Why Trump and Kennedy are chasing Jessica Reed Kraus

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The News

One week in January, Jessica Reed Kraus attended Donald Trump’s Iowa victory afterparty at the Hotel Fort Des Moines and posed for pictures with Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. From there, she flew to Hawaii to meet Tulsi Gabbard, where the former Democratic congresswoman took her to her favorite smoothie place.

Three days after schmoozing with the Trump inner circle in Iowa, Kraus brought her family on a catamaran to go whale-watching and surfing with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and famous surfer Kelly Slater.

And from there, on to Mar-a-Lago, where she documented scenes among longtime supporters at his club and took selfies wearing a Trump 47 hat. “If you let down your defenses, MAGA is always a good time,” she observed. “They drink well, dress up, get loud, bedazzle the hell outta their accessories, love this country unapologetically, and believe that Donald Trump’s reign is a God-granted gift to save us from woke infestation and communism.”

Kraus, a forty-something who didn’t reply to a question about her exact age, grew to modest fame as an Instagram home renovation personality and lifestyle influencer — hence her handle, @houseinhabit. But the Orange County mother of four has followed an unlikely but utterly contemporary trail from there to Hollywood celebrity court battles, to Kennedy, and to Trump. And in recent months, the influencer has become the subject of an intense courtship by some political candidates hoping to reach her over 1 million Instagram followers and her 300,000 subscribers on Substack, a number that makes her the platform’s No. 1 paid newsletter in the culture section.

In this election year defined by fragmentation, she’s become the vibes-based equivalent of a top political access journalist, flying across the country multiple times a month to capture the campaign trail behind the scenes.

“I just thought — why couldn’t I do it? If I did it in Hollywood, and I had these sources, trust me and give me information, why couldn’t it happen with the politicians?” she recalled earlier this week over a glass of rosé at a brewery off the Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point, California. I’d driven almost an hour from my parents’ house on the other side of Orange County to meet someone who embodies a new archetype but also a familiar one: a Southern California mom as interested in organic produce, transcendental meditation, and BODE’s refashioning of antique fabrics as she is in reactionary politics.

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As of 2021, Kraus had about 80,000 followers on Instagram. Those users followed her account for its musings on parenting, as well as home renovation tips and interior design inspiration centering around her and her husband’s suburban San Clemente, California home into an airy, plant-filled beachside oasis.

But that year, she also became interested in the trial surrounding the conservatorship of Britney Spears. This new obsession found a receptive audience with some of her followers, many of whom, it turned out, were equally as interested in sensational pop culture stories as they were in pictures of the beautiful exposed beams in her self-renovated kitchen. Her follower count jumped to 100,000, and she realized there was an appetite for her tabloid-style Instagram stories and in-person observations from the courtroom. She took donations on Venmo, self-funded her travel and stayed with friends to cover major court cases. She was in New York for the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in 2021 and the Harvey Weinstein case in 2022, in which her incessant Instagram Story bursts and winding Substack posts caught the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Kraus’s influence exploded during Johnny Depp’s defamation case against Amber Heard later that year, when she became what New York Magazine described as the “a chief instigator of the anti-Heard story line.” She befriended Depp’s lawyer and wrote anti-Heard missives, helping her to become the only member of the media who got something resembling an interview with Depp.

The Hollywood actor reached out to her after he was introduced to her accounts by a mutual friend, she said, and during a 90 minute phone call, the two bonded over their shared love of Hunter S. Thompson and physical media like typewriters and handwritten notes. Kraus summarized the conversation in her Substack. Although she didn’t break much news about the trial itself, she lavished praise on Depp, describing him as “smart, curious, funny and polite,” and “notably humble, down to earth, and incredibly attentive.” The pro-Depp coverage nearly doubled her following overnight from 500,000 to nearly a million. It was also her first taste of serious blowback. After publishing a salacious, anonymously sourced story about Heard and Elon Musk’s sex life, she said on Instagram in 2022 that she’d received legal threats, though no lawsuit materialized.

But 2023 was a lean year for celebrity trials. The carnival became the 2024 presidential campaign. Though she had previously considered herself as “super liberal,” Kraus had been alienated from Democrats by some of the strict lockdown restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. And as she contemplated whether to start writing more about politics, she realized already had an in with one of the candidates through one of her celebrity connections. She was turned on to Kennedy by Courtney Love, who became a fan of hers during the Depp trial. (“It was like directors’ wives, actresses, and Courtney Love,” she said, describing some Hollywood fans of her Depp coverage. “Love shared a video. She only wanted it on my account because she knew all of her friends were watching it. I think she was hoping it would encourage other celebrities to come forward, too — I think she really wanted Patti Smith.”)

