Stephanie Grisham looks on at the White House, in November 2019. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters
Former press secretary has decided to ‘break her silence’ but may find media less hospitable than to those who went before
The Guardian-Martin Pengelly
On Monday, Stephanie Grisham will appear on Good Morning America. ABC is billing the interview as the former White House press secretary’s chance to “break her silence”.
Donald Trump is unlikely to be watching. Grisham is not the first insider to break omertà on the Trumps, who rose from running a New York real estate empire to occupying the White House, but she may well be the politico who got closest of all.
A Republican operative before Trump seized the party, Grisham was spokeswoman and confidante to Melania Trump when she became first lady. Grisham shifted to the West Wing, becoming Trump’s third press secretary, then returned to the East Wing as Melania’s chief of staff. Shortly before the Trumps left the White House, on the day of the Capitol attack, she resigned.
Now she has written a book, I’ll Take Your Questions Now. The irony of the title has been widely noted. In nine months as press secretary, Grisham did not take questions at a single White House briefing. Nonetheless, the book has generated a slew of headlines, nearly all unflattering about her former bosses.
Stories range from the salacious, Trump calling a press aide forward on Air Force One in order to “look at her ass”, to the ludicrous, as when Trump and Boris Johnson used a G20 working breakfast to discuss the strength of kangaroos.
Grisham makes clear Trump’s unfitness to be president, whether due to his terrifying temper or his ridiculous demands – such as when, she says, he ordered her to finally go behind the White House podium, to defend him in his first impeachment by “acting out” his infamous phone call with the president of Ukraine.
Grisham avoided that humiliation, she writes, by getting “one of our most reliable ‘yes’ guys in the House”, Devin Nunes of California, to read the call into the congressional record. She also exposes decay higher up in the party. Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, is “gross and tacky … a snake”. Mitt Romney, Grisham’s former boss, a pillar of anti-Trump conservatives, is ridiculed for trying to become secretary of state.
Back down the food chain, Grisham does not name the White House aide with whom she had a relationship which ended in allegations of abuse, choosing to describe him as the “Music Man”, who she says could calm Trump down by playing his favourite songs, Memory from the musical Cats chief among them. The aide is widely known to be Max Miller, who denies Grisham’s allegations – and who is now a candidate for Congress in Ohio.
Trumpworld, of course, has lashed back. Peter Navarro, formerly a trade adviser and self-appointed White House enforcer, called Grisham’s book “useless gossip”. Trump claimed Grisham was being “paid by a radical left-leaning publisher to say bad and untrue things”.
Harper Collins – owned by Rupert Murdoch – will no doubt press ahead with its sales plan. But Grisham seems to have burned bridges with the mainstream media as well as her political party. Though the Washington Post and New York Times published detailed reports on her book, she seems unlikely to be welcomed into the fold as columnist or TV pundit.
Grisham resigned on 6 January, the day Trump supporters mounted a deadly attack on the US Capitol, seeking to overturn the election in support of his lies about voter fraud. She says she rejected the voter fraud argument. Politico has reported otherwise. In most eyes, either way, it was far too late to jump ship.
Eric Boehlert, founder of PressRun, a newsletter covering the US media, told the Guardian Grisham was “a legit inside source who had a position the whole time. So I think there’s a feeling like she was in the room. It’s not like hearsay.”
“[But] she’s sitting in meetings for years, writing notes to herself at night about how the president of the United States is a danger to the world and the danger to the country. If you’re gonna blow the whistle, have the courage to be a whistleblower. Don’t do it after everything is safe and he’s out of office.”
Some Trump aides who jumped or were pushed before Grisham have managed to stay in the media’s good graces, though obviously not the Trumps’.
Michael Cohen was Trump’s fixer before he flipped during the investigation of ties between Trump and Russia. He also went to prison, for crimes including lying to Congress and facilitating illegal payments to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.
Finishing his sentence in home confinement, he has become a vocal Trump critic through a book, Disloyal, a podcast, Mea Culpa, and as a voice on MSNBC. It’s quite a change for a man who once threatened journalists threatening to expose Trump’s “dirty deeds”.
John Bolton was Trump’s third national security adviser. A foreign policy hawk on the Republican right long before Trump, his time in the White House wasn’t a happy one, as Grisham recounts. Trump failed to stop publication of Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, but Bolton managed to avoid testifying in Trump’s first impeachment trial. That and his presence as a media commentator, particularly over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, continues to anger many on the left.
Then there is Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier who spent 11 days as White House communications director. He stuck with Trump for a while, publishing a book in praise of the “Blue Collar President”, then broke with him. “The Mooch” retains a presence in national media.
Boehlert said: “I feel like these books are helpful in that they paint a first-hand portrait of a madman, period. And they’re helpful because they’re effective.”
But in Grisham’s case, he said, “it would have been helpful if [she] had warned us in 2017, 2018 … She had this perk job, she had access to the most elite circles on the planet. And she knew it was all wrong, and she knew it was dangerous. And now she’s cashing in on a book after Trump is in Mar-a-Lago.
“It’s not exactly a profile in courage.”
‘I looked totally incompetent’
As far as Trumpworld is concerned, Grisham’s chief crime may be to have betrayed her access, as chief of staff to Melania and press secretary to Donald, to some of the family’s most intimate moments.
In her book, she describes discovering “another piece of the puzzle that was the marriage of Donald and Melania Trump”. During a trip to France in summer 2017, she says, she stood “mostly alone” with the couple before a public engagement.
“Mrs Trump … leaned into her husband, who whispered into her ear. A few moments later I saw them kiss each other. All of that was quite unusual; it was in fact the only time I ever saw them express any physical intimacy in public.”
Grisham says she was “so surprised I took a picture of the scene on my phone”. That picture, taken from behind, its subjects unsuspecting, is reproduced in Grisham’s book. It seems a startling breach of privacy and trust.
Grisham also tells her version of a particularly furious media frenzy. On a trip to the southern border in June 2018 that included a visit to a detention centre for child migrants separated from their parents, Melania Trump wore a jacket which displayed a slogan: “I really don’t care. Do U?” Outrage was immediate and sustained.
Grisham blames Melania for going rogue, choosing her outfit while her closest aide was distracted. The first lady, she writes, “didn’t care about the media frenzy over her jacket, that’s for sure. Or at least she pretended not to care … But I did care, because it was my job, and, at best, I looked totally incompetent.”
Grisham now lives in Kansas, away from the Washington hullabaloo. Should she ever wish to dive back in, she may hope DC society at large responds as one White House predecessor did to her book.
Joe Lockhart, a press secretary under Bill Clinton, dismissed I’ll Take Your Questions Now in a mere five words.
“I don’t care,” he wrote. “Do you?”