Hope Hicks: A witness to Trump's rise

Story highlights

  • Hicks has spent about five years working for the Trumps
  • She has been a constant presence by the President's side

Washington (CNN)It took Hope Hicks seven years to go from college graduate to White House communications director.

She spent about five of those years working for the Trumps, developing a strong relationship with the future US President and his family, and now stands as one of President Donald Trump's longest-serving and most trusted aides.
But it's that role as a top Trump confidante, with an office steps from the Oval Office, that is landing her in special counsel Robert Mueller's hot seat.
    CNN recently reported that she would be interviewed around Thanksgiving as part of the probe into whether the Trump campaign aided Russia in meddling in the 2016 election, though it's unclear if she has already gone in. Trump and other top officials have denied any wrongdoing.
    Hicks has been there through it all.
    The 29-year-old was one of Trump's first hires as he assembled a lean team of aides who would launch his improbable presidential campaign. From then, until his election, she was a constant presence by his side -- traveling to nearly every rally, hovering within earshot during interviews and always prepared to type out a bombastic tweet as dictated by her boss.
    There was never any question that "Hopie," as Trump affectionately refers to his longtime communications aide, would follow Trump to the White House once he clinched victory -- the only question was, in what capacity?

    Doesn't fit the mold

    Hicks doesn't fit the mold of a top communications aide. She's never held a press briefing. Never appeared on TV to talk up or defend her boss. And she remains reluctant to talk to reporters on the record -- almost always preferring to speak under the cover of anonymity or through emailed statements.
    But in the unconventional Trump White House, Hicks has checked the only boxes that matter: Trump trusts her -- and she gets him.
    Her relationship with the President -- one built on loyalty, trust and time -- was the critical factor that landed her in the role of White House communications director after serving the first seven months as White House director of strategic communications, according to a half-dozen of Hicks' current and former colleagues who spoke to CNN. Hicks declined to be interviewed for this article.
    The pick marked a 180-degree turn from the White House's earlier attempts to install a seasoned Republican strategist in the communications director post and was a tacit acknowledgment that wooing such a candidate was likely not in the cards, and, perhaps, simply foolhardy.
    Mike Dubke, who did not respond to an interview request, was one such veteran GOP communicator. And his tenure ended just three months after he failed to develop a close relationship with the President, and during which his attempts to craft and implement cohesive messaging plans were repeatedly blown up by a stray tweet or off-hand remark by the President.
    Trump could not be coaxed into keeping with the messages his own communications shop rolled out. And after attempts to woo other veteran GOP strategists failed, and Anthony Scaramucci -- who, while not a veteran GOP strategist, was a successful TV surrogate for the President -- flamed out after just 10 days, the President and his close aides ultimately landed on Hicks.
    "Who could possibly make more sense to be the communications director than Hope Hicks?" said one senior White House official, explaining the thinking at the time.
    It was an acknowledgment that ultimately, Trump will always be his own top communications strategist and, at least, Hicks' selection helped put the President and his press shop on the same page.
    "Anybody who thinks of the press or communications task as 'wrangling' is pursuing it from the 100% wrong direction ... with respect to the President," said the official, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the White House's internal workings. "This is 100% the right model."
    But that new model, with Hicks as communications director, is in many ways still a work in progress.
    White House officials continue to be blindsided by some of the President's off-hand remarks or tweets, whether he is moving the goalposts on policy issues or contradicting White House messaging, and Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to grumble about lackluster coordination in advancing policy priorities.
    And with Hicks at the helm, the White House communications department has yet to demonstrate the kind of long-term messaging strategy traditionally needed to advance the President's policy agenda.
    Several White House officials, though, said that White House messaging, policy roll-outs and long-term communication strategies have markedly improved under Hicks' leadership.
    "People underestimate the level of actual communication skill that she has," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, noting that the 29-year-old is "much further ahead ... than a lot of people her age" and "one of the most naturally talented communications professionals."
    But a career in political communications was not something Hicks had explored until she found herself at the center of the biggest and longest-lasting political story in decades.

