Kellyanne’s Alternative Universe
Will the truth ever catch up with Trump’s most skilled spin artist?
Even in triumph, Kellyanne Conway nursed a grudge. As she reflected on Donald Trump’s November victory, she made clear that she hadn’t forgotten how people treated her back when they thought she was a sure loser. Their attitude wasn’t one of outright rudeness or contempt; it was so much worse than that. It was syrupy condescension—the smarmy, indulgent niceness of people who think they’re better than you.
“ ‘Kellyanne works hard,’ ” Conway said, assuming the voice of her erstwhile sympathizers. “ ‘We all love Kellyanne, but this is a fool’s errand.’ Or ‘She’s done a really nice job, she should hold her head high, but this is just happy talk’ … You know, it was some combination of that. It was ‘We love her, but she’s full of shit.’ ”
Conway flashed a wicked grin. We were sitting in her spacious office in the West Wing of the White House, less than a week after the inauguration. Just a year ago, she was a knockabout GOP pollster and talking head, a casino worker’s daughter who’s never quite shaken her South Jersey accent. But she’d understood something about the electorate that others had missed, and now here she was: perhaps the most powerful woman in America, a senior counselor to the president of the United States, a member of Donald Trump’s core team of top advisers. “Winning may not be everything,” she said, leaning forward over her paper cup of hot cocoa and giving a wink of one mascara-clotted blue eye. “But it’s darned close.”
Winning, Conway contended, was exactly what Trump was doing as president—just look at the number of executive actions he’d already signed. He was outpacing Obama, she said. “Not that it’s a contest.” When I told her I recalled Republicans depicting Obama’s executive orders as Constitution-defying, dictatorial abuses of power, she replied, “Well, I don’t know that I would have said that.” And then came a blast of her signature verbal fog: “But the difference is that—it depends on the issue. Is it something that should be legislatively fought? And now that we have a government that functions that way, this president is taking the reins and doing that—operating, in part, that way.”
Since taking over Trump’s flailing campaign in August, Conway has become famous for her insistence on Trump’s looking-glass version of reality—in which conspiracy theories merit consideration but reported facts are suspect. She claimed, during the campaign, that Trump “doesn’t hurl personal insults,” and that when it came to Barack Obama’s birth certificate, “it was Donald Trump who put the issue to rest.” She once insisted, on CNN, that Trump should be judged by “what’s in his heart” rather than “what’s come out of his mouth.” She has reframed falsehoods as “alternative facts,” invented a terrorist attack (the “Bowling Green massacre”), and flacked for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, in possible violation of federal ethics rules.
When Conway’s critics pile on, she just keeps spinning. “She can stand in the breach and take incoming all day long,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told me. “That’s something you can’t coach.” She’s figured out that she doesn’t need to win the argument. All she has to do is craft a semi-plausible (if not entirely coherent) counternarrative, so that those who don’t want to look past the facade of Trump’s Potemkin village don’t have to.
There is a playful self-awareness to Conway that tempts observers to believe she’s in on the joke, as in the Saturday Night Live skit in which her character mutters, while Trump’s character appears not to notice, “I’m handcuffed to you for all of history.” But if Conway has any doubts about the rightness of the cause, she doesn’t let them show. While her specious arguments leave interlocutors sputtering, she wields a weaponized calm. (Seth Meyers: “I bet in the next four years we are not going to see the president-elect’s tax returns.” Conway, not missing a beat, with a beneficent smile: “I bet that most Americans really care what their tax returns are going to look like after he’s been president for four years.”)
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker (and a former Conway client), told me her effectiveness at “taking on the media” makes her essential to the new administration. “You either decide you’re going to defend Trump and Trumpism, or you let the left browbeat you into doing stupid things,” he said. When I asked whether the administration and the media might be able to find some kind of common ground, Gingrich practically snarled. “Not these people,” he said. “You are all so far to the left, so contemptuous to Trump. Trying to conciliate you is silly. It’s like trying to pet lions.”
The media lions have seemed to roar louder at Conway with each passing week. But she’s never been afraid to mix it up—sometimes even literally. At one of the inaugural balls, two men in tuxes started scrapping, a witness told the New York Daily News. Conway intervened and, when they wouldn’t stop, punched one of them three times in the face. When I asked her about the fight, she coyly did not deny it. “I’m not commenting on that,” she said, grinning. “Men behaving badly is nothing new to me.”
Unlike the men with whom she vies for Trump’s favor, Conway isn’t seen as one of the new administration’s centers of power, and she resents the perception that she’s a mere spokeswoman. Now that she’s in the White House, she says, she has an expansive role overseeing numerous policy areas.
