Managing Trump: Hardest job in politics?
Kellyanne Conway’s real house in Alpine, New Jersey, looks eerily like the one NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” imagined in a parody earlier this month. The bit fantasized what a day off would be like for her — rollerblading, painting, doing yoga — only to be constantly interrupted by demands for television appearances so that she can try to explain fictitious off-the-wall comments from her boss.
In the few short months since becoming Trump’s campaign manager, Conway has become a constant fixture on television — laying out his agenda, talking points and often trying to smooth over Trump controversies. In dedicating a whole sketch to her, SNL picked up on a question many people are fascinated by: Does she believe what she says when she defends Trump?
“I think it’s unfair to say I’m always dutifully defending him. I look at my job, Dana, as explaining positions on issues, why he’s running for president and why people should vote for him,” said Conway, 49, who will turn 50 on Inauguration Day.
Conway has only been on the job since August. She is Trump’s third campaign manager, but the first woman ever to run the campaign of a Republican nominee. She told us that when Trump asked her to take the job, her being a woman was beside the point.
“I wasn’t hired because of my gender. But it’s a special responsibility,” said Conway, “I want to do right, apart from my gender — I want to do right as a campaign manager.”
That’s not always easy when Trump is the candidate. Just this past weekend Trump was supposed to give a focused speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, about what he calls “draining the swamp.”
Instead, he started his remarks by going decidedly off script, attacking the women who say he groped them and vowing to sue them for lying when the election is over.
“It’s his campaign, and it’s his candidacy, and in the end, yes, I feel comfortable with his voice and his choice,” said Conway.
Yet when pressed, she admitted that “Donald Trump is at his very best, at his very best, when he talks about the issues.”
Translation: Going off message hurts Trump.
Still, Conway insists she’s tough with Trump in private. As an example, she told us what happened when they got on the plane after his Gettysburg speech.
“I don’t sugarcoat at all,” said Conway.
She told him after his off script rant, “You and I are in a fight for the next 17 days.”
When Trump asked why, Conway replied: “Because I know you’re going to win. And that comment you just made sounds like you think you’re going to lose. And we’re going to argue about it until you win.”
“He was like, ‘OK, honey. Then we’ll win,’ ” Conway said.
Conway did tame Trump — temporarily
For a time after Conway took over the campaign, Trump was uncharacteristically disciplined. He allowed his staff to add teleprompters to his rallies, a tool he had mocked Clinton for using, in order to stick to prepared speeches. (His off-the-rails Gettysburg address was proof that’s not true anymore.)
But it is his Twitter feed that has gotten him in the most trouble.
“People will seriously say, ‘Can’t you delete his Twitter account?'” said Conway.
“I’m not going to take away — it’s not for me to take away a grown man’s Twitter account,” she added.
The Friday that the now-infamous tape from 2005 came out of Trump describing lewd behavior, Conway publicly expressed her dismay in her own way — canceling her Sunday TV appearances. But behind the scenes she was in the thick of it helping with damage control.
“I felt like Rapunzel in the tower all weekend,” said Conway, in this scenario the tower being Trump Tower.
“I told Mr. Trump in private what I’ve also said in public or a variation thereof,” said Conway. “I found the comments to be horrible and indefensible. And he didn’t ask anybody to defend them, by the way.”
She said she did not consider quitting.
“I’m glad he apologized. I was there when he made his apology. I will tell all the people who think he was not sincere and he wasn’t truly contrite, or he wasn’t contrite enough — you’re wrong. He was. I was there,” she said. “And he’s also resolved to see this fight through. And I think the same reason he wouldn’t quit the race is the same reason I wouldn’t quit for him, and it’s very simple.”
Since then multiple women have come forward saying Trump wasn’t just engaging in locker room talk with Billy Bush on that “Access Hollywood” tape, but he actually groped them.
Does Conway believe them?
“I believe — Donald Trump has told me and his family, and the rest of America now, that none of this is true. These are lies and fabrications. They’re all made up. And I think that it’s not for me to judge what those women believe. I’ve not talked to them, I’ve talked to him,” she said.
Brought up in a house of women, now working in a man’s world
Conway was raised in Southern New Jersey by a single mom, two aunts and her grandmother — all women. As a political pollster she chose to work in what she calls a man’s world — especially as a Republican.
“Republican politics can sometimes feel like you’re walking into, you know, an Elks Club or bachelor party,” said Conway.
She recalled a potential client — a man — asking how she’d balance kids and work.
“It’s like, ‘I just hope you ask all the male consultants. Are you going to give up your weekly golf game and your mistresses?’ Because they seem really, really busy too,'” recalled Conway.
The irony of Conway running the campaign of a GOP candidate struggling with female voters is that she made a name for herself as a pollster by teaching politicians and corporate clients how to reach female voters and consumers.
“We won’t be able to in such a short amount of time be able to execute on the many ideas that we have tried, that we’ve worked so hard on over the years. Because there simply isn’t enough time,” Conway replied when asked about the disconnect between her expertise and the problems her candidate is facing with women.
Was she hired too late?
“Well it’s that the — well, it wasn’t — I wasn’t hired too late. I think that if you’re in Donald Trump’s campaign, you work for Donald Trump — every single day you wake up and you wonder, ‘What avalanche of criticism and what road blocks are going to be thrown your way that day?’ And sometimes, your best laid plans hit those road blocks and hit those avalanches.”
“And that’s OK,” added Conway, without acknowledging what many Trump sources admit privately — some of those road blocks and avalanches have been created by the candidate himself.
Unconventional candidate, unconventional campaign manager role
Though Conway is the campaign manager, an untold story is how much Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, is also running things — especially when it comes to budgeting.
He, and Brad Paracale, whose official title is digital director but has known and worked for Trump’s children, are in closest contact with the Republican National Committee. That relationship is much more important in Trump’s campaign than usual because he is relying on the RNC for grassroots get out the vote operations traditionally done by the candidate’s campaign itself.
Conway gushes when asked about Kushner’s unusually large role in the campaign, including doing jobs often done by the campaign manager.
“I’m very close to Jared. We talk many times a day. We meet many times a day,” said Conway. “He’s obviously a brilliant businessman. He helps to run his own family’s very successful business.”
Conway: Working mother
Like most working mothers, time with her kids is precious. When we visited in the early evening for our interview, Conway took time to listen to her 12-year-old-daughter, Claudia, play piano, asked her twin brother, George, about the birthday party they just returned from and laughed as her younger daughters, Charlotte and Vanessa, belted out raps from the musical Hamilton. (Conway’s husband George, a lawyer who defended Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones in the 1990s, was upstairs. She called him “too shy” for the television cameras).
These days, this scene is rare. Her mother has moved in to help the kids while Conway is what she jokingly tells her kids is her “semester abroad.”
The question is whether she’ll have more time on her hands in two weeks after Election Day.
When Trump hired her, she told him point blank that he was losing, but that he still had a pathway to win. Does she still think it is possible to win?
“It is still possible to win,” she replied.
Is it probable?
“I think that we have got a very good chance of winning,” she said in her upbeat, on message way that voters and viewers have become familiar with over the last three months. “I think that people have realized it’s very unwise to bet against Donald Trump.”