The president’s counselor — now the most powerful (and ridiculed) woman in America — talks ‘SNL,’ “alternative facts,” the “public cesspool” of Twitter and the apoplectic, outraged media: “I can go on any show at any time.”
Kellyanne Conway says she’s “sorry to offend the black-stretch-pants women of America with a little color.” Conway is referring, of course, to the $3,600 red, white and blue Gucci military-style coat — meant to signify the Donald Trump revolution — that she wore, accompanied by her husband and four children, to the Jan. 20 inaugural ceremonies. The outfit instantly became an internet meme for ludicrousness, provoking a social media pile-on of insults and opprobrium personally directed at her.
“Color” also is a useful metaphor for seeing Conway, 50, as something of a bullfighter — with the news media as the bull — and her position on the Trump team as a designated target. “I’m the face of Donald Trump’s movement,” she says, with both pride and acknowledgement of her level of exposure. “Alternative facts,” the phrase she used with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press on Jan. 22 to defend new press secretary Sean Spicer, who was trying to defend the president’s claims about the inaugural crowd (most media estimates were at about 200,000; the president’s estimate was 1.5 million), was itself a kind of over-the-top Gucci outfit, a bold, shameless, if not preposterous, take-that statement.
And while the “alternative facts” statement might seem like a catastrophic error of credibility — a few days later she was walking it back, rephrasing it as “alternative information” and “incomplete information” — it was the kind of challenge-me-if-you-can, chin-forward taunt, rendered with ladylike composure, that the new president has come to love her for. Indeed, so far, the Todd interview, part of 35 minutes of nonstop talking on three shows that Sunday morning, along with her 25-minute head-to-head with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the infamous Russian dossier the week before — another contender for most factious and testy and give-no-quarter television segment ever — have been, she says, among the president’s favorites.
In sum, if Donald Trump is going to war with the media — if he is to continue his war — Kellyanne Conway will be both his general and, likely, his cannon fodder. In this role, she has become an extraordinary focus of liberal rage in “the public cesspool that is Twitter,” whose users refer to her, she summarizes, as “ugly, stupid, liar, meth queen.” She is the kind of weapon that causes media heads to blow up in incredulity and frustration. Presumably, the satisfaction of seeing liberal media heads explode appeals not only to the president but also to the newly victorious Trump voter base that hates the media. (“Dear Kellyanne,” reads an email Conway received Jan. 24 and forwarded to me as an example of the multitude she says she gets, “You have more class in you’re [sic] little finger than the entire press corp. Please don’t bring yourself down to their level. Also if you ever get divorced please look me up.”)
Curiously, and perhaps as an affirmation of Trump’s media strategy, this also has made Conway quite a star, sustaining the current Trump-versus-media paradigm: Hate ’em but can’t get enough of ’em. The apoplexy she provokes ensures her constant demand. Indeed, it is this appreciation of the media’s attraction to her, and of the power that gives her, that compounds the media’s difficulty in trying to dismiss her — she holds the cards. She notes the patheticness of the recent social media campaign for a news program boycott of her as a guest: “I can put my shoes and panty hose back on and go on any show at any time.”
While she appears to be a figure of tremendously popular derision played by Kate McKinnon on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Conway herself may have the more incisive view of the media meaning here: “Kate McKinnon clearly sees the road to the future runs through me and not Hillary,” she says.
A few weeks ago, when Conway paid her first visit to Michael’s restaurant, the media canteen on West 55th Street in New York, the front room — always a study in power dynamics — fell into a kerfuffle. Charlie Rose, at an adjacent table, shifted his chair around to Conway’s party. Former New York politician and current socialite Andy Stein tried to invite her to an event. Washington lawyer and Obama book agent Bob Barnett lingered a bit too long at Conway’s table. Tom Rogers, former head of TiVo, hastened to recall a meeting he had with Conway more than 10 years ago (she remembered it, too). Equally, a prominent advertising executive at a nearby table, himself an adviser to Republican presidents, said, as he looked at her with intent fascination, “I can’t even look at her.”
The paradox here is that the true power behind the president is invisible — or at least carefully muted. The operative’s ultimate cachet is to be heard and not seen. In this quest or opportunity to make it into history, Conway, as much as the president might need her as a defender and want her as provocateur, understands she is sorely overexposed from her sometimes six shows before 9 a.m. and often as many after the workday. “Have I told you how sick I am of me?” she said in one of our text exchanges.
Days after the election, she turned down the position of press secretary. When the president- elect kept pressuring her to take the job, she still was having none of it. In fact, so determined has she been to be inside — “where 95 percent of what I say to him will never be public” — she turned down any job with “communications” in the title.
Conway already occupied a unique place as the only political operative in Trump’s innermost circle — along with her, Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart chief; Jared Kushner, the real estate scion and the president’s son-in-law; and Reince Priebus, the former RNC chairman. She was a pollster who had worked in and out of Republican campaigns and administrations since, out of Trinity Washington University, she first interned for Reagan’s pollster, Dick Wirthlin. Then, too, as operative and lawyer and blonde, she had become a Republican media personality on cable television during the George W. Bush and Obama years. She and her husband, George, a partner and litigator at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, among the most well-connected and elite corporate firms, then lived in Trump World Tower, across the street from the U.N. (They now live, with their children, in Alpine, N.J.) There, she joined the condo board, whose meetings Trump invariably attended. He had seen her on television and admired her aplomb. Hence, their conversation about politics began.
Conway did some polling for Trump when he was considering a run in 2011 and came to regard him as a viable political outsider. He tried to recruit her to his campaign in the summer of 2015, but she resisted. “The rap on me would have been, ‘She’s Donald Trump’s pollster, but he doesn’t do any polling,’ ” she says. Instead, she went to work for the Ted Cruz PAC. During the disarray of the Trump campaign in August — with successive campaign managers, Corey Lewandowski then Paul Manafort, forced out — she and Bannon joined Trump. “I told him when he offered me the job, the very last thing I said to him,” says Conway, seeming to know how Trump needed to be regarded, “was I don’t consider myself to be your peer, and I will not call you by your first name. And some of the feminists may go crazy … but it’s called respect, and it’s called deference, and it’s called hierarchy.”
Working with Kushner, Conway and Bannon imposed a message discipline on the campaign: a remade economy and a disdain for liberal culture. What was to liberals an absurd construct — Donald Trump — became to others a cogent and vivid idea now wrapped into the larger-than-life Trump brand. Bannon was the scrappy author of this new message and Conway the militant defender of it.
The media yet perceived the campaign as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight — hapless, out of sync with history, in a comical losing battle over the pussy-grabbing tape, tax leaks and Russian influence, with Conway as the fantastic if not burlesque point person in each of these battles. But, seemingly beyond the media view or its grasp, the campaign was becoming a compelling show with its angry and celebratory rallies to what it characterized as the other America — not least of all by defining the media as its enemy.