When Kellyanne Conway took over as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager in August — his third in under a year — there were few signs that Trump would emerge victorious on election night just three months later. He was trailing Hillary Clinton in some polls by 10 points nationally, and the gap was widening in battleground states. Twitter attacks by Trump on Khizr Khan, the father of an American Muslim Army captain killed in Iraq, and his metastasizing list of other Twitter and campaign rally barbs weren’t helping his favorability ratings, particularly among women.
Conway was known in political circles for her research firm, the Polling Company/WomanTrend, which she launched in 1995 in part to provide candidates and companies with studies and analysis of the concerns and aspirations of American women.
Even though she had criticized Trump on numerous occasions earlier in the year, Conway was seen as someone who could bring discipline to the first-time candidate. And as a longtime Republican strategist and pollster with experience working for male candidates (Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence) who had trouble appealing to women voters, she was seen by politicos as well-suited to help Trump’s troubled bid. Conway, who turned 50 on Inauguration Day, now serves as counselor to the president in the White House, where she immediately made news defending what she called “alternative facts” related to inauguration attendance.
The only child of a single mother, Conway grew up in a working-class household in Atco, N.J. She has long-standing ties to Washington, having graduated from Trinity Washington University and George Washington University Law School. She and her husband, George, have four children.
This interview took place at Trump Tower a week before the inauguration.
How would you describe the past six months for you?
The past six months for me, professionally, have been the apex of my career. People say, “Congratulations, Kellyanne. You’re successful because you work hard.” I do work hard, but so many people, so many women in this country work hard. But they don’t often get what I got, which was my shot and my time to help manage and execute on a plan and a vision at the highest levels of politics and government.
And that’s very rewarding to me because in many ways my life in the last six months really reflects the American Dream writ large. I was raised by a single mom, in a unconventional household of four Italian Catholic women, and I was the first person to go to college, let alone law school, in my family. I started my business at 28. Like a Generation Xer, I married later, had children later and was very focused on my career. I’m a granddaughter of immigrants, and it’s a very common American experience.
But the last six months have been exhausting, exhilarating, heady and roller-coaster-like in terms of all the situations and circumstances that just come our way constantly when you’re on Team Trump. At the same time there was a certain steadiness and composure and decorum and calmness that I’ve experienced. Part of that is age/wisdom, and part of that is trying to be an anchor in the storm. The storm being not the campaign or Mr. Trump, the storm being all of the situational, circumstantial incoming that we constantly took.
You mentioned your mother. On election night did she say anything to you?
She told me for weeks and months before election night that Donald Trump would win. But on election night she told me what she’s been telling me my entire life, which is, basically, be yourself, have fun and accept whatever God has coming. When you hear that from your mother, “Accept what God has coming,” that has to be everything from a broken relationship or a broken heart when you’re younger to not gaining entry into your reach college to burying a loved one unexpectedly. But my mother telling me that for years also made me see what a blessing and opportunity it was for Donald Trump to ask me to be his campaign manager.
How big a deal is it to you that you were the first female campaign manager to win a presidential election?
It’s a bigger deal now in retrospect. I never gave it much thought during the campaign. And neither did Donald Trump. The day that we discussed this role of campaign manager, he never said, “Hey, this will be great. I’ll make history with the first Republican female campaign manager.” He never said this will help with women’s votes — he never said any of that. So I appreciate very much that I was promoted based on skills and vision and compatibility with him. And him knowing that I would respectfully execute on his vision. This is his candidacy, this is his voice, his choice, and I’m just one member of an amazing team to help execute on that.
But looking back, I feel the enormity of that moment in time, mainly because of all the people I’ve heard from. I consider myself more passionate than emotional, but it is nothing short of moving to hear from women and girls from all over the country and from men who say, “My daughters think you’re a role model.”
You don’t consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t consider myself a feminist. I think my generation isn’t a big fan of labels. My favorite label is mommy. I feel like the feminist movement has been hijacked by the pro-abortion movement or the anti-male sentiments that you read in some of their propaganda and writings. I’m not anti-male. One does not need to be pro-female and call yourself a feminist, when with it comes that whole anti-male culture where we want young boys to sit down and shut up in the classroom. And we have all of these commercials that show what a feckless boob the man in the house is. That’s not the way I see the men in my life, most especially my 12-year-old son. I consider myself a postfeminist. I consider myself one of those women who is a product of her choices, not a victim of her circumstances.
