Trump Has a New Press Secretary Who Knows How to Defend Him

Kayleigh McEnany, his campaign spokeswoman, replaces Stephanie Grisham, who had the job for nine months, and will return to Melania Trump’s staff.

Kayleigh McEnany’s appointment as President Trump’s press secretary is the latest shake-up in a communications office that has seen almost constant turnover since 2017.
Credit...Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In President Trump’s early days in the White House, Kayleigh McEnany made a name for herself by defending him on CNN, a network where he has few allies. As a Trump campaign aide, she became a fixture at his political rallies. And on Tuesday, she was named White House press secretary, capping a journey toward the center of the president’s orbit.

But Ms. McEnany, 31, is not expected to significantly change her role in her new job, whose main responsibility — answering questions from press in the briefing room and communicating the president’s decisions to the public — has been long been subsumed by Mr. Trump himself. She is expected to keep defending him on television.

Her appointment, by Mr. Trump’s new chief of staff, former Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, is the latest shake-up in a communications office that has seen almost constant turnover since 2017. Ms. McEnany will replace Stephanie Grisham, a Trump loyalist who was named press secretary last summer and will return to the East Wing as chief of staff for Melania Trump, the first lady. The move was first reported by CNN.

Ms. Grisham did not hold a press briefing during her time on the job, and Ms. McEnany is not expected to — at least in the short term. Privately, few aides see the point: As Mr. Trump remade the presidency in his own image, approaching the job and making hiring decisions much as a reality television show producer would, the role of White House press secretary stopped resembling the job of administrations past.

Long gone is the idea that a single aide would be designated to spend half the day collecting information and talking points to explain the president’s decision making to the American public. The coronavirus crisis has confirmed that Mr. Trump is happy to spend hours a day doing the job himself.

The president has grown to see the daily briefings he attends with members of his coronavirus task force much in the way he does his Twitter account: as an unfiltered bullhorn to get his own version of reality across, and a way to wage battles with journalists who have questioned his accounting of the facts.

“One of the reasons I do these news conferences,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday during a two-hour briefing, is “because if I didn’t, they would believe fake news, and we can’t let them believe fake news. They see us up here. They see us with admirals. They see us with this talent.”

Ms. McEnany and the Trump campaign declined requests to comment on her new job or when she would start.

Ms. McEnany is skilled at furthering the president’s message on cable television. Soon after her graduation from Harvard Law School in 2016, she was contributing on CNN.

By summer of the next year, she was named Republican National Committee spokeswoman, and joined the Trump campaign as national press secretary in 2019. Along the way, she has been a vocal defender of Mr. Trump on television — the main role the president has long believed the press secretary should play, according to current and former advisers.

One of her assignments as press secretary, according to a person familiar with the press operation, will be to build out a rapid response team similar to what exists in the campaign, and possibly, to eventually give press briefings.

Her television outings, like others who have defended Mr. Trump, have often been at the extreme end of the administration’s talking points.

For instance, in a video of Ms. McEnany on the Fox Business show “Trish Regan Primetime” from Feb. 25, circulated by Andrew Kaczynski of CNN, the new press secretary said, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”

Since Ms. McEnany made that statement, about 400,000 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus.

She has at times trafficked in the type of “othering” of President Barack Obama that Mr. Trump once did by promoting a lie that the first black president, whose father was Kenyan, was not born in the United States. “How I Met Your Brother — Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows,” Ms. McEnany tweeted in 2012.

A West Wing office will be a change for Ms. McEnany, who recently has spent much of her time traveling to Trump rallies and interacting with supporters on the campaign trail, serving as one of the campaign’s most visible surrogates. Lately, she has been participating in online campaign events, including several scheduled throughout April.

Ms. Grisham’s experience on the Trump campaign in 2016 was as a press wrangler who quickly ascended the ranks once in the White House.

Throughout her time as press secretary, Ms. Grisham also held the role of communications director for the West Wing and for Mrs. Trump, and kept her news media appearances largely confined to Trump-friendly outlets. But she long argued that Mr. Trump’s willingness to speak to reporters in lieu of a formalized press briefing amounted to greater transparency than his predecessors.

In her return to the East Wing working for Mrs. Trump, she will replace Lindsay Reynolds, who resigned, according a statement from the first lady’s office.

Ms. Grisham was rarely on television, but she was known for aggressive exchanges defending her boss on Twitter. She also was among the few administration officials who fought for reporters to have access to high-profile events on the president’s overseas trips, once getting into a physical fight with officials in North Korea when they tried to block access to the American news media while Mr. Trump was on a trip to Asia.

But she clashed with Mr. Meadows, who targeted her as someone he wanted to replace, citing concerns voiced by others in the White House, according to administration officials

It is the first of several planned shake-ups that Mr. Meadows, who has officially been in his job for only a little over a week, plans on making.

Other changes have included the office of legislative affairs, where a deputy was recently asked to leave and where more changes are said to be likely. Mr. Meadows is said to be working closely with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who signed off on the communications office changes.

The former communications director Hope Hicks, a close adviser to Mr. Trump since the 2016 campaign, recently returned to work with Mr. Kushner, and she has been increasingly involved in messaging and press issues, particularly as the president has become more visible in responding to the coronavirus. Ms. Hicks has helped officials stress-test ideas as Mr. Kushner has assumed more responsibilities related to the response.

Also joining the White House press staff will be Alyssa Farah, a top spokeswoman at the Defense Department who once worked for Vice President Mike Pence, according to people briefed on the moves. Ms. Farah is close with Mr. Meadows, whose longtime congressional aide, Ben Williamson, will also join the communications team as an adviser.

Ms. Farah will be the director of strategic communications, and Mr. Williamson will be the senior communications adviser, officials said. Other additions are expected to a relatively small team often criticized for lack of responsiveness.

In a news release describing Ms. Grisham’s new role, Mrs. Trump said Ms. Grisham “has been a mainstay and true leader in the administration from even before day one, and I know she will excel” as chief of staff.

“Excited to be rejoining the East Wing!!” Ms. Grisham wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. She is the first departing press secretary to remain in the administration. Her predecessor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is back in Arkansas, mulling a run for public office.

Katie Rogers reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.