After meeting Kennedy in the summer of 2023, she has become one of the longshot independent candidate’s most prominent cheerleaders, posting flattering old pictures and quotes from him on her Instagram multiple times a week, sharing long dispatches from campaign events and personal trips, and encouraging fellow Californians to attend his events. She said that she felt the news media’s coverage of Kennedy — which has largely focused on his unsupported anti-vaccine conspiracy theories — was dehumanizing, and far from her experience interacting with him. She got close enough that his super PAC listed her on its website as its social media manager, though she told me no paid role ever transpired, and she’s never been paid for any political work.

And according to Kraus, her support for Kennedy got the Trump campaign’s attention.

Kraus had already made friends in the conservative media universe through her skeptical coverage of Heard and #MeToo trials. She cultivated a friendship with self-proclaimed “proud Islamophobe” and far-right activist Laura Loomer, and was backstage at a debate hosted by Bari Weiss’s Free Press about sexual liberation. Commentator Meghan McCain told Kraus she already had a lot of readers in Washington.

Wanting access to an event in Iowa, she pitched herself to Trump campaign aide Margo Martin (who Kraus later described in a blog post as a “statuesque beauty”). The vast majority of Kraus’s followers are women, she noted, and Trump desperately needs to make inroads with them if he wants to return to the White House for a second term. It worked, and helped cement Kraus’s account as a useful outlet for the Trump campaign.

A few weeks later, the Trump campaign invited her to stay at one of the private suites at Mar-a-Lago for the president’s Super Bowl party, a rare invitation not typically offered to journalists. In turn, she posted dozens of Instagram stories and Substack dispatches, describing the event as glamorous and Trump as handsome and “a much softer variation” of the man Americans see on television.

Max’s view

Kraus is an avatar for the new front in the battle for the presidency in 2024. Last year, the Biden campaign said in an interview with me that it is crafting a media strategy to address fragmentation. The incumbent is trying to build support among influencers on TikTok and Instagram, and trying to find a way to get in front of Americans who have ditched cable in favor of streaming.

The Trump campaign, too, has found allies in a reshaped cultural landscape in which figures like Depp and Spears’ parents might be conservative-coded, while Heard rallies progressives. The Trump campaign has put the former president on with UFC podcasters and viral YouTube prank bros. He so far has not been able to book himself on Joe Rogan, though he’s trying.

For Trump and for Kennedy’s gadfly campaign, Kraus has created an opportunity. Her news sensibilities — a mix of fashion, home inspiration, political stories from a human interest lens, and sensational celeb news and interesting but not-always-reliable gossip — are a callback to an earlier era. She has, in a sense, recreated the grocery checkout line magazine mix for Instagram. While Kraus would not give specifics, she told me that a senior Trump staffer told her in recent weeks she was doing more to help the former president win over women than anyone else in media.

Kraus reaches the suburban woman who are central swing voters in every American election — they used to be called “soccer moms,” and Kraus indeed has spent a fair amount of time ferrying her kids to sporting events (and blogging about it). And while the female face of the MAGA movement is often conservative religious activist groups like Moms for Liberty, who campaign against LGBTQ inclusion and references to sex in public school materials, Kraus says she’s not religious and doesn’t oppose abortion rights.

Kraus has her share of critics. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to complaining that her Instagram posts are conspiratorial and right-leaning, with more than 4,000 members. She’s been criticized for what fans saw as her dismissiveness of Depp’s alleged violence against Heard. Spears fans felt that she was unfairly critical of the pop star.

There’s a tone of dismissiveness that runs through the mentions of Kraus in mainstream news publications, which to me seems like some combination of disrespect for her approach (she publishes gossip that is often, at best, unconfirmable) and what reads to me as perhaps some light jealousy. Kraus admits she’s not concerned about whether she’s accurately labeled a journalist or not, and is freed from all the limitations that come with objectivity, which has allowed her to get unmatched access to people she covers in a positive light. One journalist compared her to a conservative DeuxMoi, noting that she often solicits anonymous tips and runs responses that are nearly impossible to verify.

