Kellyanne Conway has become a media legend for her snowblower method of dissimulation: scoop up everything and hurl it into the air, with no concern for where the stuff lands. So it was perhaps not surprising that when Dana Bash asked Conway an unwelcome question on CNN this weekend, Bash got buried under particulate matter.
The exchange, which has gotten a lot of play in the past 24 hours, is a case study of the Trump White House’s methods in action.
First, some background. Conway’s husband George is a highly distinguished and successful lawyer. He also operates a Twitter account on which he often posts cutting remarks about the Trump presidency. George Conway’s comments do not deal with policy, but with more fundamental issues of character and integrity. For example, on the morning of Sunday April 22—just minutes before Kellyanne Conway’s appearance on CNN—George Conway retweeted the following:
Each president in this photo did things I disagreed with politically. Quite a lot, in fact, for most of them.— David Priess (@DavidPriess) April 22, 2018
And yet I never doubted that every single one of them acted based on core values, including love of country—not, primarily, love of self. pic.twitter.com/N19fV1zPoD
The most obvious interpretation of that message is that Conway shared the tweeter’s implicit view that President Trump is not actuated by love of country, but instead by love of self.
Many people in government have spouses of course, and many of those spouses say things on social media. Why are George Conway’s comments more interesting than most? The reason is captured in this New York Times report from May 15, 2017.
The hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” said on Monday that the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway complained extensively about President Trump in private conversations with them before he was elected.
Mika Brzezinski said during Monday’s broadcast that she heard Ms. Conway denounce the candidate in private after promoting him on television.
“She would get off the air, the camera would be turned off, the microphone would be taken off, and she would say ‘Blech, I need to take a shower,’ because she disliked her candidate so much,” Ms. Brzezinski said of Ms. Conway.
Joe Scarborough, Ms. Brzezinski’s co-host and fiancé, echoed the statements, saying that Ms. Conway said after being interviewed that she had only taken the job for money and that she would soon be done defending Mr. Trump. “‘But first I have to take a shower, because it feels so dirty to be saying what I’m saying,’” Ms. Brzezinski added, mocking what the hosts said was Ms. Conway’s attitude at the time. “I guess she’s just used to it now.”
Conway has denied the story. But her husband’s tweets suggest he currently holds views broadly similar to those attributed to Kellyanne by the Morning Joe hosts. And that, in turn, raises the possibility that she privately still feels the same way she allegedly did during the campaign: disgusted with the bad character of the man she helped elect to the presidency. If one of the most senior counselors of the United States does inwardly feel such acute disgust toward her boss, yet serves him anyway for her own personal advantage, that is important information both about the president and about the kind of people staffing his White House.
The question was completely in-bounds—and Conway’s angry reaction to the question only confirms its in-bounds-ness. Her first instinct was to invoke her autonomy as a woman. It was completely inappropriate, she suggested, to ask one spouse any questions about the political activities of the other—and especially inappropriate to ask such questions of a wife, for they would never be asked of a husband.
This is the same Kellyanne Conway who played a key role in the Trump campaign’s strategy for addressing accusations of sexual misconduct against its candidate—and that was to raise as a defense the sexual misconduct of their opponent’s husband. Here, for example, is Conway speaking with Chris Matthews after Trump’s press conference with Bill Clinton accusers. Here she is again with Megyn Kelly—insisting that women who claimed to have been victimized by Bill Clinton “deserved to be heard” as part of the case against Hillary Clinton. On the attack, Conway embraces views akin to the antiquated legal doctrine of coverture, wherein a woman’s legal existence is entirely subsumed into her husband’s. On the defensive, she’s suddenly Gloria Steinem.
But that was only her first line of defense. The second line—and to this Conway devoted much more time and energy—was to begin issuing barely veiled threats against the press and the president’s political opponents. “It’s very good for the whole world to have witnessed … that it’s now fair game how people’s spouses and significant others may differ with them,” she said. “I’m really surprised, but in some ways relieved and gratified to see that. … So this ought to be fun moving forward, Dana. Are we now going to talk about people’s spouses and significant others just because they either work in the White House or at CNN?” If you ask me about my husband’s words, we’ll come after your spouses too.
Which must make the incredulous viewer wonder: Is that supposed to be new? Trump’s line of attack on acting FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was precisely to vilify his wife’s campaign as a Democrat for the Virginia state legislature. Angry at McCabe for authorizing a return flight home for fired FBI Director James Comey, Trump suggested he ask his wife how it felt to be a loser. Then in tweet after tweet, Trump cited McCabe’s wife’s campaign at a completely different level of government to impugn McCabe’s independence and integrity. Again, for opponents: coverture.
It’s not news that the Trump White House swims in hypocrisy, and that its defenders—Conway most of all—deal in untruths and bad faith. But despite its non-newsiness, journalists do not seem to have internalized the truth: Ask a question of a Trump defender in the expectation of an honest answer, and have your video rebuttals ready. You will need them.