McEnany stamps her brand on White House press operation

President Trump’s new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, has made her presence quickly felt at the White House, reviving the press briefing and taking on an outsized role in messaging the administration’s response to the novel coronavirus in the throes of an election year.

McEnany, 32, possesses many of the qualities valued by her boss: She’s not intimidated by the media, she’s poised and good on television and she’s a vociferous defender of the Trump agenda.

The former Trump campaign spokeswoman has used her briefings — which have largely supplanted appearances of the White House coronavirus task force — to put forth a rosy narrative of the administration’s response to the pandemic amid scrutiny of missteps on testing and Trump’s own minimization of the crisis at the outset.

Her early appearances have earned her accolades from communications experts, particularly for her careful preparedness and delivery.

“I think she has been very effective,” said Tony Fratto, deputy press secretary during the George W. Bush administration. “I think she is the right person for that job for this administration. And whatever your views are on the administration and what their message is, she is very effective at that job.”

Critics have faulted McEnany for laying effusive praise on the president and offering misleading or exaggerated pronouncements.

McEnany pledged never to lie to the press during her first briefing on May 1, an assertion that was challenged by fact-checkers noting that she thereafter offered an inaccurate description of a document unsealed in former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s case and overstated aspects of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.   

“She does not see her job as the press secretary as somebody that speaks to the citizens on behalf of the country,” said Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush spokesman and outspoken critic of Trump. “She sees her job as the press secretary as a publicist for Donald Trump, the person.”

“If you go back historically and look at how other press secretaries [in previous administrations] have handled their job, this is just a massive departure from that in such a negative way,” Miller continued.

Others argue that McEnany is simply doing her job by representing the positions of her boss.

“Her job is to faithfully represent the policy positions and views of her boss,” Fratto said. “Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, she comes off to me as being faithful to that obligation that she has to her position and that’s the position of every spokesperson.”

McEnany, an ardent supporter of Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign when she frequently sparred with liberal guests on CNN, has seen her profile rise quickly in his orbit. She left her contributor role at CNN in August 2017 and became a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee and, later, a Trump campaign spokeswoman. Some credit McEnany’s skills on television in part for her swift ascent.

“The president tends to judge the communications on his behalf by what he sees in coverage in print and on the air,” said one former White House press official. “There is a certain level of appreciation for what is on camera.”

McEnany, a devout Christian who is often seen wearing a cross around her neck, is said to be very family oriented. She has one child with husband Sean Gilmartin, a daughter, Blake, who was born in November.

Tim Murtaugh, communications director of the Trump campaign who worked closely with McEnany, recalled an instance in February when McEnany brought Blake on a charter plane with dozens of campaign surrogates returning from the Iowa caucuses.

A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School who studied abroad at Oxford University, McEnany is described by those who know her as someone who is bright and prepares extensively for her television appearances and interviews.

“I would tell anybody who is an adversary that people underestimate Kayleigh McEnany at their own peril,” said Murtaugh.

Her preparation has been evident at her briefings. Pressed Tuesday about National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s remarks highlighting the dangers of reopening too quickly, McEnany insisted that Trump has encouraged states to follow the White House guidelines before pivoting to describe adverse consequences of keeping the country shut down.

She rattled off figures indicating a spike in substance abuse and mental health issues and a decrease in cancer screenings during the pandemic.   

McEnany, who did not respond to an interview request, replaced Stephanie Grisham as White House press secretary in April as part of a broader makeover of the communications team executed by Mark Meadows, Trump’s new chief of staff.

Her new role quickly ushered in criticism of her record, including a 2012 Twitter post in which she promoted a conspiracy theory questioning Obama’s birthplace by suggesting his brother lived in a “hut in Kenya” that garnered her accusations of racism.

Last week, she defended a comment she made on Fox News as a campaign spokeswoman stating that Trump “will not allow the coronavirus to come to this country,” asserting that she was speaking to the “intent” behind the president’s travel restrictions. McEnany then pointed to a number of media reports to claim that they downplayed the coronavirus threat.

At a later briefing, she blamed “naively believing” CNN headlines for her criticism of Trump’s statements as racist in 2015. 

Allies of the president see a good communicator who is not afraid to trade barbs with reporters — something Trump does on a regular basis.

“She is not afraid to throw some elbows when the time comes for it, but she’s not just throwing elbows for the sake of throwing elbows,” said Andy Surabian, Republican strategist and former White House official. 

The new press secretary has done frequent television interviews since joining the West Wing and has informally interacted with the press on the White House driveway in addition to holding formal briefings, signaling a new level of engagement with the press.

McEnany has also spent a considerable amount of time with Trump in her first month on the job. She accompanied the president on his first two major trips outside the White House since late March, the first to a mask factory in Arizona last week and the second to a medical equipment distributor in Pennsylvania on Thursday.

“I’m around the president almost the entire day,” McEnany told reporters at her first press briefing. “I think my staff can attest to the fact that they have a very hard time finding me because I’m normally with the president in the Oval Office. So, I’m consistently with him absorbing his thinking.”

To be sure, the job of press secretary under Trump is a considerably difficult one. The president often articulates policy or shifts positions with a tweet and makes false or misleading claims. Trump’s first two press secretaries, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were accused of knowingly misleading the press, and both had combative relationships with reporters. Grisham never held a briefing during her nine-month tenure.

“With Trump and some of his permanent inner circle, you can find yourself out on a limb real quick, and it ultimately makes the job very difficult to do,” said one former White House official.

The pandemic has forced the press operation to focus its energy on the coronavirus. Before departing for Allentown, Pa., on Thursday, McEnany, standing alongside Trump, defended the administration’s preparedness efforts as they came under criticism on Capitol Hill, where an ousted vaccine official, Rick Bright, testified that the administration ignored early warnings of the crisis.

“We’ll have a full update tomorrow for you guys at the briefing — line by line — of how prepared we were for this pandemic thanks to the leadership of President Trump,” McEnany told reporters.

Earlier in the day, McEnany was repeatedly questioned about Trump’s break with Fauci on reopening schools. She pushed back on the notion that Trump has disregarded science while noting that Trump consults a “number of experts” and ultimately decides on how to move forward.

“I think as a general rule with any White House the number one challenge is the things that are out of your control, and that’s a lot of things,” said the former White House press official of the press secretary’s role, noting the lagging economy and the rising unemployment rate in addition to the public health crisis.

“I think the unknowns and understanding how to deal with them is going to be a significant challenge.”

This story was updated at 7:31 p.m. to clarify McEnany’s academic career.

Tags Anthony Fauci briefing CNN Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Mark Meadows Press secretary Robert Mueller Sarah Huckabee sarah huckabee sanders Sarah Sanders Sean Spicer Stephanie Grisham White House

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