Few in Trump’s White House have a history with him that dates as far back as Stephanie Grisham’s. For nearly two years, she served as communications director for first lady Melania Trump. A few weeks ago, she received a promotion to her deputy chief of staff for communications and has become one of the more powerful figures in the ever-evolving Trump White House. In the summer of 2015, she was a lowly press wrangler on Trump’s campaign.
On a hot July day 3½ years ago, Grisham — who had long lived in Arizona — was the person tapped to handle press for the candidate’s early and pivotal rally in Phoenix. Trump was a month into his run for president and ranked seventh in the Republican field. He had the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio introduce him at the event, which was carried live on cable news. After his speech, Trump’s jumped to third place in the Republican primary rankings.
Before joining Trump’s long-shot campaign, Grisham was a local political operative who had worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president. She’s seen now as one of the “unbroken threads,” says Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, referring to campaign staffers who stuck with Trump and are now working in the White House. (By this measure, Grisham’s thread is about a year longer than that of Conway, who joined the campaign in July 2016.)
“During the campaign she developed a good relationship with the president, and that’s carried through,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says. “She has developed a great amount of trust from both the president and the first lady, which is a pretty high commodity here,” Sanders adds. “There aren’t a lot of people who have a lot of regular interaction with both of them.”
Grisham's role has drawn attention for her acerbic statements directed at those who have crossed Melania Trump and her husband. When Trump attacked Mika Brzezinski in the summer of 2017 and claimed falsely in a tweet that she was "bleeding badly from a facelift," rather than shying away from the controversy, Grisham offered this statement on Melania Trump's behalf: "When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder." When Donald Trump's first wife, Ivana Trump, cheekily called herself the "first Trump wife" and therefore "the first lady" while promoting a book last year, Grisham called Ivana "attention-seeking and self-serving." Grisham even got into an argument on Twitter with Issa Rae after the actress said in an interview that she would cancel her show "Insecure" if she learned that Melania Trump was a fan.
Aides describe the relationship between Trump and Grisham as one built on mutual protection and trust. “The resistance wants the first lady to be a victim, and she hates being seen that way,” one of her aides said. If anything, “Grisham makes clear that she is not.”
White House staffers are also learning that Grisham is not someone with whom to tangle. In preparation for Melania Trump’s first solo trip abroad, which she took to Africa this fall, deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel clashed with members of the first lady’s staff. Upon their return, Grisham and the first lady’s chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, approached White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly about the issue. When he took no apparent action, Grisham spoke directly to Melania Trump, who in turn spoke to her husband privately. Then, when still nothing happened, Grisham suggested to the first lady a different strategy: Without giving the West Wing warning, Grisham put out a statement: “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
Within days, Ricardel was out of the White House.
The following week, Grisham declined to comment for this story, saying in an email: “I feel strongly that I should never be the story (I know that is laughable to say after this week!), so will decline participation on this one, only to say it has been the greatest honor of my career to work for both the President and First Lady.”
Still Grisham’s statement calling for the ouster of a West Wing official was highly unusual, according to scholars of both the presidency and the East Wing. While other first ladies have made their preferences known — as happened, famously, when Nancy Reagan helped push out her husband’s chief of staff, Donald Regan — never before has the East Wing issued a statement that resulted in the dismissal of a member of the West Wing, notes Myra Gutin, a professor of communications who studies the history of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey.
“She’s got a notch in her belt,” says Tom Horne, the former Arizona attorney general who hired Grisham after she left the Romney campaign. “She’s gotten someone fired. That’s a big achievement!” Who has the notch? The first lady or her communications director?
Horne clarified: “Stephanie was the one who issued the statement.” Horne says he had his own run-ins with political opposition, and Grisham defended him. “She’s a very loyal type of person and when there are unfair attacks she responds strongly.”
Melania Trump appears to be pushing back in more significant ways. Tension between the first lady’s staff and John Kelly has grown in recent months, according to three current White House officials familiar with the dynamic. Staffers in the first lady’s office felt repeatedly slighted by him. The president announced over the weekend that Kelly would be leaving by the end of the year.
If the Ricardel move was unusual, Grisham’s habit of adding her name to statements from the East Wing is also uncommon, Gutin says. Typically, a first lady’s communications director is not well known and issues bland statements.
“Among first lady scholars there are many things about Melania Trump that we don’t quite understand,” says Gutin. “Whatever Ms. Grisham is doing becomes part of this larger riddle. It’s just so hard to pin down.”
Part of a small and chaotic campaign, Grisham spent months virtually living with the traveling press covering candidate Trump as they crisscrossed the country, flying together and bunking in hotels. She won their appreciation by being an advocate for media access and watching out for them on the trail.
In one notable incident, Mike Pence’s campaign plane slid off the tarmac at La Guardia during an icy night in October 2016. Before it could fly again, the landing gear needed to be fixed. But there was no time to wait for a repair.
