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New White House press secretary brings a combative style to the job

Stephanie Grisham, the communications director for first lady Melania Trump, will replace Sarah Sanders as White House press secretary. (Video: Reuters)

Stephanie Grisham, the newly named White House press secretary, is a lot like her predecessor, Sarah Sanders, and her boss, President Trump: combative, critical of the news media and unafraid to say so.

Grisham developed a reputation as a pugnacious defender of Melania Trump and a critic of the press during her tenure as communications director for the first lady.

Her loyalty to the first lady and to the president, for whom she worked during the 2016 campaign, earned her not just the press secretary’s job on Tuesday but also an unprecedented range of responsibilities for a White House staffer. In addition to press secretary, she will become White House communications director and maintain her current role as the first lady’s chief spokeswoman.

In two-plus years as Melania Trump’s press secretary, Gri­sham, 42, has sometimes adopted a sharp tone in her statements — something traditionally not seen from the East Wing but in tune with the often confrontational stance of the Trump White House’s press operations.

When the president went after MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski in the summer of 2017, claiming falsely in a tweet that she was “bleeding badly from a facelift,” Grisham defended Trump: “When [he] gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”

On behalf of Melania Trump, Grisham has tangled publicly with figures as varied as actress Issa Rae and Ivana Trump, the president’s first wife.

Rae had said in an interview that former first lady Michelle Obama was a fan of her TV show, “Insecure,” and joked that if Melania Trump praised her, she would cancel her show.

Grisham tweeted in response: “Alert: FYI @IssaRae, @FLOTUS likes your show!”

When Ivana Trump called herself “the first lady” in an interview promoting her book, “Raising Trump,” Grisham called her remarks “attention-seeking and self-serving noise.”

However, Melania Trump famously contradicted Grisham last year after Grisham told reporters that there was no “hidden message” in a jacket the first lady wore after visiting a shelter on the border for migrant children. Melania Trump later said in an interview that the outerwear, which bore the phrase “I really don’t care do U?,” was aimed at “the left-wing media” and other critics.

On Twitter, Grisham herself took this shot at reporters: “If media would spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids — rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe — we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children.”

Grisham’s tough talk about the media predates her tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Before joining Team Trump, she served as the spokeswoman for Republicans in the Arizona House when the party banned reporters who wouldn’t consent to extensive criminal and civil background checks from covering the legislature’s floor. (The GOP claimed safety concerns, but the policy came after one reporter exposed spending irregularities by then-House Speaker David Gowan.)

And though her portfolio now spans both the East and West wings, Grisham’s burden may be considerably lighter if she continues the White House’s practice of not holding press briefings, once the press secretary’s principal responsibility. As of Tuesday, Sanders last briefed reporters 105 days ago, a record. She has done so only three times this year.

The third position in Gri­sham’s portfolio, White House communications director, has been vacant since March; it was last held by Bill Shine.

It’s unclear how, and how often, Grisham will engage with White House reporters as Sanders’s replacement. She declined to comment.

Sanders largely ceded contact with journalists to Trump, who engaged with the press during Oval Office “sprays,” various news interviews, and in the moments before boarding his ­helicopter on the White House’s South Lawn. Sanders’s primary public encounters with reporters during the last third of her ­23-month tenure as press secretary were in impromptu “gaggles” held on the White House driveway.

And in the East Wing, Grisham works for a first lady whose public schedule isn’t as packed as some of her predecessors.

Melania Trump, who prizes both loyalty and privacy, has long relied on a small circle of advisers. Grisham, along with Chief of Staff Lindsay Reynolds, is one of only a handful of aides with whom the first lady communicates daily. Grisham has been a constant presence at the first lady’s side when traveling, accompanying Mrs. Trump on her trips to Africa last year and to the U.K. earlier this month.

The first lady’s staff of about 10 aides is far more modest than most first ladies’ in modern history. Michelle Obama and Laura Bush employed about 25, and Trump has the smallest staff of any first lady since Mamie Eisenhower, according to Allida Black, a research professor at George Washington University. Melania Trump’s initiative, Be Best, is more limited than the campaigns of many of her predecessors, though Grisham has long defended it.

“A successful campaign doesn’t always mean spending money,” she said in May when asked whether the program would boost its funding.

Grisham’s relationship with the president — and the journalists who cover him — goes back to the campaign, when she served as a press wrangler, having played a similar role in the 2012 campaign of Mitt Romney. After the election, she joined the staff of then-press secretary Sean Spicer as one of his deputies before joining Melania Trump’s East Wing staff in March 2017.

Kevin Madden, the spokesman for Romney’s 2012 campaign and now a partner at Hamilton Strategies Public Affairs, said Grisham stood out on the advance team by demonstrating loyalty, and by seeking out advice on how to be most helpful to the boss — an attitude she’s taken to the White House.

“It’s not about her,” he said. “It’s about the principals she’s working for and how she can serve their best interest.”