By Reyna Huff and Katie Morris
As a disclaimer, the two reporters are students in the Point Loma Nazarene University Media Ethics and Law class. The interview is composed of questions that the reporters directly asked Grisham in class and in a later follow-up interview.
With over 15 years of experience at the highest levels of government and media relations, including tenures as the White House press secretary, White House communications director and chief of staff to previous First Lady Melania Trump, Stephanie Grisham shared that “we live in … a split screen country right now” in regards to media and politics.
According to a 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults and 35% of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults say they have at least some trust in national news organizations.
On Tuesday, Sept. 12, Grisham was a guest speaker in Point Loma Nazarene University’s Media Ethics and Law class, where the 11 students and Grisham engaged in a Q-and-A-style discussion.
Prior to the conversation, which was held via Zoom, Grisham reiterated: “You can ask me anything.”
From her experience in public relations roles, the relationship between the press and the Trump administration and balancing working for the east and west wings, The Point spoke with Grisham about both the highs and lows of her career.
The Point: The role of the press secretary is often seen as a bridge between the administration and the public. What strategies did you employ to ensure transparency and accurate communication with the American people?
Stephanie Grisham: That was hard, just by virtue of who you work for. Trump, you know, came from a very entertainment-themed life, … so all he knew about the press, when I started, he was like, inviting people to his golf course … and they [the press] would write a nice story.
So, he did not understand the concept of them [the press] asking tough questions, and us [the Press Office] needing to be transparent and honest. He also — and this isn’t even a rip on him right now, it’s just him not knowing because clearly — wasn’t a politician ever [before].
He didn’t understand the absolute importance of being honest with the American people on even the smallest things.
Another thing you have to think about anyway, [is that] the White House is incredibly, really honest with the American people because other countries are watching us.
So that was really hard to just have to train my principal, as it were. And, I think that that can be said for a lot of things. If you want to go into PR and you’re going to be a spokesperson, you have to train the person who you are working for and explain to them why it’s important that you’re honest and upfront in the beginning, and you’ll be shocked at how many people don’t understand that … you as the spokesperson, press secretary, you work for him or her; you work for the country or the audience that they’re serving.
So for me at the Trump White House, and actually in Arizona, too, I took a lot of time to foster relationships with reporters individually, whether it was like off-the-record coffees or off-the-record drinks, being on the phone with them, leave them off the record, and I have found that reporters are — and I think this is a good thing — reporters, they’re happy to let you talk to them off the record … and so one-on-one conversations with reporters was key, it was vital.
And then for me, if Trump, [asked for] me to say something dishonest, I would generally walk away from him saying I would go do it, and then I knew he would forget, and then I just wouldn’t do it.
TP: In a 2017 tweet, Trump referred to national press organizations (including The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN) as “the enemy of the American people.” This comment struck journalists, such as Carl Bernstein, as a demonstration of his authoritarian attitude toward the media. Although this occurred before you were the press secretary, how did you navigate Trump’s relationship with the press, and what his attitude toward the media communicated to the American people when you were in that role?
SG: I knew what his relationship with the press was like, well before that tweet, because during the campaign, I was always with the press and I would literally be back in the press pen where everybody would be covering his rallies.
He would point back to the press pen and say, “Look at them, look at them back there, they’re all liars. They don’t even have their cameras on right now, the red lights aren’t on, they’re not even recording this, they’re not even taping this live.” Which they were.
The first time he did it, it got such a reaction from the crowd against them [the press] and towards him, and he loved it.
He was a master. And I don’t mean that I admire what he did here, but he was very good at picking up on what people really reacted to, and then he would just do it over and over again and double down.
So I would be back in the press pen all the time. And people would be yelling at me, at me, thinking I was a reporter. The reporters would get stuff thrown at them, you know, all kinds of language, getting flipped off, just, it was horrible.
As the campaign went on, and as he did it, because again, he did it at almost every rally, we got to the point where the press asked us if we would hire security to be in the press pen for them, because a lot of them were really nervous.
And of course, our campaign said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” So I recall CNN … actually had security that they hired for their talent. It was crazy. It was dangerous. It was bad.
