'She'll Fit Right In': Combative TV Pundit's Meteoric Rise To Trump White House

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 9, 2020 5:40 pm

How to describe President Trump's newest press secretary?

Kayleigh McEnany, just days shy of her 32nd birthday, already has acquired a bevy of classic establishment credentials. She holds degrees from Georgetown University's foreign service school and Harvard Law. She studied at Oxford. She served as a top spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee — which is to say the GOP — and for the president's re-election campaign.

McEnany also became, in a few short years, a notable pro-Trump presence on cable television, first as a CNN talking head and later as a party and campaign surrogate. Recently, she has suggested that Americans should turn to Trump for guidance on the risk of pandemic rather than public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and that Democrats were "almost rooting" for the coronavirus to have a deadly effect to undermine Trump's presidency. She also has promoted racist fictions about President Barack Obama and made false claims about voter fraud.

She is well-suited for the job as envisioned by her boss: a combative, unyielding figure not intended to inform or convince the press corps (and the public through it) but, rather, to hold it in contempt and at bay.

Press secretaries "are important jobs under Democratic and Republican presidents," said MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace, who served as the communications director for President George W. Bush and who has become an outspoken critic of Trump. "These are people who stand at the podium on Sept. 11 and after Newtown and after Oklahoma City. And Donald Trump just either doesn't know that, or doesn't care, or doesn't see it that way."

McEnany became Trump's fourth spokesperson on Tuesday. She replaced Stephanie Grisham, who spoke publicly primarily through interviews on the Trump-friendly Fox News Channel and did not hold a single press conference as press secretary. (Grisham has returned to lead the White House staff of first lady Melania Trump.)

Trump's first press secretary was Sean Spicer, a former party stalwart who sheepishly acknowledged he had embarrassed his family by his aggressive conduct in the job. The second was Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who often scolded reporters but later admitted to federal investigators that her claim, uttered more than once, that "countless" FBI agents told her they were happy Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey "was not founded on anything."

Spicer was required to take insupportable claims from almost the moment he stepped into the White House position, insisting that Trump's inauguration had attracted record crowds, when the evidence clearly showed otherwise.

"What President Trump and his staff have never fully embraced is that when you take the podium at the White House, you're speaking on behalf of the entire nation, not just one person," former Obama White House spokesman Bill Burton told NPR. "To speak on behalf of this president, one is required to have fierce loyalty to him and no fidelity to the truth. Given [McEnany's] work for him so far, I think she'll fit right in."

McEnany worked on Capitol Hill for congressional Republicans and interned in the communications office of President George W. Bush. She foreshadowed her allegiance to Trump with tweets wrongly implying that Obama was born in Kenya and defended Trump calling Obama the founder of the radical Islamic terrorist group ISIS.

Such comments are unlikely to be counted against her by administration officials. Trump's new chief of staff, former U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, made similar claims about Obama's origins on the campaign trail though Meadows more recently said, "There is not a racial bone in my body." Trump, of course, was the nation's most foremost advocate of birtherism.

Meadows, McEnany and the White House did not respond to NPR's requests for comment submitted through its press office.

In 2017, McEnany defended Trump for his frequency of playing golf by claiming Obama had gone to play golf after the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Islamic militants. Obama was an Illinois state senator at the time of Pearl's death in 2002. She later said she meant another victim of terrorism, James Foley, who was killed by ISIS in 2014. (Obama conceded to NBC's Chuck Todd that he made a mistake and should have paid attention to the "optics" of playing a round of golf while on vacation shortly after consoling Foley's relatives.)

Last year, McEnany memorably asserted on CNN that she believed Trump had never lied as president. The Washington Post's Fact Checker feature has found that Trump had personally made more than 16,200 false or misleading claims during his first three years in office and he inspired a new category for the service: the "Bottomless Pinocchio" — untrue claims he keeps repeating.

Most recently, McEnany made headlines for repeatedly downplaying the threat of the pandemic, suggesting it was an attempt by the president's critics to undermine him. "We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here," McEnany told Fox Business Network host Trish Regan in late February. "And isn't it refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?" Regan left the network in March, days after calling pandemic fears a hoax.

Jennifer Loven, who covered the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses for The Associated Press, says past press secretaries used to claim a tug in two directions: the need to put out the clearest message and best spin for their presidents, and the need to get information out to the public through the media.

Under Trump, Loven says, the press secretary has all but abandoned that second imperative.

And the public health crisis cloaks the president's most basic political challenge ahead. "Maybe we're missing the biggest piece of this of all, which is that the president is seeking to be re-elected this year," Loven told NPR. "Maybe the answer is just not very complicated, but very simple, which is that he wants someone who is not only skilled in TV, but skilled in the campaign arena."

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