Pence, his staff, and the press traveling with him needed to be off again the next morning to hit the vice presidential candidate’s next campaign stop.
Pence’s staff argued that they should be able to take over the Trump press plane, which was “wrapped” with a Trump logo. Trump traveled on his own plane and the press assigned to report on his campaign paid for and covered him by trailing along in a separate aircraft. Grisham stood up to Pence’s staff and advocated for Trump’s press corps to keep the plane, a move that garnered goodwill among a weary bunch of reporters.
She had similarly good relationships with journalists on the Romney campaign, according to journalists who worked with her then. On one occasion, the Romney plane was delayed until late into the night, and Grisham was there when the press arrived to welcome them to their overnight accommodations. “Everyone was sleep-deprived and cranky,” recalls one of the reporters on the trip. “She was waiting with warm milk and cookies, which goes a long way at a time like that.”
Before the Romney campaign, Grisham created her own small public relations firm, worked for AAA Arizona, the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and Larson Public Relations, which represents education reform clients across the country.
In 2013 and 2015, Grisham was stopped for driving under the influence, according to Arizona court records. She paid all associated fines and disclosed both incidents to the White House during the transition.
When Donald Trump was elected, Grisham joined the press office as one of press secretary Sean Spicer's deputies. She was hired into Melania Trump's East Wing in March 2017.
The rapport “was instantaneous,” says White House social secretary Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, who is known as Rickie.
Lloyd recalled Grisham, whose colleagues call her by her last name, volunteering to help Reynolds, the first lady’s chief of staff, with a press question. Reynolds had been in her job about a month and found Grisham “really helpful, and it was a bit of a gut feeling,” Lloyd says.
Melania Trump knew Grisham from the campaign trail and invited her over to meet more of the East Wing staff.
“I love working with her because she captures what the first lady wants in terms of perspective but also in terms of her voice,” says Daniel Fisher, director of the White House Visitors Office, which is housed in the East Wing. “They’ve really melded together.”
East Wing staffers note frequently how dedicated Trump is to her son, Barron, and cite her time with him as part of the reason for her light public schedule as compared with her predecessors. Grisham, who is a 42-year-old single mother of two boys, plays a role in looking out for Barron, whom she can relate to because her younger son is about the same age.
Grisham’s transition from campaign mode to White House staff has not always been clearly demarcated. On July 11, Grisham tweeted: “Three years ago today I listened to my gut & joined the Trump team in #PHX . . . & life has never been the same. So proud to work for both @POTUS @realDonaldTrump & @FLOTUS #MAGA.” The U.S. office of special counsel sent Grisham a letter warning that she had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits White House officials from advocating for or against candidates.
Grisham and the first lady are in touch daily, according to East Wing staffers. “Stephanie more than most is on the front lines of pretty much everything that goes on that is visible,” Fisher added.
Case in point: the headline-grabbing spectacle of the coat.
The morning of Melania Trump’s trip to a Texas detention facility housing children who had been separated from their parents at the border, Grisham was already in the motorcade on the way to the airport by the time the first lady stepped out of the White House, dressed for the day.
The still photographs of Trump wearing her green jacket emblazoned with I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U? blew up on Twitter. Grisham was shown one of the still photos of the first lady when the plane was still in the air, according to people traveling with her. When Melania Trump stepped off the plane in Texas, she left the jacket on board.
But on the flight back to Washington, more stories published on the puzzling outfit choice. And in true Trump fashion, Melania Trump put the coat back on to walk back into the White House — “at that point she had to own it; you can’t say you screwed up in Trumpworld,” says one veteran political reporter. She headed straight for the Oval Office, trailed by Grisham and Reynolds, according to three people who were there.
Grisham told reporters, “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden meaning.” She followed up with a tweet decrying the media’s focus on the first lady’s wardrobe, not her work, and added two hashtags: #SheCares #ItsJustAJacket.
But the president had his own interpretation. His wife did mean to send a message — to the liberal media. His tweet contradicted Grisham’s statement and lashed out at the media. “ ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?’ written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!” he wrote.
“There’s always something that pops up along the way that we don’t anticipate, but I think Grisham did the best she could at the time, and handled it effectively,” says one of her colleagues.
Another East Wing staffer notes that everyone on Melania Trump’s staff — which now numbers 12 — feels protective of the first lady and each other. “There’s always something out there to hurt or shame” her, one says. “There’s something every day that we could be affected by that the media deems disgraceful or impeachable so you go and you do your job and you serve the president and the first lady you see in front of you, not the people the media portrays.”
But both the president and the first lady pay keen attention to their own media portrayals. Melania Trump in particular watches more television news and follows more coverage than she lets on, according to current staffers.
“The difference is that whereas the president will tweet himself and react himself,” says one White House official, “she’s got Stephanie.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.