I was an advocate for them [the press]. And I remember going to Kellyanne [Conway] and Steve Bannon, when he was the campaign manager and saying, like, “Hey, it’s getting pretty bad back there,” and even saying, like, “I don’t feel safe back there.” And they could not care less. They were like “Good, good, teach them something.”
So when we got into the White House, I knew it wasn’t going to be great. And again, he didn’t have an understanding of why they even had to be at the White House in the first place. It was just going to have to be something that you had to navigate. It was a really tough needle to thread.
I recall when I did become press secretary, one of my first things he wanted me to do was kick them all off the White House grounds. He wanted them [the press] gone. He didn’t understand why we had an office space for them back in the briefing room.
So for me, my strategy with him, … was I would go and get like places we could put them [the press], and I would go through the motions of what it would take to get these people off of the White House grounds. When he would ask me about it, I’d say “I’m working on it, there’s a lot of pieces to it, sir.”
Then finally, I blamed it on the lawyers. I just said the White House lawyer says we can’t, and that’s how I kind of got out of it.
But he did something to the press, I don’t know that will ever be undone, calling the press the enemy of the people, and it became such a terrible relationship, that the press would behave really badly as well.
When I was press secretary, I was sued. I was actually in a lawsuit with Donald Trump by Playboy, which was kind of cool, I guess, but I tried to kick a reporter off the White House grounds. His name was Brian Karem and he was a reporter for Playboy.
And he [Karem] took it to this extreme in the briefing rooms. Part of me looks back and it’s like, well, I get it. We treated them like such crap that I can see [them ask]: “Why play by the rules if we didn’t?”
But he would be so obnoxious. One time in the Rose Garden, where he actually almost got into an altercation with one of our guests, so I actually tried to have him removed for I think two or three weeks just because you do stuff to have decorum in the White House, it’s the White House. It was this big lawsuit.
I actually stand by what I did today. I don’t think bad behavior should be on either side. And the press at that point, our press corps, got this very entitled attitude of “we can behave however we want, and we’re going to.”
So Jim Acosta, from CNN, who’s a great friend of mine, by the way, I’m not disparaging him, we’ve talked about this many times, he would just make a show of it in the press briefing room. And so it turned what was once an institution and something that I always respected and watched, into just this circus. And that was another reason I was happy to never take the podium, because it wasn’t about giving facts to the American people anymore.
So you know, I navigated it the best I could with Trump, you had to improvise all the time. I think any other normal situation or person, that wouldn’t have been an issue. But I certainly would have just gone up to them and said, this is how it works. You know, this is, sir, we can’t do this. And when you did that with him, he would just wave his hand at you. And you know, fire you basically, if you didn’t do everything he wanted.
I hope that once we get past Trump and the extreme part of the Republican Party, that the relationship with the press can go back to normal, which will always be kind of butting heads. That’s how it is. But I think that one of the biggest, worst things he did in our country was with the free press.
TP: Just looking back on your career as the Press Secretary, what were some of the most memorable moments or some of [the] most memorable achievements that you had during your time at the White House?
SG: Well, when we were at the DMZ, between North and South Korea, and the President met with Kim Jong Un, I actually got into a physical fight with a North Korean guard in order to let our press corps in. They weren’t gonna let me in on the meeting, and … the video’s even out there, it’s hilarious.
I felt really good about that, because I felt not only was I helping the press corps get access, which is very important, but I felt like on a world stage, it really showed … how important a free press was to our country, and I thought that that really reflected … well on our country.
It was terrifying, and I still to this day, wonder if that particular man is alive. And I, you know, oftentimes, I said it on “The View” one time, and they were really kind of coming after me about not doing press briefings, and, you know, I was like, “Look, I showed my commitment to the press in so many other ways in terms of access, and that was one of them.” So that would be one.
Visiting foreign countries and the trip to Africa with Mrs. Trump was life changing for me. I was lucky, I got to go on the pre-advanced trip, plus, I did a trip with Mrs. Trump, so I got to go to these places twice. We went to Malawi, and we visited a village and a school that, you know, they literally didn’t have seats to sit on, they only had chalkboards. The kids were asking us to take pictures of them with our phones, so that they could look at themselves and see what they looked like, because they didn’t have mirrors in their homes.