Conway’s claims to centrality can at times come across as self-aggrandizing and exaggerated. (Her insistence, for example, that then–National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn “does enjoy the full confidence of the president,” hours before Flynn resigned, suggested that she had been left out of the loop.) But Bannon told me she played a much more important role in laying the early groundwork for Trump’s movement than almost anyone knows. And she seems to have a unique ability to steer the impulsive president—who is, by all accounts, more attuned to what’s on cable news than to any white paper or policy briefing.
During the transition, Conway began publicly criticizing, on Twitter and on television, Trump’s consideration of Mitt Romney for secretary of state. Romney and Trump were in the midst of a high-profile courtship, and Romney was reportedly a leading contender for the job, when Conway tweeted that she was receiving a “deluge” of feedback from Trump fans who would feel “betrayed” by Romney’s selection.
“What were his special qualifications for that, is all I asked,” she told me. “Losing Michigan by 10 points, when Donald Trump won the state, certainly wouldn’t have been a qualification. Was Mitt Romney negotiating cease-fires in Aleppo and somehow I missed it?”
The public airing of such a sensitive personnel matter caused a sensation. It was suggested that Conway had “gone rogue,” and on Morning Joe, Trump was said to be “furious” with her for her insubordination. She called him up to see whether this was true. He said it was not, and she proceeded to explain why she was so opposed to Romney: She hadn’t forgiven him for his role in the “Never Trump” movement, including a speech calling Trump a “con man.”
“I just told him that I know how things go,” she explained: “Every single time Secretary of State Mitt Romney would have deplaned in a foreign country … they would go to the B-roll of him in front of the orange-and-white background, mocking Trump Water, Trump Steaks, Trump’s character, his integrity, his message—him. And that would never have gone away, and he deserves better.”
Romney dined with Trump in New York and gave a public statement that seemed to retract his previous concerns and expressed confidence in the president-elect. Nonetheless, he was passed over. Trump chose Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO, for the post instead.
“Judas Iscariot got 30 pieces of silver; Mitt Romney got a dish of frog legs at Jean-Georges. And even at that, it was the appetizer portion,” a high-ranking White House official told me. “We’ve sort of taken out his larynx—how can he criticize [Trump] now?”
The episode was, Conway said, an example of her method: operating “dimensionally,” not “linearly,” to get results. She pointed to a dinner where Trump told a group of diplomats that Tillerson was “a man that I wanted right from the beginning.” In the end, Conway hadn’t just gotten her way. She had made the president think it was his idea all along.
Conway’s hometown of Atco, New Jersey, is the sort of featureless place that takes its name from a corporate acronym—Atco is short for the Atlantic Transport Company, which, at the turn of the 20th century, ordered some ships built nearby. She prides herself on staying rooted here, in the Real America that fancy people can’t quite grasp—the America that defied conventional wisdom and handed Trump the presidency. Conway can claim to speak for Trump’s base, that is, because she’s one of them.
Just off White Horse Pike, a single-story stone house sits on a raised mound of earth that makes it tower above its neighbors, its driveway a steep slope. When I rang the bell one afternoon in early February, Conway’s 73-year-old mother, Diane Fitzpatrick, answered the door. “My mom always wanted a house on a hill,” Fitzpatrick said, by way of explanation. “So my father built a hill.”
Fitzpatrick welcomed me into the dining room. The walls were a bright, cheerful yellow, the windows hung with filmy curtains. Every surface was choked with clutter—silk plants, prescription bottles, angel figurines, crosses, little plaques with sayings about family and faith. Through a doorway I could see an enormous framed photograph of Conway and her family hanging over the fireplace; on a set of shelves were a signed photo of Trump and a Mother’s Day note from him. The house was a shrine—to God, to Trump, and to Kellyanne.
Fitzpatrick has lived in this house on and off for 60 years, since she was a teenager. She’d wanted to be a traditional homemaker, but her marriage ended in 1970, when Conway was 3. Fitzpatrick went to work, eventually spending 21 years as a cashier working the night shift at the Claridge casino in Atlantic City, relying on her mother and two unmarried sisters to help raise her only child.
Conway went to Catholic school in Hammonton, 10 miles down the road, where she was a cheerleader and played field hockey and was first in her class. “I always told her you have to do your best,” Fitzpatrick said. “But she had to be the best.”
Conway spent eight summers packing blueberries at a nearby farm, where she sometimes drew onlookers with her remarkable, automaton-esque speed and ability to work for long stretches without a break. She brought a similar intensity to her schoolwork. “I didn’t think she was a deep thinker,” one of her high-school teachers told Cosmopolitan. “But I do remember that she would argue her point relentlessly. You would pray to God that the bell would ring.”
