The Short, Strange Tale of Stephanie Grisham

What happens when the White House press secretary is invisible
Former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham on the South Lawn of the White House in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the sweep of things, March 9 wasn’t so long ago. In the coronavirus era, it’s an eternity. Back then, the White House press secretary was still Stephanie Grisham and the White House was still minimizing the threat of the new virus. That morning, the day the number of reported American covid-19 cases jumped from 423 to 647, Grisham appeared on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” remotely from Palm Beach, Fla. “Right now, we’re telling people to act as if this is a severe flu season,” she said. “And, you know, wash your hands often.” The president wasn’t worried, she added, because he “is quite a hand washer.” Grisham critiqued those using the virus as “a tool to politicize things and to scare people.”

More remarkable than what she said was that she said it at all. Unlike her overexposed predecessors, Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, Grisham was infamous for being invisible. In her nine months on the job (her tenure lasted from July until her firing on April 7), Grisham never held a White House press briefing. This makes her unique among the roughly 35 people who have held her position. She rarely conducted the smaller informal briefings known as “gaggles” and almost never appeared on TV, unless it was Fox News.

As her tenure went on, the commentariat developed a fascination with her. A crime writer named Don Winslow said he’d donate $100,000 to a children’s hospital if Grisham did a briefing. Stephen King joined in, doubling the pot. A smattering of profiles appeared, while this newspaper’s media critic started a “Grisham Watch” to track her movements. Grisham was unmoved.

Hints of a saucy persona have emerged. She called President Trump’s impeachment hearings “boring.” She called longtime Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour “insecure and small-minded” for a perceived slight against the first lady. In early March, Grisham disputed a Vanity Fair piece about Trump’s private coronavirus fears, calling it a “college essay.” Other Grisham statements attested to nothing at all, except the sycophantic streak typical of Trump officials. Regarding the cancellation of the briefings, Grisham said they had become media circuses dominated by preening attention hogs. Which, frankly, they sometimes were.

By mid-March, Grisham managed to recede even further. On March 13, the president began delivering his own daily covid-19 briefings, from the podium she never assumed. A few days later, she was in quarantine, out of fear she had caught the virus at Mar-a-Lago. She tested negative, but by the time she was back at the White House, incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows was searching for a replacement. By April, Grisham was out. As a consolation prize, she was named chief of staff to Melania Trump.

Justifying her absence, Grisham used the stock line that the president was his own best spokesperson. As it turns out, he is an inept spokesperson for himself. In the briefing room, he is regularly undercut by the medical experts standing beside him and spends much of his time airing grievances. Anyone who takes what Trump says at face value will become less informed about the threat of the coronavirus.

This brings us to an odd juncture. Some of the same critics who exhorted Grisham to start giving briefings are now exhorting TV networks to stop carrying briefings, calling them “propaganda.” But propaganda, or “spin,” is also what Grisham did for a living. Which raises the question of what the public really wanted from her — and will want from her successor — in the first place. What do we really miss when the nation’s top PR person goes missing?

Unlike her overexposed predecessors, Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, Grisham was infamous for being invisible.
Grisham with former national security adviser John Bolton in the Oval Office in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Stephanie Grisham’s path to the White House would have been considered unusual in any other administration. A twice-divorced mother of two, Grisham, 43, had served as a spokeswoman in Arizona Republican politics. Before that, according to the New York Times, she was fired from one ad agency after being accused of lifting language from the car club AAA, from which she had been previously let go amid accusations she had fudged expense reports. In 2015, she joined Trump’s campaign as a press wrangler, meaning she shepherded reporters to events. After the campaign, she worked for a bit as Spicer’s deputy, then became Melania’s spokeswoman. The two grew close and came to share a defiant attitude toward the press. “I’ve learned from her that we don’t have to tell everybody everything,” Grisham said in “Free, Melania,” Kate Bennett’s biography of the first lady. “We just don’t. And it works out fine.”

That attitude followed her to the West Wing. Outside of pre-written statements about major news events, she rarely spoke to journalists on the record. And when she did go off the record, it was often just to alert reporters to some White House development that would soon become public. While Sarah Sanders earned a reputation for off-podium candor, Grisham was seen as a cipher. I called about a dozen reporters who dealt with her. None disliked her, but most were dismissive of her qualifications. Some thought the White House killed the briefing to reduce transparency; others thought she wasn’t capable of delivering one.

During her tenure, Grisham also held the job of White House communications director while retaining her original gig with the first lady. Before she was sacked, I had interviewed several White House officials about how she shaped PR strategy. I did not receive satisfying answers. “She is somebody who appreciates the way that the president communicates, and she’s not trying to change him,” senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner told me. Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump added: “My husband said in Time magazine, and I thought it was a great quote, that the president makes the waves, everybody else just surfs them.”

Former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, before he was sacked, complimented Grisham’s “calming” perspective as a single mom. I asked for an example of a communications “win” during his tenure. He cited the United States’ lethal January strike against Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. I asked how plugged in Grisham was on the strike. “There are certain times where she has to get up to speed very, very quickly, and that may have been one of those times,” he said. The night of Iran’s attempted retaliation against the United States, during which it accidentally shot down a passenger jet, killing everyone aboard, Grisham sent one tweet, criticizing CNN.

