Wily Trump aide Kellyanne Conway nurtures her access and influence

March 05, 2018
  • By Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman
  • The New York Times
TOM BRENNER/NYT
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, during a television interview at the White House in Washington, March 1, 2018. Conway, one of the few remaining top aides from the campaign, has dialed back news media appearances and made other adjustments to survive in a chaotic administration.

A year ago, few “on the outside” — a phrase perhaps tellingly favored in the Trump White House — would have guessed that Kellyanne Conway would be the one hanging on as other high-profile aides pull their rip cords. 

A year ago, Conway, the president’s counselor, told Americans of the fictional “Bowling Green massacre,” drawing ridicule from cable TV hosts and liberal critics. She declared that the White House was merely presenting “alternative facts” when it described an inauguration crowd in superlatives that did not comport with reality. She was painted into an unhinge history of working well with the news media, the attacks were jarring, according to her allies. 

But in this White House, a lot can change in a year. 

More than a dozen high-profile departures later — and amid tumult, scandal and an ever-unfolding investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — Conway, 51, is one of the few remaining prominent aides from the campaign. In a White House with the highest turnover rates in decades, she has survived by knowing when to step back from the spotlight, keeping the president’s ear, focusing on a policy issue significant to the poor and working class, and maintaining an unflinching loyalty to President Donald Trump even as she outmaneuvers rivals on the staff. 

The public criticism hasn’t abated, but Conway’s skin is thicker than it used to be. 

“I don’t respond to or read 99 percent of it,” Conway said in a brief interview Saturday, “because it is so reflexive and unthoughtful.” 

She couldn’t resist adding a half-jab, half-joke: “I do wonder what everybody is so miserable about.” 

Alongside aides including Hope Hicks, who said last week that she would depart her role as White House communications director, Conway ran the campaign through its stormy final days, and then followed her candidate to the White House. In those early months, in an act born of savvy or necessity, Conway stepped back from the media glare to focus on demonstrating to her colleagues and her critics that she was as capable on policy as she was sparring with talking heads on TV. 

Her choice seems to have paid off. 

“She has this unique position that she’s earned,” said former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who worked closely on the opioid crisis with Conway and credited her with urging the president to personalize the issue through his brother’s experience with addiction. “She’s gotten a bad rap at times, but I think that’s because of some of the really awful people inside the White House who have been trying to hurt her, as opposed to anything the press came up with on its own.”  

In recent months, Conway has watched, somewhat from the sidelines, as John F. Kelly, the president’s current chief of staff, came in and pledged to bring order to the West Wing, dispatching a number of aides who had once envied the access Conway cultivated with the president. 

“He came around and wanted to know what everyone had been working on for the first six months,” Conway said, “and some of us were just better equipped to handle that question than others.”  

For the president, Conway, an outspoken opponent of abortion, is one of his most prominent ties to the conservative movement. 

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Conway had been wise to engage in public appearances only “at times when the president has asked her to engage.” 

“It’s not about Kellyanne,” he said. “It’s about the president of the United States and this country.” 

Meadows added: “The limelight is not the primary concern for getting her agenda done, and I think that has served her well.” 

She has told allies in and outside the West Wing that her respect is not just for the president, but the presidency as an institution. Still, one of her biggest strengths, those who know her say, is that she has always understood whom she works for. Loyalty to her clients always came easily, but this time, her client just happens to be in the Oval Office. 

“I think that she is the president’s political adviser and she is someone who is very skilled on television,” Christie said. “She’s unique in the White House in someone who can give him both political and policy advice.” 

Christie said that, early on, this prompted other aides to target her. A friend of Conway’s, who didn’t want to be identified because of the social opprobrium she would face as a Democrat, said Conway had particularly struggled with Reince Priebus, the president’s former chief of staff, during the first chaotic months of the administration. She also survived efforts to curtail her influence by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who for months privately bristled over Conway’s getting credit for the campaign victory. 

But, that friend said, she learned that if her colleagues did not take her seriously, she could use it to her advantage. She kept her head down while other aides burned out, and kept her access to the president. 

In fact, her portfolio has grown, with the addition of the opioid crisis and coordination with Cabinet secretaries, which originally fell under Kushner’s purview. On Thursday, she put together an opioid summit meeting with Cabinet members at the White House, which the president briefly joined. 

Other Republicans say her loyalty to Trump — and thus her ability to survive in his chaotic White House — is no virtue. 

“She has no shame,” Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, said in a text message, “and that is a quality the president values.” 

Conway, of course, would see it differently. She refers to those who have lasted from the campaign until now as “unbroken threads.”  

She was not originally part of the campaign, but her friends say she has known the president for more than a decade, and has come to understand him and how to speak with him in ways few aides do outside of Hicks and Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime bodyguard, who left the White House last year. For a president hit by crosscurrents on policy, Conway has frequently been a voice reminding him of his campaign promises. 

She has called supporters from the final days of the Trump campaign members of the “October 8th coalition,” for defending Trump after audio of him bragging about sexual assault had leaked.  

A mother of four who moved her family to Washington last year, Conway has faced near-constant attack for defending Trump’s track record with women. But she has also willingly stepped into battle, including when she criticized women for joining the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration last year. 

“I frankly didn’t see the point,” Conway said at the time. 

But she and her allies say the attacks against her often have a sexist undertone. And she has bristled at a line of thought in liberal spheres and on social media that she and other women have advanced in the White House by keeping their heads down in a misogynistic workplace. 

“President Trump is more kind, open, gracious and respectful to the women in the White House than the so-called pro-women movement that criticizes everything from what we wear to what we say to what we believe,” Conway said. “I wouldn’t work there if he weren’t open to my opinion. It would literally make zero sense for me to be there.”