Some of the arguments with members of the media have spilled out into the open. She beefed with Chris Cuomo, who she met at a private Kennedy event last year. She told me that he got heated after she asked about why Ghislaine Maxwell was at the former CNN anchor’s brother Andrew Cuomo’s wedding. (“He wrote me later that night calling it like a ‘gotcha’ moment,” she recalled. “He said ‘quality gossip,’ that doesn’t exist. It was just this really misogynistic rant, and it was really rude.”) She said Cuomo sent her a string of insulting text messages after their encounter, which some friends advised her to publish (she declined). She is no fan of Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan, who she said wanted to profile her, but ended up the subject of several newsletters including one that essentially accused him of drinking on the campaign trail.

Some of the criticism seems fair. Her relationships with the political figures she covers now are much closer than those of a traditional journalist. Last year, Kraus was signed on to be the social media manager for a Kennedy fundraiser hosted by occasional journalist and entertainment world personality Daphne Barak, leading some to speculate that she was being paid by Kennedy. She regularly promotes his campaign stops, and his website recently hosted a link calling on Kraus’s fans to enter their personal information to win free tickets to one of his events. She told me that while she was signed on to be paid to work on the Barak event, the deal fell through. She said she was relieved it didn’t work out, though, because it allows her to say that she has never taken money from Kennedy or any political candidate.

Kraus has an informal ethos that guides most of her coverage. She’s not interested in on-the-record traditional interviews with political candidates. She said she usually takes an “optimistic approach — positive ideas and a positive angle, because I love learning about people.”

Her interest in writing anything about policy is extremely limited. She wrote in her Substack that most people don’t really care about policy when they’re voting, which I told her I found to be partially true and kind of depressing.

“Personable details resonate more with a broader audience,” she said. “Average Americans don’t have the time or patience to sift through what separates one candidate’s health care plan from another. But they relate and respond to intimate aspects that speak to one’s character.”

Still, she told me that she hopes her readers and followers don’t think she should be replacing more traditional news coverage of politics.

“I really focus more on humanizing them in a way that interests me,” she said. “Because I feel like you can get that anywhere. You can go to Politico, you can go on The New York Times, you can go to the campaign websites, you can listen to podcasts. I don’t feel like it’s my job to give everything, and I think that I’m not good at that.”

But one thing is clear. Kraus and her longtime sidekick and photographer Denise Avalos are some of the only members of the media who seem to be having any fun on the campaign trail this year. My experience on the trail in New Hampshire was observing relatively muted campaign events with bored members of the press corps, or sitting around sparsely attended on-rec briefings for strategies that did not pan out. But with a million followers on Instagram and a willingness to write and post favorably and unapologetically about candidates she likes, Kraus’ version of life on the trail is surfing with a potential vice presidential candidate; searching for psychedelic mushrooms in Aspen after skiing with Kennedy and racer-turned-conservative pundit Danica Patrick; and gossiping in the bathroom at Trump’s Super Bowl party with Tiffany Trump and women who also happen to be some of the candidate’s senior advisors.

It wasn’t lost on me that at the same moment that Vice announced it was laying off much of what remained of the publication’s journalism staff, I was walking into a meeting with a woman who claims she is (at least for the moment) single-handedly financially supporting a family of six in a nice part of Orange County purely with the money from her Substack. It was a reminder that while the appetite for holding the powerful accountable is limited, sometimes it pays a whole lot better to be positive. That’s an old lesson in media, too.

As our conversation wrapped up, Kraus got up from the table to catch a connecting flight to South Carolina for primary weekend, where she hit the farmers market with a canvases for Kennedy and was greeted by former HUD Director Ben Carson at Trump’s dinner with Black supporters. When she joined him on the trail this week in South Carolina, she interspersed fit pics of herself wearing Philip Lim shoes, vintage pieces and Rent The Runway looks with first-person interviews with Black Trump supporters about why they love him.


  • With his connection to YouTube pranksters the Nelk Boys, Trump is trying to reposition himself to younger male voters. “The Republican Party, with its stodgy, old, white, and religiously intolerant brand, has struggled with young voters,” former senior Bernie Sanders adviser Ari Rabin-Havt wrote in the Nation. “Young men who watch NELK videos for laughs and to see the group’s outrageous antics have been fed a steady diet of a simple message: Trump is cool, Democrats are nerds, and their PC culture is just about trying to stop the party.”

  • President Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Rob Flaherty, told Semafor last year that the president’s reelection campaign wants to put out information that will be shared in group chats among friends, creating what he called “personalized persuasion architecture.”