Fitzpatrick told me her grandparents came from Italy, noting indignantly that they were held at Ellis Island until they could be thoroughly checked—unlike today’s immigrants, she said, who just come right in. “We never wanted anything handed to us,” she said. “My father hated credit cards—‘If you don’t have the money, you don’t need it.’ ” In her day, she added, children respected their parents. “It’s not like the kids you see today, where there’s so much hate in the world.” After a botched back surgery in 2001 left Fitzpatrick unable to stand for long periods, she sued her doctor and retired on permanent disability.
The country, as she described it, is at the mercy of atheists and agitators who want to tell “the majority” how to live their lives. Fitzpatrick was kindly and hospitable, serving me coffee and snacks in neat little bowls. But once she got going, she could barely contain her disgust at the snobs and celebrities who were not giving the new president the chance he deserved—people like Ashton Kutcher, who lambasted Trump at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January. “I’d like to kick the TV in, honest to God.”
President Obama “pitted the blacks against the whites,” she said. “If something happened to a black person, he and his wife were right there. But if something happened to a white person, you never saw them, did you?” Attending the inauguration with her daughter, Fitzpatrick was relieved to hear God mentioned for what she believed was the first time in eight years.
Conway and her husband, George, a conservative litigator (who as of press time was said to be in the running for solicitor general), own a $6 million house in Alpine, New Jersey, a wealthy suburb of New York two hours from Atco. But Fitzpatrick told me that Conway hasn’t forgotten where she comes from: “She has been all over the world, but it hasn’t changed her any—not at all.”
Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and messaging guru, met Conway in the 1980s at Oxford University, when he was in graduate school and she was on an undergraduate year abroad from Trinity Washington University, in D.C. Lonely, homesick, and surrounded by stuffy Brits, Luntz was immediately drawn to Conway. “She already was political, and right of center,” he recalled. “The smile, the blond hair, the vivaciousness, a little bit flirtatious—she was just fun.”
One time, she and a couple of friends took Luntz shopping and made him try on a Speedo so they could laugh at him. “I’ve been fat for, like, 15 years, but I wasn’t always fat,” he told me. “Nevertheless, a guy like me should not put on a Speedo.” This sounded humiliating and cruel to me, but Luntz insisted it was hilarious.
Conway went to law school at George Washington University and accepted an offer to work for a D.C. firm, but reneged when Luntz asked her to join his polling company instead. They traveled the world together, and loved to play pranks, such as pretending they were husband and wife and having a noisy argument in an elevator. After a few years, she left to start her own company. While building her business, Luntz told me, Conway said things about him that hurt his feelings, and the two didn’t speak for several years. They have since reconnected.
A few firms dominate Republican campaign polling, and Conway’s was never one of them. But she carved out a niche helping politicians and corporations understand women. Though she’s an unapologetic career woman who married at 34 and had the first of her four children at 37, Conway views feminism as unnatural and man-hating. She says “femininity” is more important, is strongly opposed to abortion, and thinks that women should cherish traditional roles, not a sense of victimhood. The post-inauguration Women’s March left her notably unmoved. “Marching on the Mall with vagina hats on?” she said. “Your mom must be so proud.”
In the 1990s, Conway began appearing often on TV, spouting the standard Republican line on Bill Maher’s and Chris Matthews’s shows. She seemed like a member in good standing of D.C.’s political-hack crowd. But as a pollster, she worked for certain groups that other Republicans avoided or dismissed as fringe, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “promotes hatred of immigrants, especially non-white ones,” and the Center for Security Policy, a think tank headed by Frank Gaffney Jr., which has been accused of pushing anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. Her 2015 poll for the center claimed to show that a majority of American Muslims supported Sharia law in the United States, but it was widely criticized for methodological flaws; that December, Trump cited it when he first proposed banning Muslims from entering the country.
“Remember, Kellyanne was not a mainstream pollster,” Bannon told me. “She had every marginal act out there. Social issues, security moms, immigration—she was a movement-conservative pollster.” It was in that capacity, he said, that she played a pivotal role in upending the GOP establishment.
After Romney lost the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee concluded, in its “autopsy” report, that the party needed to broaden its appeal. Supporting immigration reform, and thus bringing in Hispanic voters, was the only way forward—a position shared across the Republican establishment, from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the Chamber of Commerce to the Koch brothers. Donald Trump, then hosting The Apprentice, said Romney had lost because his “self-deportation” policy alienated Hispanic voters.
