Stephanie Grisham occupies prized White House real estate – in the East Wing.
The office she earned as Melania Trump’s communications director is on the second floor and big enough for a table and chairs, a seating area, and a substantial desk, with several windows that let natural light stream in. Grisham still uses it a handful of times a week, but now she spends most of her time in the West Wing, in the office reserved for the White House press secretary.
Since July 1, she’s served as White House communications director and White House press secretary, in addition to staying on as communications director for Melania Trump. But while her responsibilities have grown and expanded in scope, Grisham’s profile remains relatively low.
Once a standard weekday ritual, it has now been 165 days since the last official White House press briefing, and Grisham has shown no sign of returning to the podium. She chalks it up to just one of many examples of how the Trump presidency has broken any semblance of normalcy.
“People may have a preconceived notion that I belong behind the podium, but I think this administration has gone beyond traditional roles in a variety of ways,” Grisham told CNN, explaining why in her first 40 days she has yet to face the White House press corps in a briefing.
She cites the number of times she has met with the White House Correspondents’ Association leadership (four), how many unscheduled daily press visits to her office she gets (35 or so, but some aren’t received, she said), the ramped up number of official White House press releases that have come from her office since the first week of July (225) and that she has gaggled, once, aboard Air Force One. All of the activities listed fall under the realm of typical responsibilities of a White House press secretary.
When Grisham initially accepted the role, friends of hers confidently predicted she would reinstate the daily televised press briefing, but that confidence has been shaken in recent weeks. People close to Grisham have said she is now doubtful about fielding questions from reporters on camera, and has weighed holding off camera briefings instead. She has remarked she doesn’t want a fate similar to her predecessor, Sarah Sanders, whose tenure was marked with confrontations with reporters.
How to be a communications director for the communicator-in-chief
President Donald Trump has all but made the regular job of a press secretary obsolete. Before him, the job meant being a mouthpiece for a president, serving as spokesperson so the most powerful man in the world could focus on other things than a constantly inquisitive press corps, post-Trump, the role has morphed into following up on what the President has already let fly, either amplifying and backing up an ideology, or tamping down a dumpster fire.
Those who work with her say Grisham is acutely aware of the challenges Trump poses to her ability to strategize a succinct core messaging policy, and that she’s figuring out a way to play catch-up to his tweets and statements and impromptu question and answer sessions.
A quick stop on his walk to Marine One on the way out of Washington can, and often does, turn from one answer into more than a dozen. On Tuesday, Trump spoke to reporters for almost 40 previously unscheduled minutes, on topics ranging from why Jewish people should not, according to him, vote for Democrats, to accusing the Danish Prime Minister of being “nasty” to him, the trade war with China, buying Greenland and how believes he is “the chosen one.”
Publicly, at least, Grisham is spinning Trump’s random and sometimes wildly inaccurate statements as something the media should appreciate, suggesting that while there might not be briefings, there is a President who is willing most days to stop and talk.
“Just like the President, my team and I are always accessible and very responsive to members of the press corps,” Grisham said.
Grisham is still growing accustomed to working directly with the President. While she worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign as a press wrangler, the two were not particularly close, and serving as Melania Trump’s spokeswoman provided a buffer between Grisham and a tumultuous West Wing.
She now holds a title with a daily challenge – being the public face for a President who frequently contradicts himself and those who speak for him. This week alone the President contradicted the deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, after he confidently declared Trump was not considering a payroll tax cut to stave off an economic downturn “at this time.”
“A payroll tax is something that we think about and a lot of people would like to see that,” Trump said hours later.
It was Gidley – not Grisham – who Sanders recommended for the job, according to CNN reporting.
Grisham’s predecessor wasn’t particularly close with Trump when she got her start, either. Sanders learned how to navigate working for Trump by watching Hope Hicks, one of his top aides and closest confidantes at the time. In Oval Office meetings, Sanders quietly observed how Hicks picked her battles with their mercurial boss – and took notes – two sources familiar told CNN.
It was a strategy that worked. Sanders left the White House earlier this year with a kiss on the head and an endorsement from the President to run for governor of Arkansas in 2022.
Close with the principles
Grisham’s relationship with Trump is close, aides say, as it remains with the first lady, who gave her approval for Grisham to take on her new jobs with the President as long as she stayed with her as well.
Grisham said this week alone she has been in almost daily meetings with Melania Trump and her team, planning for upcoming events and travel for later this fall. Abandoning the first lady was not under consideration when Grisham’s name was being discussed for the press secretary job, a White House official said. But the proximity she had to the President, by way of being a trusted adviser and consistent presence in the orbit of his wife, made Grisham an attractive candidate. To a certain degree, having the blessing and assurance of the first lady makes Grisham’s footing in the White House all the more solid, but pleasing two sides of one administration is demanding of her time, and could at some point mean a complicated balance between needs and interests of her bosses.
She now must juggle her old title with her new one. Sources said Grisham has spent the last several weeks meeting with policy aides in order to gain an understanding for the administration’s positions, while also sitting down with reporters one-on-one.
Additionally, she still has changes, including with staffing, that she wants to make in the West Wing, according to one person close to the situation.
During her time with the first lady, Grisham has handled much of the responsibility of Melania Trump’s forward-facing presence where she’s made a name for herself as a dogged, if caustic, defender.
It’s a reputation that gave some of her new West Wing colleagues uncertainty, noting that the fiery statements she put out at the slightest dig at the first lady likely wouldn’t get such a pass anymore.
Dubbed “the enforcer” in a 2018 Washington Post profile, Grisham’s job is to thwart as much as possible the criticism levied at the first lady on topics that have ranged from picking cyberbullying as part of her platform to Trump’s need for privacy during a secretive kidney operation last April. Grisham has also helmed PR on the seemingly opposing views of the first lady to those of the President and navigated Melania Trump’s silence in the face of headlines about Trump’s alleged infidelities, which he denies.
During the Stormy Daniels scandal, as a silent first lady made few public appearances, Grisham fired off a tweet scolding rampant stories about the first couple’s marriage.
“While I know the media is enjoying speculation & salacious gossip, I’d like to remind people there’s a minor child who’s name should be kept out of news stories when at all possible,” tweeted Grisham.
While Sanders, her predecessor, remained in her post for far longer than most of her allies in the West Wing expected, Grisham has not set a timeline for herself.
In an interview with Eric Bolling of Sinclair Broadcast Group, Grisham said she would remain press secretary “until I can’t do it anymore.”
Asked if that meant the President telling her he needed more of her, Grisham said: “Sure. Or the first lady saying she needs more of me, or maybe we’ll have a different team in place. I’m not sure.”