Stephanie Grisham says she hates to be the story. And for the better part of two months, she’s succeeded in not becoming one.
This is surprising, since Grisham is the most powerful communications aide in Washington, and perhaps the world. In late June, President Trump handed her an unprecedented portfolio, appointing her White House press secretary and his communications director. She remains first lady Melania Trump’s communications director, meaning her domain spans the East and West Wings.
Yet Grisham hasn’t done much communicating, at least in public. She hasn’t given a press briefing, continuing the five-month drought that began under her predecessor, Sarah Sanders. She’s done just two informal gaggles with reporters and given only one TV interview.
There’s such a limited supply of recent video footage of Grisham that TV news organizations had to rely on still photographs of her when they reported on her appointment in June.
Which means that the public face of the administration has remained largely faceless beyond the gates of the White House. The other day, as Grisham sat with a reporter in a restaurant two blocks from her office, a predictable thing happened: nothing. For two hours, no one approached to chat or to argue. No one asked her to leave. No one, it seems, knew who she was.
Grisham, 43, says her low profile is by design. She’s been busy, she said, learning two new jobs while juggling a third. And much of her work is behind the scenes. She tells the story in numbers culled from her appointment logs: In her first seven weeks in the West Wing, she’s held 79 internal meetings, had 43 “scheduled” meetings with reporters (and 35 of the unscheduled kind), and been on four domestic trips with the president.
When she worked in the East Wing, just one person reported to her. Now 40 people do.
“I think I serve four audiences — the president, the first lady, the press and my team,” she said in an interview in her West Wing office, a high-ceilinged expanse the size of a studio apartment. “I’m trying to serve the first two, first and foremost, and then I’m trying to get to know the other two. . . . With both of those, I’ve been asking them what can be done differently, what are some challenges. And that takes time.”
But Grisham knows her place, too, which is in the background of the man she refers to as “the boss.” “This president is really his own spokesperson,” she says, reflecting a common perception. “That’s the reality of this White House. And I’m trying to work within the reality of this White House.”
In her few media appearances and public statements, Grisham has proved to be as combative, and even occasionally as caustic, as Sanders could be in her dealings with the news media. She just hasn't done it from a lectern.
There was the time in April, for example, when she smacked down Vogue editor Anna Wintour after Wintour seemed to suggest — it wasn’t really clear — that she had no plans to put Melania Trump on the magazine’s cover. “Her role as first lady of the United States and all that she does is much more important than some superficial photo shoot and cover,” Grisham said at the time. “This just further demonstrates how biased the fashion magazine industry is, and shows how insecure and small-minded Anna Wintour really is.”
Or that time in 2017 when she unloaded on Trump’s first wife, Ivana, for saying during a book tour that she spoke with her ex-husband on occasion because “I’m first lady.” Grisham replied that Melania Trump “plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books.”
Or that time last month when Grisham defended the president amid outrage over his tweets advising four freshmen Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from. Grisham blamed “the mainstream media and Dems” for their response, saying they had attacked Trump “for speaking directly to the American people.”
The blame-the-messenger tone suggests there isn’t much daylight between Grisham and her predecessors, Sanders and Sean Spicer, or between her and the boss, who regularly showers the news media with contempt.
Asked for her general view of the press, Grisham offers a Trump-like critique. “I think in many aspects the press does amazing things and helps a lot of people,” she says. But then comes a pivot:
“Do I believe that their coverage is slanted and biased? Yes. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A majority of reporters are liberal. A lot of reporters are uncomfortable with him and his blunt way of speaking. I think this is the first time they’ve been so publicly called out for some of their behaviors and their instinct is to fight back rather than take a step back” and assess their conduct.
His blunt way of speaking? Does Grisham think Trump ever lies? After all, as of Aug. 5, The Washington Post Fact Checker had documented 12,019 false or misleading claims made by Trump during his presidency.
“No,” she responds without hesitation. “I don’t think they’re lies. . . . I think the president communicates in a way that some people, especially the media, aren’t necessarily comfortable with. A lot of times they take him so literally. I know people will roll their eyes if I say he was just kidding or was speaking in hypotheticals, but sometimes he is. What I’ve learned about him is that he loves this country and he’s not going to lie to this country.”
Grisham’s limited public exposure seems to have spared her blowback for her few public actions as press secretary. In early August, for example, she banned a reporter, Brian Karem of Playboy magazine, from entering the White House for 30 days to punish him for his conduct at a Rose Garden event in July (Karem has disputed the White House’s characterization of the incident and has sued Grisham and Trump to regain his press credential).
When Sanders did the same thing in November to CNN’s Jim Acosta, the decision sparked outrage and wide media attention. The reaction to Karem has so far been more muted, perhaps because he is a less recognizable figure than Acosta and possibly because banning reporters is no longer so unusual. But it might also be because Grisham has said so little about it.
Still, Trump’s penchant for verbal brawls has left her with little choice but to dive in on the boss’s behalf. She played an important, if unseen, role in the sprawling public-relations mess that Trump left in the wake of his recent visit to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso to meet with first responders and survivors of the mass shootings.