That was an incredible experience. These really poor villages did so much with so little, and these kids were so happy and loving. And it just really kind of gave you perspective about where you live and just your life in general. So that one was a big highlight for me.
And then this is just honestly, I think a PR kind of person’s highlight. When he got the Republican nomination the first time, Melania gave a speech, and like a bunch of lines were lifted from a speech Michelle Obama had given. That wasn’t me; I didn’t work for him in that role yet.
So, when he had the nomination for the second time around in 2020, I had to write her speech again, for the RNC (Republican National Committee), for the big acceptance of the Republican nomination. And I worked really hard on that. I did it from here, actually, in Kansas. And I was going through a really tough time with Mark Meadows, and just a bunch of stuff personally.
But I was determined to write a very good, very strong, powerful, long speech for her that nobody can ever take away from her. And writing speeches for her was challenging just with the language issue. So I wrote a really good speech that she did not change at all. And she delivered it perfectly, because I made her go over and over it. She didn’t like doing that.
And afterwards, the President actually came up to me, he was like, I’m going to steal you back if you keep doing stuff like this. So that was a real highlight for me, because I did a really good job for her. And that means a lot. But also, I had been treated so poorly by the West Wing and Mark Meadows, that it felt good to have the president walk up and say that as well.
TP: During your time as press secretary, you never held a televised press briefing. Later, you revealed that this was a decision made by the former president. Do you regret agreeing to this particular strategy? What do you think it communicated to the American people?
SG: By that point, our administration, in my opinion, our press briefings, I’d never seen news come out of them. I had never seen anything substantive or anything that we wanted out there to come from those briefings.
He [Trump] had suspended briefings prior to me starting. He suspended them six months prior to Sarah. So for Sarah’s last six months, which people all forget, she didn’t do them either.
I only say that because people sometimes say that I’m making it up that Trump didn’t want me to do it. But he clearly had stopped them [the press briefings]. But yes, it was a strategy that I agreed to because of what I just told you guys.
Another part of it, I want to say, is that what I did do in my tenure, is [that] subject matter experts were at the podium all the time. I threw subject matter experts out at the podium because I felt that it took the temperature down in the room. And they were just giving out facts. So whether it was a Cabinet member, or Fauci, Mick Mulvaney went out there, that turned out to be a really bad idea.
I put people out there who I thought could just give the facts and give the information out. And I felt good about that. Things had gotten to such a fever pitch when I was there towards the end.
People still to this day say history is going to know me as the first and only press secretary to never give a briefing. I’m okay with that. Because I know I would have been put in a position, especially COVID-19, to do or say something that I didn’t feel good about, or that would have been detrimental to our country.
I will take being called whatever, all day long, but I feel really good about it. And let me be clear, I always wanted to take the podium. I’m sad I didn’t take the podium. I wanted to do that really, really badly. So it’s not like “Yay, I didn’t do it.” I feel good about it morally and for the information part of it, but for me, personally, I’m very sad I didn’t get to.
TP: Looking ahead, do you have any plans or projects related to your career in public relations or journalism that you can share with us?
SG: I’m just generally working with some people, sort of various organizations right now. Ahead of the next election, I’m going to continue doing TV and trying to educate people as much as I can about Republican extremism.
Honestly, my focus is my animal sanctuary. I hope and pray that once, you know, we have a new president elected or maybe I guess the old president elected, you can’t, I don’t know, I just want to, I think [that] I’ll be done with politics. It’s just an ugly, ugly world. What I went through, I think was especially ugly, which is my fault.
But until then, I’m gonna dedicate myself to try to do stuff like this and speak to people one-on-one and just really try to explain my story. Not because it’s about me or my story, but to explain who that man is [Trump] and what this extremism is doing to our country.
TP: Is there anything else regarding your experience working for the Trump administration, or even overall, your career and experiences in general, that we haven’t asked about that you’d like to speak on?
SG: I don’t think so. I just can’t reiterate enough that I believe wholeheartedly as journalists coming up, you guys have so much a responsibility to report things out in the middle as much as possible.
It’s going to be hard and when you know you’re doing it right, it’s because both [political] sides are gonna be very pissed off at you. I just think that that’s such an important and awesome responsibility.