The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump played tough with Putin when cameras were around, but a new book details his insecurities

Former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham in the Rose Garden in 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Little is known about what happened in the 90-minute conversation between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan, two years ago. But as journalists were quickly ushered out of the room at the 2019 Group of 20 summit, Stephanie Grisham once again found herself with a close-up view of the action.

She saw Trump lean toward Putin that day and tell him: “Okay, I’m going to act a little tougher with you for a few minutes. But it’s for the cameras, and after they leave, we’ll talk. You understand.”

It’s just one of many telling interactions detailed by Grisham in her new book, titled “I’ll Take Your Questions Now.” One of the most senior and longest-serving Trump advisers, she worked as the president’s third press secretary and as first lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff and communications director before she resigned on Jan. 6 during the Capitol riot.

Her 352-page book — obtained by The Washington Post — alleges a litany of misdeeds by the 45th president: from ogling a young female staffer to orchestrating lies for the public to attempting to ban the news media from the White House compound. It also gives a rare firsthand look at Melania Trump, who craved her privacy, and a blow-by-blow of how she wound up wearing that “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket.

Grisham even claims to know dirt on Trump’s hair, which she says he cuts himself with “a huge pair of scissors that could probably cut a ribbon at an opening of one of his properties.”

“The intent behind this book is obvious,” Melania Trump’s office said in a statement after a passage leaked comparing the former first lady to Marie Antoinette. “It is an attempt to redeem herself after a poor performance as press secretary, failed personal relationships, and unprofessional behavior in the White House. Through mistruth and betrayal, she seeks to gain relevance and money at the expense of Mrs. Trump.”

Likewise, the former president responded to the book with a statement that tossed accusations back at Grisham. “This book is another pitiful attempt to cash in on the President’s strength and sell lies about the Trump family,” said Trump’s spokeswoman Liz Harrington. She called Grisham “a disgruntled former employee” and said publishers “should be ashamed of themselves for preying on desperate people who see the short term gain in writing a book full of falsehoods.”

The roots of former president Donald Trump’s power in the Republican Party can be traced back to the backlash following the 2008 election and financial crisis. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

As press secretary, Grisham was often unresponsive, and never once held a news briefing. Former colleagues said she was irregularly in the office during her last year in the White House, when she caught the coronavirus while serving as press secretary at the start of the pandemic, then transitioned to being the first lady’s chief of staff.

But Grisham is undeniably one of the Trump originals. She was wrangling reporters on the campaign plane in 2016, before working her way into the Trumps’ inner circles. And she is still viewed widely as a consummate Trump insider.

In Grisham’s telling, Putin seemed to be attempting to throw Trump off his game in Osaka. She writes that Fiona Hill, the White House’s top Russia adviser, told her that Putin brought to their meeting an unusually attractive female interpreter, whose presence seemed intended to distract the U.S. president.

Putin also seemed to be coughing and clearing his throat an inordinate number of times throughout the meeting. Hill speculated to Grisham that he was probably attempting to trigger Trump’s well-known germaphobe tendencies, Grisham writes.

A major theme of the book is the culture of lies that pervaded Trump's administration. "Casual dishonesty filtered through the White House as if it were in the air conditioning system," Grisham writes.

For example, in 2019, Trump went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center without disclosing to the media that he was going, or why.

It was a days-long mystery in the national news, but Grisham’s book strongly hints that the president went for a simple colonoscopy, without actually using the word. (She wrote that it was “a very common procedure” for which “a patient is sometimes put under” and that George W. Bush had one as president, too.)

As for the elaborate concealment — Grisham writes that Trump did the colonoscopy without general anesthesia because he was so resistant to having Vice President Mike Pence in power even for a short period of time. And he didn’t want to be “the butt of a joke” on late-night TV.

Trump could have used the power of his office to demystify colonoscopies and save lives, Grisham writes. “But as with covid, he was too wrapped up in his own ego and his own delusions about his invincibility.”

Grisham also discloses that Trump didn’t want to ban travel to China in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, despite his later claims that he did. Grisham writes that “the upcoming election influenced every decision Trump made about the pandemic.”

But other times, Grisham writes, White House crises had as much to do with incompetence as dishonesty.

She offers a new interpretation of the notorious September 2019 incident known as Sharpiegate. It apparently all began with Trump refusing to believe a report that Hurricane Dorian had altered its course and was no longer projected to strike Alabama. To make his point, Grisham writes, the president grabbed a Sharpie during a staff meeting and drew on a weather map, altering the hurricane’s course to show it slamming into the state.

Then someone ushered the media into the room, forgetting that the doctored map was still on display. Trump kept pointing at the map as he spoke to reporters, making it seem like he was intentionally misleading them.

Sometimes the staff even lied to Trump. When President George H.W. Bush died, the staff arranged for the former president’s family to have use of Air Force One, as is customary, but obscured most of the details from Trump for fear of his reaction. The airplane was used to carry Bush’s service dog, Sully, his family and his casket to the funeral.

“We knew he wouldn’t be okay with that, even for a brief trip,” Grisham writes. “Dead bodies, death, sickness — those things really seemed to creep him out.” He was also not a fan of the Bushes and vice versa.

