How Stephanie Grisham Became White House Press Secretary

Jul 10, 2019
Originally published on July 10, 2019 3:53 pm
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The woman who has one of the most high-profile jobs in the White House is keeping a low profile. Stephanie Grisham, the new White House press secretary, has been on the job for about two weeks, but she yet to hold a briefing or go on Fox News, a favorite venue for her predecessor Sarah Sanders. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith traces the career of the new Trump administration spokeswoman.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Grisham started her political communications career in Arizona, but she always had her eye on Washington, D.C. She kept a framed picture of the White House on the wall of her office to remember where she wanted to go.

HANK STEPHENSON: She made no secret of the fact that she wanted to be the White House press secretary. She told reporters that. She told friends that.

KEITH: Hank Stephenson is the editor of a political tip sheet in Arizona. But when he worked with Grisham, she was the spokesperson for the state's House Republicans. And he was a reporter digging up dirt for the Arizona Capitol Times.

STEPHENSON: Spokespeople generally fall into one of two categories - the kind that hide from you and the kind that kind of confront you head-on. And Grisham was definitely in the latter category.

KEITH: That is to say she responds quickly to emails and is generally available to reporters. But Grisham can also be fierce in defense of those she works for. She declined to be interviewed for this story. And those who know her say she doesn't want to be the story. Before being elevated to White House press secretary and communications director, Grisham served as communications director for first lady Melania Trump. And that's how reporter Kate Andersen Brower learned firsthand about the hazards of crossing Grisham.

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER: Stephanie feels like she has to, you know, punch back 10 times harder.

KEITH: Brower, who has written a book about first ladies, wrote an opinion piece for CNN, saying that Trump doesn't understand what it means to be first lady. Grisham responded with her own opinion piece criticizing Brower, saying, quote, "absurdity abounds in the media's coverage of our first lady."

ANDERSEN BROWER: When Stephanie did write that response, it was, I thought, like a little bit over the top. But I do think it showed her loyalty to Melania Trump.

KEITH: Grisham, who's 42 and has two sons, first entered the Trump orbit during the campaign, serving as chief wrangler for the traveling press corps. That experience resurfaced in her first moments as White House press secretary. During President Trump's visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, North Korean security was trying to block the reporters following Trump. Grisham put her body between the guards and the press and physically cleared a path...

(CROSSTALK)

KEITH: ...Earning her bruises and early praise. Even people who work in the White House say it's not clear yet how Grisham will approach her new role or what changes she might make to the way the administration interacts with the press. Sean Spicer, who was Trump's first press secretary, thinks it is unlikely Grisham will bring back the once-daily White House press briefing.

SEAN SPICER: At this point, it's not just about what the press secretary wants. It's about what the president wants. And it - right now, clearly, he engages on a very regular basis, which means that the press secretary, clearly, has a lot of roles beyond the daily briefing.

KEITH: One of those roles has to do with access. And there's a potentially telling incident from Grisham's time in Arizona. Reporter Hank Stephenson had written an investigative piece about the speaker of the Arizona House misusing public resources. It set off what Stephenson says was an ongoing campaign to get him removed from the beat. It culminated with Grisham notifying reporters that they would have to pass a background check in order to be allowed on the House floor - something Stephenson couldn't pass because of a misdemeanor trespassing arrest at a bar two years earlier.

STEPHENSON: And when we realized that, it kind of clicked that, oh, this isn't just a background check policy. This is a way to screen Hank out of the building.

KEITH: The press corps refused to participate, and the policy was reversed in less than a week. Stephenson doesn't know whether Grisham hatched the plan or just implemented it, and she didn't respond to a question about it. Still, Stephenson looks back fondly on his time working with and hangling (ph) with Grisham. And he says the Trump White House is a good match for her.

STEPHENSON: I think she likes a challenge. I think she likes the chaos of it. And she's very good at kind of crisis management.

KEITH: With three titles - press secretary, communications director and still communications director for the first lady, this could be Grisham's biggest challenge yet.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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