Stephanie Grisham Knows How to Strong-Arm Reporters
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in a revolving-door job, she could stick around a while.
By Nick Fouriezos
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
In March 2016, while she was helping power the Donald Trump campaign through an extended Republican primary fight, Stephanie Grisham faced a problem back home in Arizona. Speaker of the House David Gowan was accused of using official staff and vehicles for campaign purposes, and Grisham was handling his press relations. So the future White House press secretary got creative to combat aggressive reporting.
After Arizona Capitol Times reporter Hank Stephenson had broken multiple stories about Gowan’s misdeeds, Grisham’s office announced a new policy requiring that all reporters pass a background check to report on the state House floor. News outlets rebelled once they realized that excluding reporters who had misdemeanors on their record was a clear attempt to bar Stephenson, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing years earlier after getting into a bar fight (his record was otherwise clean). “It stood out like a sore thumb,” Stephenson says. Gowan eventually dropped the policy.
Despite that skirmish, and the fact that Grisham once threatened to sue him over a story, Stephenson believes Grisham is “pretty good.” He notes that she showed an uncommon willingness to talk with reporters and was responsive to their requests, even if aggressive in her tactics. “She very much takes her cues from her bosses,” he says. “What kind of press secretary she ends up being depends on what kind of press secretary Trump wants her to be.”
On Tuesday, Grisham, 42, moved over from first lady Melania Trump’s office to be Trump’s third press secretary and sixth communications director, the turnover a sign of the perils of a job at the fulcrum of an administration in constant, searing combat with the press. But the White House press corps might have to get used to the gritty veteran of both Trumpland and fractious press relations.
I am pleased to announce @StephGrisham45 will be the next @PressSec & Comms Director! She has been with us since 2015 – @potus & I can think of no better person to serve the Administration & our country. Excited to have Stephanie working for both sides of the @WhiteHouse. #BeBest
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) June 25, 2019
“She’s got a temperament that is well-suited for what she’s going to be asked to do,” says Matt Benson, former communications director for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer who worked closely with Grisham. “She is well-liked by the press people that work with her, but she is not a pushover.… In that kind of high-profile role, you have to have someone who is a fighter.”
Already, Grisham has proved to have more staying power than most — pour one out for communications directors Bill Shine (who resigned after eight months) and Anthony Scaramucci (who was fired after 10 days). Grisham has been a mainstay since Trump’s earliest days on the campaign, handling press for the candidate’s July 2015 rally in Phoenix, which drew thousands of attendees and helped launch him to the top of most Republican primary polls.
A single mother of two, she is one of the few original campaign staffers still working for a White House that rewards (and demands) loyalty, carving out a reputation as a fiercer defender of both the president and the first lady. She presided over clapbacks against everyone from Issa Rae to Mika Brzezinski, whom Trump attacked as “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” which led The Washington Post to dub Grisham “the enforcer.” (In the latter case, Grisham crafted a statement promising that when Trump gets “attacked,” he will “punch back 10 times harder.”) She flexed her political muscle by helping the first lady go public with criticisms of Deputy National Security Adviser Mira Ricardel after a trip to Africa last year, which led to Ricardel being fired just days later.
She’s going to be Sarah Huckabee Sanders on steroids.
Tom Ryan, attorney who opposed Grisham
Grisham has a history of defending controversial bosses tooth and nail, dating back to her time working in the Arizona capitol, including defending Gowan and then-Attorney General Tom Horne in separate scandals involving mixing taxpayer-funded resources and campaign work. When asked to compare Grisham to past Trump White House press secretaries, Horne simply says: “She’s smarter than they were.”
To Tom Ryan, the lawyer who levied those charges against Horne and Gowan, Grisham is more vicious too: “She played loose and fast with the rules many times. She’s going to be Sarah Huckabee Sanders on steroids. She will go after the media as if you are the enemy.”
It’s unclear whether Grisham — who was not available for comment Tuesday — will bring back regular press briefings, which basically disappeared under Sanders, but she has shown a propensity to stretch the truth. When witnesses of a botched execution by the state of Arizona said the prisoner “suffered and gasped for air more than 600 times,” according to a PBS report at the time, Grisham told reporters that “there was no gasping of air. There was snoring.”
And yet, time and again, she’s engendered respect. The Arizona Capitol Times named Grisham Best PR Person at the Capitol during a 2015 awards ceremony and even crafted a spoof video with her.
Grisham also worked for former-Attorney General Tom Horne, and won Best PR Person at the Best of the Capitol 2015, which led to this video of “Stephanie Grisham’s PR Nightmare.”https://t.co/EtAuZzLrsc
— AZ Capitol Times (@AzCapitolTimes) June 25, 2019
In it, she finds out the media is onto a controversial story. Switching from scene to scene as ominous music plays, Grisham asks her peers for advice on how to respond. “Tell them nothing: Newspapers don’t matter,” quips one colleague, while another advises her to lie and say they have a broad coalition of support. “If all else fails, just tell them it’s going to add jobs.” After screaming at the sky in frustration, the video blacks out … and Grisham wakes up. It was all just a bad dream.
To some past occupants, the job Grisham now holds turned into a nightmare. But, if nothing else, she’s arriving with eyes wide open.