Amid a debate over a photo showing White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s casual posture while sitting on an Oval Office couch, she stressed to The Washington Post that the focus should instead be on the reason she was there in the first place.
Leaders from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, met Monday with administration officials to share “expert insights on policy issues impacting their individual campuses.” Before that meeting, President Trump greeted the chancellors and presidents in the Oval Office.
“Coverage should rightly be on the actual visit and the incredible, important work of these men and women at HBCUs,” Conway said.
Conway, counselor to the president, wrote in emails to The Post on Tuesday that she was asked to snap pictures of Trump with the educators “to chronicle this significant event.” She knelt down on an Oval Office couch to snap a photo of the group.
She also addressed the controversy during an appearance on “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” telling the Fox Business Network host that she was being asked to “take a picture in a crowded room with the press behind us.”
“And I was asked to take a certain angle and was doing exactly that,” she told Dobbs. “I certainly meant no disrespect, I didn’t mean to have my feet on the couch.”
“I am not a victim at all but people should take very seriously the import of their words,” she later said, after Dobbs asked about “the venom of the left.”
She added: “But hey, Lou, if we started a trend here, where people are outwardly talking about greater respect for the office of the president and its current occupant, then perhaps that’s something positive to come out.”
In her comments on Fox Business, Conway erred when speaking about historically black colleges and universities, saying “HCBUs” instead of “HBCUs.”
Conway documented the impromptu Oval Office gathering Monday, just before what the White House described as a “listening session” with the HBCU leaders.
“I saw her taking pictures — it was a very sweet moment, to be honest,” Omarosa Manigault, a top aide to Trump, said in an interview Tuesday. “She looked down at the picture after she got it, and I looked at her and said, ‘Kellyanne, did you get a good shot?’ Because I wanted one for my own records.
“I literally looked at her and said, ‘Kellyanne, can you try to get a good shot?’ . . . She tried again; she positioned herself to get a better picture. It really was at my encouragement for her to try to capture such an important, historic moment.”
Some critics complained that Conway's posture while taking the pictures was disrespectful to the office of the president and all it stands for.
Others, however, noted that President Barack Obama had been spotted with his feet on the Oval Office’s storied Resolute desk on several occasions during his term, according to the Associated Press.
Even others — here on The Fix, and elsewhere — called the controversy “so incredibly dumb.”
Manigault, assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, said that before Monday’s session, she got word that Trump wanted to meet the educators in the Oval Office.
“He thought, ‘They’re in the building; let’s allow them to come over to say hello,’ ” she said.
“One by one, they went up, introduced themselves, shook hands, had a chance to chat with him, to talk with him, to share their concerns and expressions about what they’ve gone through and what their universities are facing,” she added.
Ultimately, Manigault said, the Oval Office became packed as the university presidents and chancellors crowded around Trump for a photo op, which the official White House photographer, the press pool and Conway attempted to capture.
“There was nowhere to stand at that point,” Manigault said, so Conway got on the couch to get a shot.
First of all, every party not in the White House likes to express shock and outrage at the way the other side is treating this hallowed job and office. Republicans were incensed when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama treated the Oval Office with slightly less formality than did Ronald Reagan, who, famously, always wore a suit coat in the Oval Office.
This is all par for the Internet outrage/partisan police.
It was dumb when Republicans leveled the charge of Obama and Clinton disrespecting the White House. It is equally dumb now.
In 2009, Obama was criticized by Andrew H. Card Jr., White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush, for not requiring that suit jackets be worn inside the Oval Office.
“There should be a dress code of respect,” Card said then. “When you have a dress code in the Supreme Court and a dress code on the floor of the Senate, floor of the House, I think it’s appropriate to have an expectation that there will be a dress code that respects the office of the president.”
Manigault said she hopes the controversial photo of Conway “doesn’t take away from this remarkable thing that this president did in terms of keeping his word to HBCU that he was going to be a champion for them.”
But the event Conway was commemorating has been the target of some criticism as well.
As The Post’s Philip Bump wrote, some suggested that the meeting was not as productive as White House officials made it seem. Among those invited to attend were Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, who described the meeting in a Medium post. He had expected to give remarks focused on the need to support the Pell grant program, a vital support system for his students. But, Kimbrough said, he and other anticipated speakers saw the amount of time they were allotted to speak at the “listening session” decrease significantly.
Kimbrough said it all “blew up” with the presidential meeting in the Oval Office.
“I’m still processing that entire experience,” he wrote about being in the Oval Office. “But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today — we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today.”
As far as Conway’s posture in the viral photo, Manigault said she regrets that some people do not realize Conway has “incredible respect for the office or this great historic place that we occupy.”
“The idea of that is pretty remarkable to me because decorum, respect, reverence, all of that is expressed from the top down,” Manigault said. “So I have to push back against that.”
This story has been updated.