What did she do, in lieu of press briefings? The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple occasionally emailed her to ask, for his “Grisham Watch.” She’d respond with droll granularity:

Met w the POTUS … Mtg with my comms team on impeachment and Davos … As of this moment I have eaten two saltine crackers and had three cups of coffee … Ive used the restroom twice …

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, right, listens as Lara Trump speaks at a Women for Trump discussion in an Iowa restaurant in January. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Last fall, the Atlantic’s Megan Garber published a nostalgic essay about C.J. Cregg, the White House press secretary portrayed by Allison Janney on NBC’s “The West Wing.” Garber wrote: “C.J. may be sarcastic; she may be, every once in a while, cynical; but she believes, at her core, in the power of shared facts.” Cregg, she declared, was the “moral center” of the show. “Through the stands she takes in arguing for the principles she believes in — the show posits a world whose messy truths can be made sense of.”

It’s fitting that Garber didn’t write a paean to the press secretaries of real-life presidents. Barack Obama’s flacks were generally thin-skinned and tight-lipped. Bill Clinton’s comms shop locked the sliding door that reporters use to travel from the briefing room to the West Wing. Richard Nixon’s Ron Ziegler called the Watergate break-in a “third-rate burglary attempt.” The profession does not reward transparency. When Scott McClellan (press secretary for George W. Bush) published a memoir blasting the White House for feeding him bad intelligence on the Iraq War, he was denounced by Republicans and never worked in politics again. It seems unrealistic that a press secretary, a mouthpiece for his or her boss, could be the “moral center” of anything.

I met Stephanie Grisham for the first time in late January, when the Senate impeachment trial of the president was underway. On TV, Grisham does not look comfortable, and speaks haltingly. In person, I found her affect genial, and slightly mischievous. That said, she was only willing to speak off the record. Which means that everything I’ve quoted I later negotiated onto the record.

Sitting behind her desk, keeping an eye on her email, she reminded me that the decision to cancel the press briefings wasn’t hers. The president scaled them back at the end of Sanders’s tenure and hasn’t indicated he’d restore them under anyone. “If he came in here right now and said, ‘Go to the podium,’ I would go to the podium.” Not that she was eager to. “There are characters in that briefing room who I believe ruin it for everybody else.”

If the cancellation of the traditional press briefing defined the Grisham era, the introduction of the Trump version brought it to a close.

Her inbox pinged with a query from a journalist . I asked her what it said, and she read it out loud. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had recently berated an NPR reporter, and the emailing journalist wanted to know if she thought Pompeo had acted appropriately.

Grisham looked at me. “If I say ‘No, I do not think that was appropriate,’ the headline would be, ‘I went against the secretary of state and, oh my gosh, that’s terrible and I went against the president.’ If I say yes, I do think that’s appropriate because X, Y, Z, the headline will be, “She hates the press, everybody hates the press in this administration.”

In general, Grisham suggested, there is little upside to ever saying anything. “Often I’m not looped into certain things. Not because of anything bad, [but] because we move so fast,” she said. “If you ask reporters, I tell them all, ‘I will never knowingly lie to you, I’ll just ignore you.’ ”

Under Trump, briefings have declined not only at the White House, but at the State Department and the Pentagon. A Trump spokesperson can’t know if the president is going to contradict, or has already contradicted, something she has just said. Rather than say something foolish, she says nothing at all. Spicer and Sanders learned this the hard way. Every day, during their televised press briefings, they would stand before a room of reporters and try to defend an indefensible thing their boss had done or said. It made for perversely enjoyable television, like one of those sadistic and unwinnable Japanese game shows. No wonder Grisham wasn’t keen to join the cast.

Ironically, when the president began delivering his own briefings, Grisham found herself in the exact circle of hell she had avoided for months. On March 22, the normally friendly Howard Kurtz invited her on his Fox News show “MediaBuzz.” He asked Grisham why the president had initially soft-pedaled the crisis. She wondered “why the media has to continue to look backwards.” Kurtz then cited a briefing in which NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked the president whether he was giving false hope to Americans by touting unproven drug treatments and what Trump would say to Americans who are scared. Trump responded by calling Alexander a “terrible reporter.” “It is his job to show not only leadership, but try to calm the American people,” Grisham told Kurtz. “So to come after him and say he’s giving false hope, I think, was wildly inappropriate.”

If the cancellation of the traditional press briefing defined the Grisham era, the introduction of the Trump version brought it to a close. Neither option, clearly, has proved ideal. I suspect that what some jittery, exhausted reporters would prefer is the old ritualistic back-and-forth with a stonewalling flack, in which nothing meaningful is conveyed, except a sense of Beltway normalcy that is lacking in the Trump era. Something that reminds them of C.J. Cregg.

In any case, Grisham is gone. Her replacement is Kayleigh McEnany, a TV-ready 31-year-old Harvard Law graduate who was serving as Trump’s campaign spokeswoman. In late February, on Fox Business Network, McEnany asserted, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here. We will not see terrorism come here. And isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”

It is not clear whether she will give briefings.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Fox Business Network. It’s Fox Business Network, not Fox Business Channel.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in New York.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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