I’LL TAKE YOUR QUESTIONS NOW: What I Saw at the Trump White House
“And there will be photographers?” the first lady asked. Melania, Grisham realized, assumed it was just another press event that her aide was setting up. She did not acknowledge, or even recognize, the overture of friendship. “I felt like such an ass to have offered,” Grisham admits.
In that exchange, Grisham committed a mistake that so many Trump acolytes make, and one she would repeat in her years working for the first lady and the president. She thought she belonged. “Everyone just loves you,” Donald Trump assured Grisham when he named her White House press secretary. She came to believe that she was “a trusted and valued member of Trump World.” Right up until she wasn’t.
It’s not easy writing a White House tell-all when it feels like so much about this White House has already been told. The substantive revelations in Grisham’s “I’ll Take Your Questions Now” are matters of detail, coloring in a picture whose contours have long been clear. Yes, Trump had a volcanic temper, sucked up to Vladimir Putin and ogled young female staffers. Yes, Jared Kushner was in over his head and didn’t seem to know it. Yes, Ivanka Trump was addicted to television cameras. Yes, Melania Trump was glamorous — “she even smelled incredible,” Grisham gushes — and resentful of her media coverage, often telling Grisham “don’t replay” (meaning “don’t reply”) to reporters’ inquiries. So much of this book feels like a replay of familiar stories, even if told from a slightly different vantage point.
Grisham’s most revelatory moments are not about the principals but about herself — and why she stuck around to witness so much she says she came to revile. “Let’s face it, somebody had to work in the Donald Trump White House,” she deadpans. But Grisham, who resigned on Jan. 6, with the assault on the Capitol underway, asks herself: “Why did I wait so long? I had stayed through Access Hollywood, impeachment, family separation, Charlottesville, accusations of rape and misconduct, and a million other things” — all moments that could have been the moment.
Her often self-serving answers can be at times oblivious and at times painfully self-aware. Grisham seems to imagine herself an adult in the room, saying she “lost count” of all the times she succeeded in getting the president to “dial back his rhetoric, to calm one situation or another.” But based on this book, such moments were not terribly frequent or consequential. It shouldn’t be hard to keep count.
Grisham had carved out a living in political communications — or “comms,” in that grating Washington shorthand — including work with the 2012 Romney campaign and as press secretary for Arizona’s attorney general before making her way to Trump’s 2016 operation as a low-level press wrangler. Trump wasn’t necessarily her first choice among the Republican candidates, “but once I was in it, I was in it.” She found him refreshing and liked that he “challenged dumb rules.” Besides, she’d always dreamed of being a White House press secretary, even putting up pictures of the executive mansion in her past workplaces to remind her of her goal.
But over time, working for Trump became a “classic abuse relationship,” with the president as “the distant, erratic father we all wanted to please.” She recalls a visit to an Ohio intensive care unit after a mass shooting in Dayton, when the president became angry because no press cameras had been there when the medical staff cheered for him. “What a waste,” he grumbled. Upon seeing local Democratic politicians criticize the visit on television, Trump unleashed on Grisham aboard Air Force One, his face nearly purple with anger. “Why are you even on this plane? What do I have a whole team of people for if there is no one f---ing defending me?”
She was on the plane, in part, because she felt she had few other options. “I was a single mom with no trust fund. If I had quit earlier, where would I have gone?” The usual lucrative path of former White House press secretaries, lined with corporate boards and speaking gigs, would not necessarily be available to Trump White House alumni. Even during the impeachment saga — the first one — Grisham did not see the point of resigning. “Ask generals Mattis or Kelly, even Ambassador Bolton, if that had had any effect on how Donald Trump operated,” she points out. So she stayed. “The Trumps were all I had,” she writes. “At least that was what I believed for a long time.”