Have you talked to your father since the election?
Oh, many times.
What’s your relationship with him?
My father left when I was very young. I didn’t meet him until I was 12 or 13. We had no alimony, no child support. He went on to have another family. He’s been married four times. [Now] he’s an active part of our lives, in part because he wants that, and in part because he deserves that. My operating principle as a typical Generation Xer, a child of divorce, is that you don’t pass that on to the next generation. If there’s hurt or there’s pain or there’s regret or there’s been anger and sadness, there’s no reason to pass that on.
Did you have to go through a difficult period to come to terms with that, or has that always been true for you?
No. I think when I see my husband’s positive and loving relationship with our three daughters, and we have a son, I realize the unspoken scourge of paternal rejection. And how that had a negative impact on some of my earlier choices and certainly circumstances. But as I age and have more wisdom and seasoning and self-confidence, the positive effect of that is to recognize how nice it is that my daughters have constant paternal reaffirmation and love. But it’s also made me independent. And maybe healthily skeptical of some people and situations. I didn’t get married until I was 34, and I had been very independent, started my own business, paid off my student loans, had lived on my own since I was 18.
In the early part of last year, you were very critical of Donald Trump. You called his supporters “downright nasty.” You said Trump built his businesses on “the backs of the little guy.” You said he should release his tax returns, said his language was unpresidential. So why did you decide in July to join his campaign?
Well, those are cherry-picked comments. There’s also an entire body of evidence that I always have supported him, thought he added a great deal to the political conversation and to giving people more hope and the freshest alternative to conventional politics that they told pollsters for 30 years that they wanted.
Yes, but when you said —
Yeah, those were situational. You have to understand something. I grew up around Atlantic City. My mother worked there for 21 years, and that was our sole source of support. She was left with no alimony, no child support whatsoever when I was 2 or 3. When the casinos came to Atlantic City, and that included Donald Trump and others, it revitalized an entire corridor between Atlantic City and Philadelphia. People then had jobs and benefits and opportunities, and I benefited directly from that through my mother and other family members.
And I don’t think he should release his tax returns now that I know more than I knew when I made that comment, which is that he’s under audit. And he has been advised by his accountants and his lawyers to not release them. And I know firsthand as a pollster that Americans are much more interested in knowing what their tax returns will look like when he’s president than in seeing his tax returns.
[A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 74 percent of Americans believe Trump should release his tax returns, with 41 percent saying they care “a lot” that he does so.]
You co-wrote a book, “What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live.” Ten years later, have those lines been erased, or are they bolder than they’ve ever been?
For some women they’ve been erased because women of all races and ethnic backgrounds, age groups, socioeconomic status, geographic differences, all work together. They share a common love of this country and the elation/struggles of what it means to be a woman in 2017. But for some women and for people who cover women or speak about women, those lines are somewhat bolder and brighter. I think in politics they seem brighter and bolder. But in everyday parlance, everyday culture, that’s just not true. We’re the peacemakers, we’re the great negotiators, the leaders and the managers of our households, of our workplaces.
But why is that not being played out in politics?
Because politics goes for the heat and not the light most of the time. Politics looks at division and subtraction, not at addition and multiplication. It’s congenitally negative. It’s corrosively negative, and I think that’s too bad. I’m just one small person in this political universe, but I do know that I infused some level of positivity and respectfulness to the process. And I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity.
You pointed out early on last year that Hillary Clinton wasn’t doing well with women and that women were not going to vote for her simply because she was a woman. Would Hillary Clinton have won if you had been her campaign manager?
[Long pause.] No, Hillary Clinton could not have won this election cycle for a few reasons. One is she could never really escape the fact that, including according to The Washington Post polling, that persistent, nagging majorities of Americans find her to be dishonest and untrustworthy and didn’t particularly like her, either. Two, it’s not clear to me that this woman who has surrounded herself with talented professionals — I’m very fond of Robby Mook, her campaign manager, for example, and I have a cordial relationship with Huma Abedin — had ever surrounded herself with people who would actually tell her no. Or that this isn’t a good idea. Or that this isn’t working. Which every leader needs. The other thing is that the question for Americans was not, Would you vote for a woman? But would you vote for this woman? It wasn’t a hypothetical; it was Hillary.
