On a recent Saturday afternoon, Laura Ingraham sat at the head of her long kitchen table. Her shoes were kicked off, but she was hardly relaxed, having just rushed home after giving a morning speech to a convention of social conservatives.
A stylist was touching up her lip gloss for a photo shoot. Holding very still as her hair was brushed, Ingraham sent her 12-year-old daughter Maria off to grab a guest a can of LaCroix. Her young sons, Dmitri and Nikolai, were playing outdoors, and Ingraham sent word that they should clean up the balls and pumps they had strewn about the garage of their gated Northern Virginia mansion.
“We fed them, right?” she asked her babysitter.
Ingraham has spent more than three decades in the D.C. political-media-industrial complex while perfecting the public performance of conservative firebrand, and it’s paid off. A big home on a tree-lined street, chummy relationships with politicians, fabulous family vacations with well-heeled friends, assistants to help her tend to her kids and remind her to pay her bills.
Next week, her star will rise even higher. The queen of conservative talk radio, whose “Laura Ingraham Show” is heard in 230 markets, is adding a nightly Fox News prime-time show to her media empire.
Even as she’s climbed the ranks in Washington, Ingraham has maintained her connection with loyal listeners, who, like her, want to stick it to the establishment. She is a member of the East Coast media elite but says she wants to speak for the “heartland.”
In that way, she’s similar to President Trump — a billionaire born into wealth who has positioned himself as champion of the working man. Like Trump, who lived in a gilded Manhattan tower before the White House, Ingraham sees no irony in enjoying the trappings of D.C. success while flouting the conventions of “political correctness.”
On her radio show last summer: “Oh, we have a new transgender update for you as well,” she said. “For all of you who are bathroom-goers. . . . You use public restrooms? I think a lot of people are going to be walking around with just Depends on from now on. They’re just not going to use the bathroom. Adult diapers, diapers for everybody.”
Ingraham, 54, who said she doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whom she offends, chooses to see herself as a happy conservative warrior, her mother’s daughter and a woman with working-class roots.
“I never forget where I came from — ever,” said Ingraham, who grew up in Glastonbury, Conn., where her mother worked as a waitress. “My mother told me when I left for college, ‘Never forget your roots,’ and I never have. . . . I say to my kids regularly, ‘Don’t get used to any of this because tomorrow, if we have to, I’ll be cleaning toilets.’ ”
On a recent Thursday night, friends turned out to toast Ingraham's new book, "Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution From Reagan to Trump." The party was held at the Capitol Hill rowhouse that serves as a headquarters for Breitbart News, the acerbic archconservative website, and a seat of power for its chairman Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist now attempting to lead a nationalist revolt within the Republican Party.
“I don’t know how you do it all,” Bannon gushed, adding that Trump and “our movement” owed Ingraham a debt of gratitude.
The jubilant scene was more evidence that Ingraham’s faction of the civil war ravaging the GOP is ascendant. The nationalist populists who drove Trump to power, including her old friend Stephen Miller, now senior policy adviser at the White House, mingled with mainstream journalists and establishment consultants.
And yet, it was still every bit the D.C. swamp that Ingraham has been railing against since she arrived in Washington 31 years ago as part of the pack of brash, young Reagan conservatives.
“I never saw her wilt under pressure,” said Gary Bauer, the conservative activist who gave Ingraham her first D.C. job, as a speechwriter, when he served as Department of Education deputy.
After earning a law degree at the University of Virginia, she returned to Washington to clerk at the Supreme Court for Clarence Thomas. She worked briefly for a law firm but soon broke out on TV as a political talking head. In the early days, her name was often mentioned alongside Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway — two other blond conservative pundits on their way up. Her first book, published in 2000, argued that then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s ideas had set women back, amounting to “demanding special gender privileges to get ahead.”
The next year, Ingraham got her talk radio show. In 2005, she used this megaphone to help sink President George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court by asserting nonstop that the White House counsel was insufficiently conservative. During the Obama years, she railed against most everything he did. And, of course, she was an early proponent of Trumpism — an anti-immigration, tax-slashing America Firster who opposed big trade deals and international organizations such as the United Nations because, as she proclaims in her new book, they “take power out of the hands of the voters and give it to a far-away and often hostile global elite.”
“She was Trump before Trump,” said Brian Rosenwald, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania who is writing a book about talk radio’s impact on politics and public policy.
