Women in this role rightly or wrongly can defuse the criticism aimed at Trump, who has been accused by 19 women of sexual misconduct.
Hicks, who announced her resignation Wednesday, has been one of Trump’s closest confidantes and was one of the most powerful women in Washington. But her loyalty to Trump also led many to question her ability to credibly help defend the president during an epidemic of sexual abuse by powerful men.
In defending Trump, Hicks and the other women in the West Wing have done what any top White House aides would be expected to do at a moment of crisis — try to shield the president from damaging revelations and protect his standing among his voter base.
At the same time, their defense of the president has made them a focus of criticism as they awkwardly attempt to embrace the sentiments behind the #MeToo movement while applying a different set of rules to Trump.
Ivanka Trump, leading the official White House delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, was asked in a television interview whether she believed the accusations against the president.
“I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it,” she replied.
“I don’t envy them the job they have,” said Mona Charen, a political columnist who was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference when she called fellow conservatives “hypocrites” for not speaking out against Trump’s personal conduct. “They speak for a guy who every passing day we learn a new porn star has been paid off or the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape comes out.”
Only five women serve among Trump’s 24 Cabinet members and senior West Wing advisers. But Trump’s communications team is largely female, perhaps an outgrowth of his reality-television-producing preference for stereotypical archetypes to inhabit specific roles.
In his book “Fire and Fury,” author Michael Wolff reported that Trump initially sought an attractive woman as White House press secretary before being talked into hiring Sean Spicer. Among those Trump considered, Wolff wrote, were right-wing pundits Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham and the Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo.
The women who did join the White House have exhibited a level of influence on par with the most powerful men in the West Wing. Conway, a former Republican pollster who had served as Trump’s campaign manager, continued her role as a surrogate on cable television while also assuming policy duties related to veterans affairs and opioids.
Sanders, who was Spicer’s deputy, assumed the reins after his departure in July, replacing his manic delivery at the daily briefing with a more controlled performance. And when the president’s first two communications directors, Michael Dubke and Anthony Scaramucci, flamed out, the job fell to Hicks in September.
Hicks, 29, has worked for Trump since he was a private business executive, and as a spokeswoman for his campaign she vehemently denied an allegation made against Trump three weeks before the 2016 presidential election by a woman who said he had groped her at a nightclub in the early 1990s.
“Mr. Trump strongly denies this phony allegation by someone looking to get some free publicity,” Hicks said at the time. She issued similar denials after other accusations during the campaign, including by contestants at Trump’s beauty pageants who said he would enter their dressing rooms while they were changing. “Totally false,” Hicks said.
Three weeks after Hicks’s appointment as White House communications director, the New York Times revealed allegations of sexual misconduct against the Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic donor.
The White House’s initial reaction was muted. Asked a day after the report whether Democrats should return campaign money from Weinstein, Sanders demurred, calling it “a decision for those individuals to make.” Trump told reporters that he had known Weinstein and was not surprised by the revelations, but he did not elaborate.
Not until Nov. 21, after a cascade of revelations against numerous male executives in Hollywood, media and other industries, did Trump say more, during an impromptu session with reporters on the South Lawn.
“I think it’s very, very good for women, and I’m very happy a lot of these things are coming out,” he said. “I’m very happy it’s being exposed.”
It was clear why the White House did not engage substantively in the #MeToo debate, given the allegations against Trump. The president also endorsed Roy Moore in a U.S. Senate race in Alabama, despite reports that the former judge had a sexual encounter with an underage girl when he was in his 30s.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and a Pentagon adviser in the administration of President Barack Obama, wrote a tough critique in 2013 of Obama over the lack women in top foreign policy jobs. Comparing Trump’s situation to President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, Brooks said that “the depressing thing is that 25 years after . . . nothing has changed. You still have men and women willing to make all kinds of excuses for behavior that is somewhere between appalling and potentially criminal.”
One high-profile woman in the West Wing who, according to friends, was no longer willing to make those excuses was Omarosa Manigault Newman, the reality-television star from “The Apprentice” who followed Trump into politics. She told associates after leaving the White House in December that she was dismayed by the president’s endorsement of Moore.
The disclosure last month that White House staff secretary Rob Porter was accused of abusing his two former wives thrust the tension into the open. Porter was dating Hicks, who reportedly helped craft the White House’s initial response to the scandal, in which Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and others expressed support for his character.
That stance quickly unraveled after news outlets published a photo of one of the accusers with a bruised eye. Trump was said to believe that Hicks’s personal feelings for Porter had clouded her judgment, according to news reports.
In public, the president’s staff closed ranks. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Conway claimed to be “horrified” by the allegations against Porter, who by then had resigned, and said she had “no reason not to believe these women.” She also insisted that Trump was “very disturbed,” an assertion at odds with Trump’s tweet a day earlier stating that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”
Amy Siskind, president of the New Agenda, a nonpartisan organization that aims to empower women and girls, noted that some female Republican lawmakers have criticized Trump, pointing to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who said Trump needed to “send a stronger message” after Porter resigned.
Two days after Conway’s Sunday appearance on CNN last month, Sanders was asked at the White House briefing about a Washington Post op-ed piece from Porter’s first ex-wife, Colbie Holderness, who expressed disappointment that Sanders had not disclosed whether Trump believed Porter’s accusers. “I expected a woman to do better,” Holderness wrote.
Sanders bristled. The administration, she said, was trying to find ways to prevent abuse against all women.
“To presume that I feel differently is simply a very strong mischaracterization of who I am,” she added, “and who this White House is.”