But there was another view: that Romney lost because he’d failed to inspire white working-class people, many of whom stayed home in 2012. This idea, laid out by an analyst named Sean Trende for RealClearPolitics and known as the “missing whites” theory, became the major counterpoint to the GOP autopsy. It held that Republicans didn’t need to do better with minorities; they could instead turn out a bigger share of white voters, particularly rural, blue-collar white voters.
One way Republicans could win, Conway believed, was by arguing for stricter immigration policies. She told me she had long understood how the issue resonated with struggling voters. They were willing to do unglamorous jobs to support their families—to hang drywall or mow lawns—but found themselves undercut by immigrants who would “work under the table for peanuts.” It wasn’t fair, but the elites—and many politicians—didn’t seem to think their concerns were even worth mentioning.
In 2014, Conway was part of a group of Republicans that produced a poll for FWD.us, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration-advocacy nonprofit. It showed that immigration reform was a political necessity for the GOP—a finding at odds with the line Conway had been pushing since the 1990s. Two months later, she produced a different poll, demonstrating that “enforcement of current law” and “encouraging illegal immigrants to return to their home countries” could be a winning message. She presented her findings to a group of Republican donors, who rebuffed her. But the poll found favor with opponents of immigration reform. The far-right website Breitbart .com (then headed by Bannon) hailed it as a “blockbuster.”
The poll was credited to Conway, but it was paid for, I discovered, by the immigration-restriction group NumbersUSA, a longtime client of hers. After she circulated her findings, Republicans began to embrace previously taboo positions. NumbersUSA’s executive director, Roy Beck, watched in amazement as one Republican presidential candidate after another—Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, even Jeb Bush—began parroting his group’s arguments. Trump was the most ardent convert. “Trump started out at, like, a C-minus” on the group’s report card, Beck told me. But he got with the program. “He just kept improving, focusing his message more and more on what was good for the worker.”
Bannon told me Sean Trende’s “missing whites” theory and Conway’s polling on immigration formed “the intellectual infrastructure” of 2016’s populist revolt. He added that Conway was part of a “cabal” he had started to build with Jeff Sessions and Sessions’s then-aide Stephen Miller, who is now a senior White House policy adviser. “This is her central thing,” he said, “the reason I got to know her.”
In 2006, the Conways were living in Trump World Tower, a hulking skyscraper across from the United Nations, when the condo board sought to remove Trump’s name from the building. George Conway took Trump’s side and gave an eloquent speech at a meeting Trump attended, arguing that removing his name would decrease the value of the building’s apartments. Trump called him afterward to thank him, and two days later the property manager offered George a seat on the board. He didn’t want it, but Kellyanne did, and that’s how she met Trump.
Conway says she recognized early in the 2016 campaign that Trump was connecting with voters. But despite an early overture from Trump, she initially signed on to run a super pac supporting Ted Cruz. The reclusive father-and-daughter megadonors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, whom Conway considers friends, poured more than $10 million into the effort. In that role, she occasionally bashed Trump, such as when she said he had built his fortune “on the backs of the little guy.”
But after Cruz dropped out, the Mercers threw their support behind Trump and got him to hire Conway as a pollster. In August, when the campaign was foundering under the direction of Paul Manafort, Trump made Bannon the campaign’s CEO and promoted Conway to campaign manager, again at the Mercers’ urging.
It was a job many top-flight consultants wouldn’t have touched, and Trump’s critics dismissed Conway as a junior-varsity talent leading a doomed mission. “No one in D.C. before this ever woke up in the morning and said, ‘My God, this campaign will go nowhere without Kellyanne Conway,’ ” says Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who opposed Trump and worked for the independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin.
But when Conway took charge, in August, Trump stopped giving press conferences, which had been erratic and freewheeling; started using a teleprompter more frequently at rallies; and dialed back his tweets. She quickly developed a reputation as the “Trump whisperer,” a perception she encouraged. It wasn’t that she was moderating him, or pushing him toward policies with mainstream appeal—she was taking his pugilistic instincts and funneling them in a more productive direction.
When the campaign hit its low point, in October, with the release of the Access Hollywood tape on which Trump boasted about groping women without their consent, Conway’s indomitable faith in Trump appeared, from the outside, to be flagging. She canceled her planned appearances on the Sunday talk shows, as some suggested Trump might drop out. But Conway soon reemerged, insisting that while the comments on the tape were “indefensible,” she believed Trump when he said they were just words, and that he had never acted on them. She implied that when she was “younger and prettier,” she’d endured sexual harassment from some of the lawmakers now sitting in judgment of him. And she stuck to her script even after about a dozen women came forward to say that Trump had forced himself on them.
