In a campaign full of odd moments, this one stood out.
During Q&A at a news conference in Washington on Monday, Donald Trump called on a tall, striking woman in the press corps. He liked her question (about whether he would be hiring veterans at his new hotel) and her look (“smart and good”), so he invited her to join him at the podium for an impromptu job interview. And she complied, smiling widely and clearly enjoying the encounter.
Following a brief exchange, the billionaire declared that "if we can make a good deal on the salary, she's gonna probably have a job."
Reporters were stunned. One began a follow-up question by stating that "what we just witnessed here was pretty remarkable."
Immediately after the event concluded, news outlets rushed to identify this stranger, who hadn't given her name and wasn’t recognized by the journalists who cover Trump on the campaign trail on a daily basis.
Soon, the mystery was solved — sort of. The woman was Alicia Watkins, 38, and she was less of a stranger to the media than she originally seemed. Watkins, it turns out, has an uncanny knack for finding the spotlight, having appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," CNN and Fox News Channel and in articles by the Associated Press and Newsday, among many other publications.
Her appeal lies in a personal biography that includes surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force staff sergeant and falling into homelessness upon her return, but rising to gain admission to Harvard, become a beauty pageant queen and launch a media company. It was that last line on Watkins’s resume that qualified her for a credential to Monday’s news conference, according to the Trump campaign.
But a Fix review of public records and Watkins’s previous statements about her life revealed plenty of inconsistencies and questionable claims — something she shares with the Republican presidential front-runner who seemed interested in hiring her. Many of her accomplishments are genuinely admirable; others aren't as impressive as she has led, or at least allowed, people to believe.
Watkins’s first taste of exposure appears to have come on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, when an AP writer in Afghanistan reported that she delivered “an emotional speech at the main U.S. base in Kabul.” The story named Watkins among “soldiers who witnessed the attack on the Pentagon.” She has since said she was at the Defense Department headquarters in interviews with CBS News, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican and others.
Watkins was indeed stationed at the Pentagon between October 2000 and July 2004, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.
But the official website of the Los Angeles Air Force Base, where she was stationed later in her career, suggests she told a different tale in 2007, when she spoke at a ceremony for veterans returning from deployment. A recap of the event includes this passage:
General Hamel introduced an impromptu speaker, Staff Sgt. Alicia Watkins, 61st Communications Squadron, to briefly talk about her deployment and what motivated her while she was deployed. She had joined the Air Force after the 9/11 attack. Sergeant Watkins was outside her office building in New York when the terrorists attacked and her best friend lost her life.
The photogenic Watkins appears in a picture at the top of an L.A. Air Force Base webpage that remains live today with the following caption: “SSgt Alicia Watkins, 61st Communications Squadron, spoke about how being at Ground Zero on 9/11 motivated her to join the Air Force and kept her going during her recent deployment.”
In an interview with The Fix, Watkins insisted she never claimed to be in New York or that she enlisted after 9/11 (her actual enlistment date was Nov. 10, 1998). She also said she has a video recording of the address that supports her denials and would try to locate it. (First questioned about the discrepancy on Tuesday evening, Watkins had not supplied the video by Friday morning)
The Air Force website completely misrepresented her remarks, Watkins said, but she has never tried to correct the errors — because she has “no faith in the media to fix the mistakes.”
(I pointed out that the false information was posted not by “the media” but by the Air Force base where she was stationed at the time; Watkins rejected the notion that the Air Force is not part of the media.)
Watkins claimed in an interview with Baltimore Magazine last year that she spent “16 years in the military,” but records at the Air Force Personnel Center and the National Archives and Records Administration show considerably less: nine and a half years. The Air Force has her retirement date (May 16, 2008) wrong, too, Watkins said. She provided a retirement certificate dated Sept. 24, 2012, to buttress her argument.
But the later date, she acknowledged, does not reflect the end of her active service; it represents the expiration of her time on what is known as the Temporary Disability Retirement List — not to be confused with the Permanent Disability Retirement List. The difference is that armed forces members on the temporary list are periodically evaluated for possible return to active duty.
According to the Department of Defense, “a member of the TDRL or the PDRL is a retired member of the armed forces.” Since Watkins didn’t return to active status, the Air Force considers her to have been retired since 2008.
Even using the 2012 date, though, Watkins’s service time still comes up more than two years short of the 16 she claimed. She explained that she arrived at the number 16 by including additional time in which she received medical treatment covered by the military.
"I believe that to be my accurate number of years," she said.
In 2010, during her time on the temporary retirement list, Watkins was featured in an Oprah segment about her life as a homeless veteran. In a follow-up interview on the Oprah Winfrey Network last year, she said that in the intervening years she had “decided to apply to Harvard University.”
“In 2012, I was accepted,” she added proudly.
A claim of acceptance to Harvard suggests successful navigation of one of the world’s most selective collegiate admissions processes. Watkins, however, enrolled at Harvard Extension School, a far less rigorous division of the university that makes classes available to anyone who signs up and pays tuition. Students who earn at least a B in their first three courses qualify for admission to a degree-seeking program.
That’s where Watkins is now, she said — studying online for a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the extension school. It's not the elite version of Harvard most people think of but rather what the university bills as "Harvard — extended to the world for every type of adult learner."
And Watkins’s media company, Troops Media, isn’t publishing content at the moment. She said she is working on a name change and, in the meantime, is looking for freelance work. Watkins didn’t have an assignment from a news outlet when she applied for a credential to the Trump event, but she said she was hoping to pitch a story to the Veterans Affairs blog and also do some reporting for what she described as an “op-ed” that The Washington Post asked her to write last year.
(A Post editor clarified that Watkins was invited to write about her time as a homeless veteran on the PostEverything blog and would not have been paid.)
Watkins said she never expected the press conference to play out the way it did. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said the campaign “obviously had no knowledge of this person or her background prior to the interaction” on Monday.
“I was sincere when I came; there was no agenda,” Watkins said. “If I sullied the journalism brand by being someone who got an opportunity and took it, then I'll take that.”