    From modeling to PR to the White House

    Hicks pre-political life included working as a model -- landing on the cover of a spinoff of the "Gossip Girl" books and at least one Ralph Lauren ad -- and testing out an acting career. But she dove into public relations soon after graduating from Southern Methodist University, landing at the PR firm Hiltzik Strategies in 2012 after meeting the firm's founder, Matthew Hiltzik, at a Super Bowl event. Her father, Paul Hicks, was the NFL's vice president for communications and public affairs at the time.
    At Hiltzik Strategies -- where her former boss said she was "diligent" and "hardworking" -- Hicks quickly got to work for several of the firm's clients, including Ivanka Trump. The two clicked and by 2014, the eldest Trump daughter stole Hicks away from Hiltzik and brought her to Trump Tower, working for the Trump Organization and her fashion and lifestyle brand.
    Soon enough, the Greenwich, Connecticut, native was working directly for the Trump patriarch, which led to Trump in 2015 asking her -- no, telling her she would join him as his campaign press secretary.
    "Mr. Trump looked at me and said, 'I'm thinking about running for president, and you're going to be my press secretary,' " Hicks told New York magazine last year.
    Her role on the campaign, though, was a far-cry from the job of presidential campaign press secretary -- a role Trump largely handled himself through his headline-grabbing comments and frequent interviews with the press.
    Instead, Hicks helped Trump in a way that met his needs, from printing articles about him that he would want to read to readily typing out tweets dictated by the Twitter-savvy candidate. When Trump wanted to double-check the number of states he had won to date in the middle of an interview, Hicks could always provide quick confirmation with a quick "20" or "yes, sir."
    Behind the scenes, top campaign aides also frequently relied on Hicks to find the best way to convey bad news to the President, a former senior campaign official recalled.
    "Trump doesn't take it personally coming from her," said the former aide, who remains close to the White House.
    Though soft-spoken and reserved, Hicks also readily channeled her boss's combativeness with the press, emailing reporters about their "dishonest" reporting, often focusing on accounts of the enthusiasm and size of Trump's crowds.
    And through that campaign experience, Hicks became a student in Trump's school of punching back, channeling with ease his instincts for pushback and a vocabulary flush with superlatives.
    The result is a White House communications director with an unrivaled understanding of the lens through which Trump views the media landscape.
    "She, I think, understands things that he will like and won't like, but also things that kind of fit into his voice," said Sanders, the White House press secretary.

    Loyalty

    Stephen Miller, the President's senior adviser and chief speechwriter, praised Hicks in a statement: "Hope -- here from the beginning -- has a loyalty equaled only by her skill."
    That loyalty, which every current and former colleague contacted for this story touted, was tested and strengthened through 17 months of unending controversy on the campaign trail that culminated in an audio tape of Trump bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent and allegations by more than a dozen women of similar behavior, according to former campaign officials.
    Their bond deepened by those tests, Trump continues to rely on Hicks as a sounding board at the White House, aides said, in large part because Trump trusts that his student shares his combative instincts and because Hicks has never used her position as an opportunity to push a political or self-serving agenda.
    "She didn't come in here with a list of policy objectives she's trying to force on him and she's not somebody who's in the spotlight and is trying to raise her profile. She's really here because she believes in the President and wants him to be successful," Sanders said.
    Hicks has, like few others, learned and best put into practice the golden rule of working for Trump that she often imparted on incoming staffers, but that many have failed to internalize: "This is all about Mr. Trump," as one former top campaign staffer recalled.
    The mantra has enabled Hicks to weather every campaign and White House staff shakeup, making her among the handful of aides who have been at Trump's side at the Trump Organization, at every step of the campaign and inside the West Wing -- which could also make her a star witness in Mueller's investigation.
    "In all the key junctures, she's there," said Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who served as special assistant to Mueller at the Justice Department.
    Hicks was aboard Air Force One when the initial misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower was crafted. And, like few others, she could also speak to whether the elder Trump was aware at the time of his son's meeting with the Russian lawyer whom Trump Jr. believed would provide "incriminating" information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.
    From questions of collusion and contact with the Russians during the campaign to Trump's firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey, Hicks can help fill in the blanks in what Zeldin assessed to be a "witness-driven" investigation.
    The interview and any subsequent role she may have in the federal investigation could be the biggest test of loyalty for the 29-year-old aide whose fortune has been tethered to Trump's.
    "I'm sure she's a reluctant witness and the job of Bob Trout, her lawyer, is to say, 'Hope, the only person you have to be loyal to in these interviews is yourself,' " Zeldin said. "Hopefully for her, she tells the truth."