After Trump took offense at allegedly critical comments by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Democratic Mayor Nan Whaley following his visit to a Dayton hospital, Grisham accused them of holding “a dishonest press conference in the name of partisan politics.” It wasn’t entirely clear, however, what had enraged the president; Brown and Whaley had actually praised his meetings with hospital staff.
Grisham also got an earful from Trump, who excoriated aides on Air Force One for failing to allow TV news cameras to record his visits to the hospitals. (The White House said it had excluded reporters because of logistics and privacy concerns.) The video images that did emerge were damning: Soon after he left El Paso, cellphone footage surfaced showing Trump bragging in the hospital about the size of his rally crowds and trashing Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke of El Paso.
And then the White House itself tweeted a photo of the Trumps posing with a baby who had been orphaned in the El Paso shootings, with the president grinning broadly and giving a thumbs-up sign. A shocked and angry reaction followed from the president’s critics.
Grisham says she doesn’t regret her shop’s handling of the situation. “Air Force One hadn’t even taken off yet and [Brown and Whaley] were already in front of the TV cameras characterizing the trip in a way that was not meant to do anything but further divide a community that was already hurting,” she says.
As for the photo: “The president poses like that with people all the time and the family certainly didn’t take it the wrong way,” she said. “They knew their president was there to listen to them and provide comfort, and that is what matters.”
Grisham is guarded about her upbringing and pre-White House life, but allows that she was born in Colorado and is the middle child of three ("I come from a family of farmers," she says, without offering further detail). Twice divorced (one of her ex-husbands, Dan Marries, is a longtime TV anchor in Arizona), she is the mother of two boys, aged 21 and 11, both of whom live in Arizona.
Much of Grisham’s professional career was spent in Arizona in a succession of public-relations roles, including briefly owning her own firm. Not all of it appears to have gone smoothly: The New York Times reported last week that she left two employers amid questions about her expense accounts and an allegation of plagiarism (she called the article “not honest” and “hateful” but declined to address it further). She also had two DUI convictions, which she disclosed before she began working at the White House.
In light of that, it’s a bit jarring to see an array of liquor bottles on a prominent shelf in her White House office. Turns out the bottles are only for display; they’re part of a collection started by Sarah Sanders that Grisham kept as an homage to her predecessor.
Grisham’s professional life in Arizona included serving as spokeswoman for the attorney general, Tom Horne (R), and later the House speaker, David Gowan (R). While working for Gowan, she clashed with Hank Stephenson, a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, who broke several stories about Gowan’s misuse of public resources in 2016. Stephenson later revealed that Grisham herself had remained on the state payroll for two months in late 2016, earning $19,000, without showing up for work, while she was working on Trump’s presidential transition team. In an interview, Stephenson said Grisham’s lawyer wrote a letter threatening to sue the paper if the story was published. No lawsuit was ever filed.
Stephenson also said Grisham repeatedly asked his editor and publisher to remove him from the beat, and at one point threatened to yank the newspaper’s credentials to cover the state legislature, although the threat was never carried out.
But Grisham disputes this: “I know better than to ever attempt to get a reporter removed from covering any topic,” she said. “That would never be an option.” She also said she spent the final two months of 2016 assisting Gowan’s transition from office, contrary to Stephenson’s claims.
Grisham first came into Trump’s circle in 2015, when she began managing the traveling campaign press, a relatively low-level position (she was a volunteer in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, too). But her stock soared just a few weeks after Trump was inaugurated when she was dispatched to the East Wing to serve as Melania Trump’s communications director. A bond formed; the private first lady appeared to regard Grisham as an effective shield and occasional sword against the press. When Trump appointed Grisham as press secretary, the announcement was made in an unusual way: via a tweet from Melania Trump.
Grisham says her day usually starts around 7:30 and often doesn’t end until 11:30 p.m., reflecting the president’s own schedule. “He’s up early and he’s working late,” she said. “In my mind, I’ve got to match that to serve him.”
White House reporters seem to like Grisham and generally speak favorably about working with her. They say she replies to them quickly behind the scenes, even if she hasn’t addressed the press as a whole in a briefing.
“I’ve noticed a change in responsiveness since she took over,” said Katie Rogers, a White House reporter for the New York Times. “Under Sarah, it was anyone’s guess if the comms shop would get back to us on even the most basic questions, but the group seems more organized under Stephanie.”
Grisham earned some of her goodwill with the press corps during Trump’s brief visit to North Korea in early July. As Trump was about to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, Grisham body-blocked North Korean security officials, enabling American reporters to squeeze by to record the historic encounter. The incident left Grisham with a few bruises.
Grisham isn’t saying no to restoring the press briefings, but she isn’t making any commitments, either. That’s Trump’s call, she says. She’s also equally vague on when she’ll do regular TV interviews.
One reason Grisham may want to take her time: The stakes are mighty high. Trump literally sat in judgment of her predecessors, watching their televised briefings in the dining room adjoining the Oval Office. Sanders won the president’s loyalty as a result; Spicer lost favor because of it.
Whenever the day comes, if it comes, Grisham makes a vow: She’ll tell the truth.
“I’m always going to do the very best I can to give the most accurate answer that I can,” she says. But she is quick to add, “What I have learned is that sometimes those answers change, and that’s not necessarily because this administration is being nefarious. It’s just that things are fluid and are changing constantly.”
The public will be watching. And so will the boss.