The book is divided roughly equally between Grisham’s work with the president and with Melania, including a rough patch when she tried to work for both at once. The experience left her “heady with power,” she explains, another reason she struggled to let go. Yet she never functioned as a conventional press secretary, let alone a powerful one. Grisham did not deliver a briefing and often noted that Trump was “his own best spokesperson” — that is to say, his real one.
Instead, she wielded power in the service of petty schemes and resentments. Grisham’s “sly little move” of surreptitiously rearranging seating cards so that Melania, not Ivanka, would have a better camera angle during a presidential speech in Saudi Arabia is what passes for high drama. And after the first lady visited an orphanage in Kenya and was photographed holding an African baby, Grisham was troubled to find that Ivanka had visited a hurricane recovery site in North Carolina around the same time — and was photographed holding an African American child. “Was that a coincidence?” Grisham grouses. (How dare Ivanka preempt Melania’s Black baby photo op!) More consequentially, Grisham and Melania succeed in getting a National Security Council adviser fired for launching an investigation into some members of the first lady’s staff, including Grisham. Looking back, Grisham congratulates herself a bit. “Bold? Definitely. Unprofessional? Perhaps.”
She laments how the news media fixated on the first lady’s attire, even as she devotes inordinate time to explaining the “look book,” a collection of drawings and mock-ups of outfits that Melania might wear for different events, managed by her personal stylist. “The look book became a big part of my life,” Grisham writes. She devotes a chapter to the infamous “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket that the first lady wore on her way to visit a children’s detention facility near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. “To be honest, I don’t know what she was thinking,” Grisham writes. But she blames the news media for the mess. “All the headlines focused, of course, on the jacket rather than on the purpose of her trip to the border,” she complains, even though it was the obvious contrast between the jacket’s message and the purpose of the visit that made the thing so bizarre.
There are some memorable descriptions in this book — I’ll always remember Grisham’s writing that the first lady “wore studied indifference as though it were armor” — as well as some real high-school-report-style clunkers. “The continent of Africa is vast, and as in North America, each country has its own set of problems and issues,” Grisham informs readers. But she is often more noteworthy for what she does not say. Given her role as a press secretary, Grisham is surprisingly silent on the president’s attacks on the press. “It is not my intention to use this book to trash the press, nor is it to defend some of our administration’s behaviors and actions against them,” she writes. “Truth be told, I think both parties were at fault for many things.” Truth be told, that is incredibly weak.
Grisham was inclined to question the president’s attitudes toward journalists mainly when she feared he would make her look bad in front of them — when he asked her to do a dramatic reenactment of the Ukraine call in a news briefing, or when he insisted that a press staffer tell reporters that Stormy Daniels had “a horse face,” or when he demanded that Grisham tweet a statement denigrating former White House chief of staff John Kelly. She declined the first order, ignored the second but carried out the third, and she apologizes to Kelly for it in this book.
Grisham says there was a “little voice” in her head during the Trump presidency, telling her “it was all so wrong.” Yet, before Jan. 6, that voice spoke up only at particular moments — when Mitt Romney was humiliated in his quest to become Trump’s secretary of state, and when a personal friend of Grisham’s was fired from the White House, supposedly over an indiscreet Grindr account. That is, when people she liked or admired were personally affected. And her disenchantment with the White House really gained strength when she realized that new chief of staff Mark Meadows, whom she loathes, was seeking to demote her.
But then came Jan. 6, “a day of reckoning for me,” Grisham writes. She texted the first lady and asked if she wanted to publicly condemn the violence. Melania responded “No,” just that single word. “It broke me,” Grisham recalls. She waited a minute, then sent an email to the first lady, officially resigning. After talking or texting nearly every day for years, she and Melania have not spoken since that day. That silence “took some getting used to,” Grisham admits.
Even now, she remains conflicted over the Trump family. “I liked them and I disliked them and I miss them and I hope I never see them again,” Grisham writes. It’s an occupational hazard of Trump World exiles. Some part of them still hopes to belong.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: