that backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida. In January 2016, she referred to Trump as one who “seems to be offending his way to the nomination and calling it honesty.”
But in politics, such verbal shape-shifting is commonplace, and no one blinked when Conway joined the Trump train and began singing his praises. Conway and Trump, in fact, go way back. They met when she and her husband lived in Trump Tower, and she joined the condo board.
Today, the women who speak for Trump – including Conway and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders – may help insulate him from charges of sexism. Until recently, Trump’s communications operation was thoroughly dominated by women, also including the now-departed communications director Hope Hicks and Omarosa Manigault-Newman, director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison; director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp; director of media affairs Helen Ferré; and various press-shop deputies and assistants.
Technically, Conway isn’t a member of his communications team. She holds the rank of “counselor,” meaning she can play a variety of roles, as the president’s needs require.
“It allows her to associate herself with more than just the word ‘communications,’ ” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a veteran expert on presidential communications with a desk in the White House press room. “She can be involved in figuring out how things are going in the political world with the constituencies. She knows the campaign, she knows what he stood for – and he needs people around who remind him of that.”
Ms. Kumar calls Kellyanne a “floater,” someone who can have a toe in multiple issues and facets of White House operations, similar to the role George Stephanopoulos played for President Bill Clinton.
“People like having flexibility,” says Kumar. “You can get involved in policy in different ways. [Mr. Stephanopoulos] was communications director; it was difficult for him to be involved in policy and then also do briefings. But if you have the comms job, you have to be out front more. It makes you more of a target.”
And if West Wing real estate is a signal of power, Conway certainly can claim primacy. She occupies the same third-floor garret that once belonged to Valerie Jarrett under President Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton when her husband was president.
At the breakfast, Conway makes clear she has no interest in becoming communications director, a job that some say is effectively filled by Trump himself – a man who is at heart a salesman, and whose use of Twitter has only grown. During the breakfast, the host’s phone lit up multiple times with Trump tweets; at one point, Conway reached over to take a look and check out what the boss was saying. (He was tweeting about “fake news.”)
Conway insisted, in fact, that she can’t become the president’s top person handling communications strategy. “I do feel like we’re impacting lives, and I travel often on behalf of the president, one of many reasons I can’t be a communications director, per se,” she says.
As the mother of four children, some still in elementary school, Conway makes no bones about the challenge of juggling work and family. On a recent day in the press room, chatting with reporters, she complained good-naturedly about the White House’s ban on the use of personal cellphones by staff. But she is always quick to commend Trump for his treatment of the moms who work for him.
“He’s also a great boss to me, as a woman, as a working mother,” Conway said at the breakfast. “We have fun in the workplace, even though the issues are very serious and very grave.”
Among Conway, Sanders (three children), and Ms. Schlapp (five children), the White House could practically open its own day-care center.
Conway’s praise of the president’s family-friendliness may seem incongruous with the administration’s new practice of separating immigrant parents and children at the Southern border. The issue of family separation did not come up at the Monitor Breakfast, though the overarching issue of the GOP and immigration policy did.
“We either are a sovereign nation that has borders with laws on the books that are enforced, or we’re not, and people have to decide what the ‘or not’ looks like and feels like,” Conway said.
For Conway, the juggle of work and family is only part of the sensibility that informs her advice to Trump. Her working-class upbringing in Atco, N.J., is also essential to her persona and to the window into American life that she offers Trump.
“I’m a good version of the American Dream, raised by a single mom who didn’t go to college and found herself with no alimony or child support,” she notes at the breakfast. “At the age of 25, 26, divorced, and very little skill set. I think it’s a very common human experience in this country.”