Bannon says it was Conway’s calm presence that led both wavering women and conservative voters to think, If she can still support Trump, I can, too. “If Kellyanne had not been there when the firestorm hit, I don’t know if we would have made it,” he told me. “She literally became a cult figure during that time period, just because of her relentless advocacy for Trump on TV.”
The idea that she was merely a spokeswoman rather than a true campaign manager misses the point, Bannon said: Communications was everything to Trump, an instinctive marketer who didn’t believe in much traditional campaign organization. Coordinating field efforts, placing ad buys—those functions were secondary. “People say, ‘She wasn’t really campaign manager.’ I say, ‘No offense, this wasn’t the Bush campaign.’ ”
Frank Luntz agrees with Bannon that Trump couldn’t have won without Conway’s defense of him after the Access Hollywood tape came out. “He owes her for standing up for him,” Luntz said. “I could not have done what she did.”
I told Luntz, who has mixed feelings about Trump, that this didn’t exactly sound like a compliment. But he insisted that it was. “I would not have survived it; I’m impressed that she did,” he said. “In every possible sense, she won. I do not believe he would be president without her.”
Conway’s new West Wing quarters are upstairs from the Oval Office, in a space previously occupied by Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime friend and confidante. Before it was Jarrett’s, Conway told me, the office was Karl Rove’s. And before that, in a bit of trivia Conway relishes, it belonged to Hillary Clinton, who demanded a West Wing office for her policy work in addition to the first lady’s traditional East Wing quarters.
As we talked, a makeup artist from Fox News entered, setting her supplies out on an otherwise bare side table and draping a black-plastic cape over Conway’s shoulders. “I’ve got to multitask, or I go on TV looking like this,” Conway said, unpinning her platinum-dyed hair. She has a disarming matter-of-factness about her looks. Dispute her claim that she has bad hair and she will retort, “I have other assets—feet and hair are not among them,” then go on to tell you about the bunion surgery she badly needs but has no time for.
A few days earlier, Conway had appeared on Meet the Press and coined a term that neatly encapsulated the administration’s relationship with the truth: alternative facts. The phrase spawned dozens of think pieces, the British prime minister used it to accuse a political rival of lying, and sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spiked.
When I asked Conway about the incident, she insisted that it was no big deal in Trumpworld—a blip, a trivial error, virtually a typo. “What I meant to say was alternative information,” she said, giving an example: Three plus one equals four, but so does two plus two.
Anyway, she contended, nobody cared about “alternative facts” except the elite, out-of-touch intelligentsia who spend all day winding one another up in the echo chamber of Twitter and cable news. “It was haters talking to each other and it was the media,” she said, adding that requests from TV bookers continued to stream in.
Most important, Trump himself loved it. After the appearance, Conway texted Chuck Todd, the show’s host, to let him know that Trump thought he’d been disrespectful to her, and Todd wrote back. “He said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ ” she told me. “I said, ‘That wasn’t me. The president asked me to send that to you.’ So anybody trying to divide us here is going to have the opposite effect. He thought that was one of my best appearances. Because he watched the whole thing.”
A week later, the “Bowling Green massacre” inspired a similar outcry—and a similarly nonchalant response from Conway. I texted her afterward to ask whether she was in trouble with Trump. “Not at all,” she replied. “Why would I be?”
It was, of course, impossible to know whether this was true.
With each successive Conway outrage, her “haters” hold their breath and wait to see if the ax will finally fall. Trump bestows his favor unpredictably, and veterans of past Republican administrations look at the chaos in the White House and say a shake-up is inevitable. “The White House was not set up in a functional way,” a former high-ranking official in George W. Bush’s administration told me. “This is unsustainable.”
But insiders say Conway is largely untouchable. Jason Miller, who worked for the campaign and the transition team, told me he couldn’t imagine Conway losing her job: “One thing people don’t quite get is that she is a living, breathing folk hero for millions of people around the country.”
To doubt that Conway’s comeuppance awaits is to question the laws of political gravity, or even the basic concept of right and wrong. “She’s able to sit there with a straight face and say, over and over, ‘No, the sky has never, ever been blue, and it’s true because we won,’ ” says Rick Wilson, the anti-Trump consultant. “She’s going to have to, at some point, reckon with the moral compromises it takes to do the things she’s doing.”
In a universe that operates according to normal rules, that might be true—actions are supposed to have consequences; people are supposed to stop listening to you when you prove that you can’t be trusted. But as Donald Trump showed again and again throughout the campaign, those rules aren’t as binding as we may have once believed.