I want to go back to October 7th, which is the day the video came out with Trump talking about women and saying he could “grab them by the p---y.”
He didn’t say he did that.
Right, he said he could do that. But when I first heard that I thought there was no way someone who said those words could get elected president of the United States. Did you think that?
What was your reaction when you first heard it?
I had several reactions. First was to ask him about it, and we discussed it. And I’ll leave it to his public comments about how he felt about it. He recorded the statement right here. It was heartfelt, it was genuine and those were his words. He apologized; he said he doesn’t recognize that, meaning that’s not who he is. And that he’s running for president for a number of reasons, and for the American people, that have nothing to do with that.
My reaction, knowing voters as I did, was that we’ll take a hit in the polls — this will be an obsessive story for God knows how long, and people will draw the wrong conclusions. The pundits will draw the wrong conclusions. They’ll say this will kill him among women. And women will look at that and some will say, “I can’t vote for him.” How many of them already weren’t voting for him is the question nobody asks. Other women will say, “He’s right, it’s locker-room talk. I don’t like it, but I know men who talk like that.” Or “I listen to rap music artists or comedians who make zillions of dollars talking like that.” They’ll say, “I don’t like it, but it’s not the totality of the man, and it’s not the totality of the candidate who has promised me bigger things, like my job not going to Mexico or China, like a more affordable, accessible health-care act that doesn’t crush small business and make promises it never kept to millions of Americans who never had coverage.”
Was that the lowest part of the campaign for you?
It was probably the most difficult part, but really only temporarily. And the temporary part was because I knew he’d stay in the race. I know who he is. I know his steadfastness and his tenacity and his never backing down, never shirking from a fight, never backing down from a commitment that he made. And I also knew he was going to get on that plane and go to that second debate in St. Louis, and indeed he did.
You have four kids. Did you have to explain to them why it was okay that someone who said this would be president?
It’s a little bit of a cheap shot to raise my kids into a question like that. I just want to say that because people do it all the time.
Let me explain why I don’t think it’s a cheap shot. A lot of people with kids had to explain that to them.
Right, but I already had to explain to my children many times why Hillary Clinton lied so many times and, frankly, why she made a different choice when faced with a cheating husband than my mother did. That was to my older children. I had to explain many times why the media were so unfair to Donald Trump. “Why would they say this about Donald Trump, Mom, if you’re working for him?” Because kids and others unfortunately think if it’s on TV it’s true. That probably is no longer the case because people realize that no one on TV is under oath and anything can be said in a screaming chyron or, in the case of The Washington Post, unfair and untrue headlines that are just there for clickbait.
Have we had unfair and untrue headlines?
Oh, yes, yes. It’s been discussed with Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt and Jeff Bezos because I just saw [Bezos] last week. In any event, it’s tougher to explain to my children why people who don’t know me would say I’m stupid or ugly or even worse online. It’s tougher for them to listen to people on TV laugh at me or Donald Trump, ridicule us and never allow us to really get our message across. That’s tougher.
On Twitter and Facebook and social media, people really do say nasty things about you.
That’s what I hear.
But you don’t really respond to any of it.
I don’t engage. Why would I? I’m going to let someone redefine and unravel me based on 140 characters or less? And that is a lesson I try to teach my children. Why would I engage strangers? Why would I engage Never Trumpers who are snarkily trying to undercut us. It’s a combination of professional jealousy and a lack of political instincts. They never saw this coming. And I understand why a lot of people feel embarrassed and why they’re looking over their shoulders wondering will they be the first head to roll at this newspaper or this publication or this TV station. Because they were so aggressively bad in their predictions and they didn’t understand America and we did. I’m told I’m attacked on Twitter all the time, but the fact is if you’re so busy that you can’t read most of the criticism, or most of the praise, it really does keep you grounded.
Why do you think Mr. Trump can’t do that? Why does he respond to all the —
He doesn’t, honestly. You’re not going to find a more vilified, attacked politician.
Do you think the media should change the way it covers Trump?
We believe in a free and fair media, but with freedom comes responsibility. It would be great for the media to be less presumptively negative and skeptical and more open and honest about their past unfair and untoward coverage of him and their obligation to deliver news, not opinion masquerading as news or their personal beliefs masquerading as news.