Ingraham, the only woman in the top tier of conservative talk radio, has mastered the rhythm of the medium, he said. She and her producers use funny sound effects and toss off derisive nicknames — John F. Kerry as “Lurch” from “The Addams Family.” To drive home her restrictive views of immigration, she’ll reframe a mainstream media story about an immigrant as an “illegal immigration sob story.”
It’s a rhetorical style that’s made her a lightning rod for liberal critics, perhaps second only to Coulter.
"She's right-wing radio's high priestess of hate," said Rory O'Connor, a liberal journalist and author of "Shock Jocks," a book that lays out some of her more offensive lines through the years, such as calling the children of immigrants in the country illegally "anchor fetuses."
Ingraham argues that the left calls almost everyone who supported Trump a “hater.” “They prefer to maintain their monopoly on satire and criticism — where only conservatives are the ones skewered,” she said.
Fox News is banking on Ingraham's star power, though their longtime contributor has not yet proved that she can hold down a television show. In the late 1990s, Ingraham hosted a short-lived MSNBC show, "Watch It!"; the only other show built around her was "Just In," designed to fill a month-long void in Fox's weekday lineup in the summer of 2008. What works on radio doesn't always translate to the faster pace of TV, where personal chatter and brassy humor can come off as unsophisticated.
But with the channel’s prime-time lineup in flux since the departure of Megyn Kelly for NBC and the ouster of Bill O’Reilly amid sexual harassment allegations, Ingraham was tapped for the high-profile 10 p.m. slot. Most everyone assumes that Trump will be watching her.
“I’m going to be watching his administration very closely, and I’ve never been shy of criticizing — I hope [in] a positive way — and critiquing when they’re falling short if they’re betraying the promise of America first,” said Ingraham. She says she seriously considered joining the Trump White House in a communications role. But people who know her think Ingraham is more likely to run for office herself, with many speculating about a challenge to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
As an attractive woman who came to prominence at a relatively young age, she has been an enduring fascination for Washington gossips, linked romantically to liberal VIPs such as Keith Olberman and Larry Summers. She took to the airwaves to explain her broken engagement with Washington businessman James Reyes, which ended soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer about a decade ago.
She has also developed a reputation among those who frequent this city’s green rooms as a temperamental colleague. Videos and audio clips of Ingraham sternly correcting her staff for slip-ups on her shows have circulated online. (LifeZette.com, the website she co-founded in 2015, has been blasted for trafficking in dubious conspiracy theories, though Ingraham has been only distantly involved and will step away from the site as she launches her show.)
Ingraham’s longtime friend Raymond Arroyo, who had appeared on her radio show, scoffs at the criticism. “Her observations can be so incisive that at times they might be cutting,” said Arroyo, a news anchor for the Eternal Word Television Network. “But, more often than not, those are over work-related issues where the other party didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
Her friends add that adopting her children was transformative. Her daughter is from Guatemala, and her sons are from Russia, where Ingraham spent time in college.
Her children are regular characters in the stories Ingraham tells about herself on her radio show, and her life as a mother is a reference point she often uses to try to outline some commonality with people who disagree with her politically.
Gay Hart Gaines, a wealthy GOP donor who is hosting Ingraham and her children for Thanksgiving in West Palm Beach, Fla., put it this way: “My God, that little girl from Guatemala was brought back from poverty in the embrace of Laura and now she is getting an amazing education,” Gaines said. “. . . My God, and those two little boys.”
What Ingraham has done well on her shows is conflict. On air, she often seems to be spoiling for a fight.
“We are a nation divided, but that’s what makes us, in a way,” she said.
Ryan Williams, a GOP operative, went on Ingraham’s show several times in the 2016 cycle representing Jeb Bush’s campaign at a time when the former front-runner had become a punching bag for conservatives. Williams understood his role was to be her foil.
“She’ll rib you and talk over you, but I got to make my points and enjoyed the experience,” Williams said. “You have to understand the medium and know what you’re getting into before you go on her radio show. . . . She would vehemently disagree with me, and she would talk over me and I talked over her. You can’t back down, because she never will.”
Away from the cameras, Ingraham’s demeanor is more reserved, said Phil Lerman, an old neighbor who became a friend. Ingraham would come home in full TV makeup from appearances on Fox and sit down for a glass of chardonnay with him and his wife.
Lerman, a freelance producer and writer whose politics are liberal, would rib her — saying, “You’ve been out spreading the evil word.”
Ingraham would laugh, Lerman recalled. They rarely talked politics.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.