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New White House press secretary yanked Arizona reporters’ access after critical coverage

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

On April 5, 2016, Hank Stephenson checked his email and saw that he had a new message from Stephanie Grisham. “Attached please find the form that you requested for the cursory background check we have discussed,” Grisham, then the press secretary for the Republican majority in the Arizona House of Representatives, wrote. “Really appreciate everyone’s willingness to work with us.”

Stephenson, who at the time was a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, initially hadn’t thought too much about what Grisham claimed was a new security protocol. That was about to change.

“At first it was kind of like, eh, whatever,” he told The Washington Post. “And then, they explained what they would want.”

President Trump discussed his decision to appoint Stephanie Grisham as White House press secretary on June 25. (Video: The Washington Post)

Grisham asked members of the Arizona press corps who covered the legislature to consent to what Stephenson called an “invasive” background check into reporters’ addresses, driving records, and criminal and civil histories. Journalists could decline, but if they did, they would be banned from the state’s House floor, which was the only place to reliably buttonhole lawmakers. As the only Arizona journalist whose full-time job was covering the state House of Representatives, Stephenson spent a good deal of his time on the floor.

Reporters quickly came to suspect the policy was, in fact, specifically designed to retaliate against Stephenson, whose reporting had revealed how Republican House Speaker David Gowan used state-owned vehicles to travel thousands of miles while running for Congress, and ultimately forced the lawmaker to return more than $12,000 to the state. Under the new rules, reporters would be barred from the floor for violent felony convictions such as assault and rape — as well as, oddly, misdemeanor trespassing. Stephenson, perhaps not coincidentally, had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing in 2014 after an incident at a bar in rural Arizona.

“As soon as we looked at it, we knew this was just a way to get rid of me,” Stephenson, who now edits a subscription-only tip sheet for Arizona politics that is a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, told The Post on Tuesday night.

Grisham, for her part, denied Stephenson was being singled out. The policy was rescinded days later, after every member of the Phoenix press corps refused to sign the form and even some Republican lawmakers raised concerns. But the flap came to be the most high-profile controversy to define her tenure in Arizona, though it wasn’t the only time she was accused of yanking press credentials for Stephenson’s paper in response to his critical coverage.

As The Washington Post’s Emily Heil and Paul Farhi reported, Grisham, 42, who on Tuesday was named the new White House press secretary, developed a reputation for being combative and critical of the media during her time as communications director for first lady Melania Trump. In Arizona, she remains well-liked by the press, even though the relationship could be contentious at times.

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“Reporter ban notwithstanding, journalists and other public relations professionals described Grisham as good-natured and responsive,” the Phoenix New Times reported on Tuesday, after the White House’s announcement was made public. The Arizona Republic, likewise, noted that though her bosses were often mired in controversy, Grisham “largely remained accessible to the media.”

In fact, Stephenson still regards Grisham as his favorite of all the spokespeople he’s worked with. “I’m not exactly sure why,” he said. As a spokeswoman, Grisham was always friendly and responsive to his inquiries, he said. She understood that he was just doing his job and didn’t take his sometimes-pointed questions too personally. Other Arizona reporters he’s spoken with feel the same way, he added, and at the end of the day, Grisham was “somebody you can have a drink with” and set work aside.

“Of anyone, I should have the most reason to dislike Grisham,” he said. “But I just can’t bring myself to dislike her all that much.”

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

Grisham, who couldn’t immediately be reached for comment regarding her time in Arizona, became embroiled in the state’s overheated politics in 2013, following a stint on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

As the Arizona Mirror reported, she took a job as the spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who was coping with the fallout from an FBI investigation into alleged campaign finance violations. When Horne ran for reelection the following year, Grisham ended up engulfed in another scandal when she and other staffers were accused of doing campaign work while on the clock as state employees. Horne ultimately ended up paying a $10,000 fine but was largely cleared of the charges stemming from the FBI’s earlier investigation.

After the 2014 state election, Grisham became the spokeswoman for Gowan, the newly elected Arizona house speaker, who raised eyebrows when he approved a budget that would require cutbacks at state agencies, then began redecorating the House of Representatives at taxpayers’ expense. Stephenson wrote about how Gowan had approved spending more than $1 million on the renovations, which included paying to have lawmakers’ chairs reupholstered.

His reporting on lawmakers’ use of state vehicles, however, soured his relationship with House Republicans. Four hours after the story was published, the Capitol Times was notified that their access to cover the opening day of the legislative session had been revoked. In an email, Grisham claimed there wouldn’t be space for the paper’s reporters.

“When I called Grisham to get an explanation, she made no bones about the fact that the paper’s access had been pulled because of the story,” Jim Small, the paper’s editor at the time, later wrote in a note to readers. Though the decision was later reversed, the hostility continued.

In subsequent months, Small wrote, the paper was pressured to assign Stephenson to another beat, and a state House staffer “suggested all access issues would be resolved if Stephenson was dismissed from his job.” A letter from the caucus’s attorney accused Stephenson of “rude and inappropriate conduct” on the House floor, claiming without evidence that he typed on his computer during the daily prayers and was overly aggressive when questioning lawmakers. When he learned that Stephenson would be barred from the floor because of the new security policy, Small rejected Grisham’s claim that the move wasn’t intended as payback. Small categorized it as an attack on the press.

To this day, Stephenson says, he still hasn’t gotten a good answer on whether Grisham herself thought up the short-lived policy, or if other displeased staffers were behind it.

“What we do know is that she was tasked with delivering the news on these orders to reporters,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s fair to say that she carried out her duties with glee, but she was a loyal soldier.”

Grisham’s relationship with the Arizona press corps was frostier after the dust-up, but Stephenson said things remained cordial until April 2017, when he wrote a story exposing how she had hit the road as part of President Trump’s transition team while still getting paid by the Arizona House of Representatives.

Though Grisham took an unpaid leave of absence to work on the campaign, she was added back on the state’s payroll after the 2016 election, and earned roughly $19,000 over the course of eight weeks. During that time, Stephenson found, she didn’t send a single email from her official account or write a single news release, and there was no evidence that she had done any other work for the state. Grisham didn’t respond to his requests for comment, but Stephenson tracked her social media posts and found she had been traveling all over the country on behalf of the president-elect, while also making time for some sun at Mar-a-Lago.

Grisham threatened to sue over the story, Stephenson said, and he later learned she had blocked him from viewing her personal Twitter account. But he still has no hard feelings.

“She was the kind of person who very much defends her boss publicly,” he recalled. “Talks the talking points. But at the end of the day she’s surprisingly human, I guess.”

His advice to White House reporters?

“Expect hard and constant pushback, but also a halfway decent source of information,” he said. “Someone who returns your call, at least.”

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