Grisham alleges that Trump became obsessed with a young, female press aide who isn't named in the book. The president constantly asked where the aide was during press events, Grisham wrote, and allegedly once requested that she be brought to his cabin on Air Force One so he could "look at her [behind]."

Trump behaved inappropriately with Grisham, too, she wrote — once calling her from Air Force One to assure her that his penis was not small or toadstool-shaped, as the porn star Stormy Daniels had alleged in an interview.

Grisham wrote that Trump once asked her then-boyfriend, a fellow Trump aide, if she was good in bed.

She is particularly negative about the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner — both of whom held senior White House positions. She wrote that the first lady and White House staff called Ivanka “the Princess” who regularly invoked “my father” in work meetings, and Grisham dubbed Kushner “the Slim Reaper” for his habit of inserting himself into other people’s projects, making a mess and leaving them to take the blame.

Tellingly, Grisham writes that Ivanka and Jared tried to push their way into meeting Queen Elizabeth II alongside the president and first lady, a wild breach of protocol on a state visit, but were thwarted when they couldn’t fit into the helicopter. “I finally figured out what was going on,” Grisham writes. “Jared and Ivanka thought they were the royal family of the United States.”

“I had shared with Mrs. Trump many times my opinion that if we lost reelection in 2020 it would be because of Jared,” Grisham writes. “She didn’t disagree with me.”

By the end of the administration, Grisham says, Kushner was Trump’s “real chief of staff.” He sat next to Pence, the vice president and the newly named head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and ran the first meeting about what Trump should say to the nation about the pandemic. He also apparently dictated much of the president’s first widely criticized televised address about the pandemic — the one that announced travel restrictions before alerting the federal agencies who would have to implement them.

The culture of dishonesty extends to that infamous day when Melania Trump wore a jacket reading "I Really Don't Care, Do U?" while traveling to visit migrant children at the Texas-Mexico border. Grisham devotes an entire chapter to the saga.

The first lady had been upset by the situation her husband’s immigration policies had caused and wanted to see it for herself. For reasons that still remain a mystery, she’d ordered a $39 jacket online from Zara. Grisham said she was on her phone ironing out details for the trip and missed the chance to stop Melania Trump from wearing it.

It was just a jacket, Melania said, as she huddled with Grisham for a damage-control session on the plane. As they arrived back at the White House, an aide told them the president wanted to see his wife in the Oval Office. It was the first time he’d ever summoned her in such a way in front of staff. He yelled and asked “what the [expletive]” they thought they were doing. Then just as quickly he came up with a solution. He would tweet out that the jacket was a message to the Fake News Media.

It’s the story that the first lady repeated four months later in her first and only televised interview during the administration.

The Melania Trump whom Grisham describes is as stubborn as her husband, but his temperamental opposite. She believed in self-care so much that she’d change into a robe and slippers almost immediately upon boarding Air Force One. Self-consciousness about her accent and her English grammar meant she rarely wrote anything on her own.

The Secret Service gave her a nickname, “Rapunzel,” because she rarely left her tower, a.k.a the White House residence. Agents would request to be placed on her detail so they could spend more time with their families, Grisham writes.

If she wasn’t spending time with her son, Barron, or her parents, she was working on her photo albums, which Grisham calls one of “her two children.” Deep into the pandemic, she spent two hours re-creating the ribbon-cutting for the White House tennis pavilion because she hadn’t gotten the right shot weeks earlier. She was working on a photo shoot of a rug during the Capitol riot.

The airing of Trump’s alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels is what “unleashed” Melania Trump to start publicly contradicting or ignoring her husband — trying to embarrass him as he had embarrassed her. She walked into his first State of the Union address arm-in-arm with a handsome military aide Grisham had hand-selected because, Melania said, the floors of the Capitol were too slippery.

“I laughed to myself because I’d seen the woman navigate dirt roads in her heels,” Grisham writes.

And when Grisham drafted a tweet for Melania requesting privacy, saying she was concentrating on being a mother, wife and first lady, she had Grisham remove the word “wife.”

What the scandal didn’t unleash was an emotional reaction. Grisham wrote that Melania Trump didn’t believe her husband’s denials of the affair, but essentially shrugged it all off:“This is Donald’s problem. He got himself into this mess. He can fix it by himself.”

By the end of the administration, Grisham writes, the first lady was so checked out that she slept through election night, as hundreds gathered in the White House for a party Melania had strenuously objected to — given the potential for another coronavirus outbreak at the White House.

Melania wasn’t entirely removed from politics, though. Grisham writes that the first lady intimated that she thought the 2020 election was illegitimate — that “something bad happened.”

She went along with Trump’s plan to snub Jill Biden rather than invite her over to the traditional first ladies tea welcoming her to the White House, according to Grisham.

And the first lady also pointed out how she’d been criticized for not standing next to Trump the way Jill Biden stood next to her husband on election night. “She said, ‘I don’t stand next to him because I don’t need to hold him up like she does. Can you imagine?’ ” Grisham writes. “That made me laugh.”

11:15 a.m. This story has been updated with additional details from the book.