I was really astonished to see respected print and electronic journalists outwardly admit during the campaign that Donald Trump forces them to suspend the objective standards of journalism. That is just astonishing because their whole idea was: Stop him, stop him, stop him, which implicitly was: Elect her, elect her. That’s not their job. Many in the media had their thumbs on the electoral scales this year, and that’s totally inappropriate and anti-democratic.
That should not be confused with “We’re going to be tough on him, we’re going to ask the tough questions.” Sure, got it. Check. You’re going to ask tough questions. But that is so fundamentally different from, to coin a phrase, actively trying to interfere in election results and pervert our democracy. Because as with the hacking, the media’s attempt to interfere with democracy and elect Hillary Clinton failed, too.
The president-elect yesterday called CNN fake news. Is that helpful?
Did he do it gratuitously or did he do it in response to the fact that they had published an article online and then talked about it on air that basically gave everybody a GPS and a map and instructions on how to find the BuzzFeed dump of a 35-page document that is not an intelligence report, that was an Internet report assembled by anti-Trump operatives?
Presidents and politicians have always criticized news stories, but not —
This is historic and you know it. No one has ever faced the deluge of negativity and criticism that Donald Trump has. It’s just a fact. But by the way, we have to say thank you to many in the mainstream media because it helped us win.
It was an elite rejection election in that, fundamentally, it was us versus them, and it turns out there are a heck of a lot more them than us, us being people in politics or media or the donor class. Or in the consulting class, which is nothing short of embarrassing. These noncreative nonthinkers who haven’t come up with a creative or original idea in 30 years are telling us who can win, who can lose three years before an election? That’s over.
Donald Trump would say one thing or someone would say one thing about him, and it would literally be breaking news for 10 days. And everybody would dissect it. And I know he’s much better for ratings and clicks, because Hillary Clinton was neither particularly liked nor seen as animated or engaging, but some journalists took leave of their senses and surrendered what they learned in journalism school.
If you look at Twitter feeds of some folks, what they write about Donald Trump would never pass editorial muster. And if you’re Joe Blow from The Washington Post and you say tweets are my own and you’re tweeting at 10:15 a.m. as you’re walking in to a presidential press conference or a Trump rally, then your tweets are not your own. You just tweeted in your suit and tie at 10:15 a.m. when you’re clearly in your professional capacity. And it’s zing, zing, zing, zing, zing against Donald Trump. That’s irresponsible, and by the way it’s not journalism.
[The Post’s policy is that journalists can use personal social media accounts but they remain, at all times, Washington Post journalists.]
You’ve been pro-life for a long time and active on that issue and plan to take part in this year’s March for Life. Why is that so important to you?
For several reasons. One is as a culture I fear that we’re becoming too inured and inoculated against how precious life really is. Whether it’s in the womb or at the end of our years. This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has run headlong now into science and medicine. We see things now that you and I didn’t see when we were kids. You pull up a sonogram, and no one says to you in a patronizing or threatening way, “Admit it, this is a baby!” Or, “This is just uterine material.”
They basically say, “Oh, my God, look at that heart beat at eight weeks.” The New York Times, of all places, had a front-page story above the fold about how with proper medical intervention, babies born at or before 24 weeks can survive outside the womb. Wow, this is amazing. And for us to just look the other way and pretend that abortion is not used by plenty of people as birth control? But I’m also a very nonjudgmental person. I understand why women are pro-choice. I understand why women get abortions.
Do you know any women who have had abortions?
Do you think they shouldn’t have been allowed to have them?
No, I don’t judge them.
But that would be the law, that’s what would —
No, here’s why I don’t judge them. And I’ve helped several of them before, during and after. To a person, they all feel some level of regret. And I help them navigate that, too, because they shouldn’t feel that way.
Twenty-five years from now what do you want people to say about you?
That I was an excellent mother and a great friend and I brought honor and respect to what I did. I was fair and judicious to people. I had compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than me. I made a difference inside and outside of government and that I was kind and generous and honest. And I want to be famous for my children. I want one of them to cure cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize or be the first woman president. One of my daughters said, “Mom, I don’t want to go to Washington and be known as Kellyanne Conway’s daughter.” And I said, “Well, then cure cancer, and I’ll be known as Claudia Conway’s mother.” That’s the way I look at it.
Joe Heim is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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