Why you should care
Because he is walking the tightrope between Trump and the American people.
Raj Shah enters the room, and the nation is watching. That’s the job of delivering the White House press briefing, but there’s added pressure on the day after porn star Stormy Daniels told 60 Minutes she was physically threatened to stay quiet about an affair with the president. The 33-year-old deputy press secretary — filling in for Sarah Huckabee Sanders — is clad in a gray suit and baby-blue tie for just his third time standing behind the podium to face a room bursting with hungry reporters.
The first question is a doozy. After weeks of quickly contradicted claims, Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller asks: “Why should we in this room — and more importantly, the American people — trust anything that this administration is telling them?” Shah responds gamely: The press shop’s purpose “is to give you the best information that we have available to us.” It’s a purpose Shah takes seriously. Still, the dynamics are fluid, he admits. The facts and circumstances change.
There are no easy days serving the president. Still, Shah has emerged as a steady hand in a tumultuous communications shop. Arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Inauguration Day as research director and deputy communications director under former Republican National Committee colleagues Reince Priebus (then chief of staff) and Sean Spicer (press secretary), Shah has outlasted both. In September, he was elevated to his current role, and in February he became the first Indian-American to hold the press briefing. “He never quits,” Priebus says. “He’s like a dog with a bone.” Still, Priebus admits, he never thought he’d see the ace behind-the-scenes researcher at the podium.
This isn’t what Shah expected either. After that grilling by the press, he returns to his West Wing office. The corkboard behind his desk is covered with printouts of CNN broadcasts that used the wrong photos of him, each with the phrase “FAKE NEWS!!!!” scrawled across it in red ink. His television is turned to CNN, which starts playing a clip of his appearance moments before. Shah watches, then mutters, “It’s legitimately surreal,” before spinning through his phone to watch the Twitter reactions roll in. They aren’t kind.
However degrading your job is, it's not as degrading as @RajShah45's today.— SubjectHatNotTargetHat (@Popehat) March 26, 2018
The takes are softer offline. Even as the press secretary balance of serving both the media and the president has proved exceptionally difficult under Trump, many in the White House press corps give Shah high marks for openness. “Not only has he been keeping his head above water, but he’s presented himself in an amicable and positive way,” says Talk Media News reporter Jon-Christopher Bua, a former Clinton administration communications person. Playboy magazine correspondent Brian Karem says Shah shows patience, professionalism and “a genuine desire to get information to the public.”
That desire sometimes gets him in trouble, though. In February, Shah said the White House “could have done better” when handling the domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter — an equivocation that reportedly drew the president’s ire. “It was a good moment, for the White House and for Raj,” Priebus argues, a breath of authenticity from the podium. As for Shah, he says, “I’m proud to serve this president,” comparing him to an idol, Ronald Reagan: “He changed both the trajectory of the Republican Party and the country in ways that this president has the capability to do as well.”
Trump has changed the trajectory of White House communications in countless ways, and it’s no secret the president takes special interest in his spokespeople. “He is never going to let go of trying to master the narrative,” Priebus says, but “it’s not mean-spirited.” With high turnover — from Spicer to the revolving door at communications director — and questionable job prospects in the Outer Swamp, the White House appears a risky résumé line. Still, Shah is not as prone to the anti-media jeremiads of Spicer and Sanders — and thus might approach fewer burned bridges when the West Wing ride ends.
And though the Trump administration is criticized for a lack of diversity, Shah is one of several Indian-Americans flourishing, from United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. The son of an engineer father and dentist mother from Mumbai, Shah grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. He interned for a local Republican (Rep. Chris Shays) and Democrat (Sen. Joe Lieberman), but felt out of place with the latter. After 9/11, concerns over terrorism and foreign policy led him to cast his first vote for George W. Bush in 2004, and he interned in the White House the following year. His ascent through GOP politics has not been a straight line: Working for Susana Martinez’s gubernatorial run in New Mexico at age 25, Shah was arrested for a DWI and fired. But he’s made it back to the White House — making good on the sacrifices of his parents. “I wanted my kids to break the ceiling that we felt we were under,” says his father, Suresh.
On his office wall is a framed New York Times profile of the opposition work he used to do at the RNC. There, and at America Rising, the GOP opposition research firm Shah co-founded in 2013, staffers would form “murder boards” — panel discussions in which the team would pick apart a chosen Democrat. The experience has proved valuable in today’s frenetic media environment, Shah says: “I see a news report and almost intuitively can say where this news cycle is going.” At America Rising, Shah’s job was to be the attack dog, a role he “relished” while digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton. Now he is the hunted, and he is feeling it. “There’s a lot more scrutiny,” Shah says. “A lot more activity.” That’s the case from his Twitter mentions to the Oval Office.