vision 2020

The Unburdened Believer

Donald Trump and Hogan Gidley. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

On the morning of May 19, Larry Kudlow was booked as a guest on the Fox Business channel. This in itself wasn’t unusual. As the National Economic Council director, the former CNBC host is a natural show pony in the stable of officials whose duties entail regular appearances on cable TV to sell President Donald Trump’s ideas and defend or explain away his statements to the ever-shrinking numbers of persuadable Americans.

Tricky business no matter how slick a communicator you are, but easier to pull off when, at the very least, you maintain an inventory of Important Things the President Has Recently Said That Directly Pertain to Your Specific Area of Governmental Policy. Yet even as Kudlow tries to keep up, as everyone does, it’s not unusual for him to miss something. On this particular spring day, he’d missed something major.

“The president had tweeted the night before on China,” Kudlow told New York, a pang of regret in his voice. “And he tweeted a fairly long speech and it was about—” He paused. Actually, he still wasn’t sure what it was about. “It might’ve been an executive order,” he said. “We didn’t know about it. And we didn’t know it was being released the night before.”

By 8:30 the next morning, amid a pandemic that had caused immediate economic peril and long-term economic uncertainty globally, the White House’s chief economic adviser was 15 minutes away from appearing live on national television, unaware of a threatened change in official U.S. policy regarding the world’s other great economic superpower. (After much back and forth with the White House, New York determined that the news Kudlow couldn’t remember not knowing about was the president’s letter threatening to halt funding to the World Health Organization due to its “alarming lack of independence” from China and to “reconsider” the country’s membership in the organization.)

This would never have happened “in a normal White House,” said Gene Sperling, the NEC director for presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “A new policy development would have gone through a rigorous deputies level and principals policy process,” he said. There would’ve been meetings with the president to work out the particulars. Then meetings to sort out the delicate task of how to announce it. “The NEC director is supposed to coordinate a rigorous process by which new policy decisions are made, not learn of them by a haphazard tweet the next morning,” Sperling said.

But this presidency is showbiz, baby! And nothing is “normal” anymore, which means not only are you unlikely to be in the loop on policy decision-making — you’re not even likely to locate the loop. Fortunately for Kudlow, he had on his side one of the few political professionals in the administration with any recollection of what normal once sort of was: “Hogie,” his nickname for an oft-nicknamed deputy White House press secretary literally named Hogan Gidley. (He’s also referred to as “Miss America,” “Tidley,” and “Tids,” but more on that below.)

“He knew I hadn’t seen it,” Kudlow said. “So he filled me in on it. And, sure enough, I got a question on it, and he saved me.”

The next time the president introduces news that could alter the country’s economic relationship with another country on a whim at 11 at night without telling his economic-policy adviser, Kudlow will be on his own. On July 1, Gidley left the West Wing for the bleaker pasture of a glass office building across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, which contains the Trump 2020 headquarters. Brad Parscale, the campaign manager, offered him the job in May, according to an official with knowledge of the situation, and the president loved the idea. This came after the previous campaign spokesperson was moved to the White House — meaning someone was moved in so that someone else could be moved out, a series of decisions that seemed to confuse most officials I spoke to. But it isn’t confusing to Trump, whose primary concern is that he has a “fighter” on television representing him and his campaign, which is exactly what he thinks Gidley is.

Four months from Election Day, the campaign is failing to weather the storms the president brought to ground. Trump is sinking in the national polls, an average of ten percentage points behind the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. At this same time in the last election, Hillary Clinton led Trump by the much less decisive average of three percentage points. Biden has maintained a more stable advantage, even as he has suffered an attention deficit from the media — or perhaps because of it — as the pandemic confined his campaign largely to online streaming events and sporadic appearances on national television.

Trump’s central case for reelection — the strong economy — has evaporated faster than the tear gas the administration sprayed on peaceful demonstrators outside the White House in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 130,000 Americans and counting, and the shutdowns have left millions out of work. Trump publicly worked through his grief in phases: denial, semi-acceptance, promotion of bad medical advice, denial once again, then promotion of overly rosy recovery projections. Meanwhile, he has responded to the nationwide civil unrest that erupted after Floyd’s killing by circulating far-right conspiracies, calling for more violence, defending iconic losers of the Confederacy, sharing a video in which one of his supporters shouted “White power!,” and attempting halfheartedly to cast Biden as a far-left extremist.

Trump has struggled to offer his campaign a message behind which to organize. For Trump, this would never mean formulating a case to prove that voters are better off now than they were four years ago or something similarly normal. It would mean coming up with an effective way to bully his opponent. In the 2016 Republican primary, this meant Lyin’ Ted and Little Marco and Low Energy Jeb(!). In the general, it meant Crooked Hillary and the Fake News media vs. the Deplorables. In 2020, “Sleepy Joe” hasn’t quite caught on. Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who now hosts some kind of low-rent faux Fox News program on a D-list far-right cable channel, recently talked about this with Dick Morris. The issue with Trump’s “sleepy” message is that sleepy might sound pretty appealing to some voters right now, fatigued by the chaos of the Trump years. On Fox News, Ari Fleischer, a White House spokesman under George W. Bush, and Matt Schlapp, a Trump-campaign surrogate, had a conversation about the issue, too. They agreed that “sleepy” wasn’t working, that the president needed to go back to the drawing board and focus on something else. Kellyanne Conway has suggested that the campaign’s focus on Biden as senile and losing it might put off older voters. These allies of the president are offering campaign-strategy notes in public, on television, because that’s how you get through to him.

And so in walks Hogan Gidley, the new spokesman for the reelection effort — a job that recently belonged to Kayleigh McEnany, who in April became Gidley’s boss when she was named White House press secretary. In a normal White House, the position would’ve gone to Gidley. The ambition of any deputy, after all, is to replace the principal under which the deputy serves. Gidley has served under three press secretaries: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and now McEnany. (So much for the patriarchy!)

Gidley, now 43, arrived at the White House as a supporting character in the volatile second season. A onetime broadcast-journalism major at Ole Miss and a student of political media, he ended up reporting on Mike Huckabee for a TV station in Little Rock, Arkansas, before defecting to the dark side to join the then-governor’s staff. “He’s got professional integrity. He will never do something that is wrong or immoral,” Huckabee told New York. “But, at the same time, he’s a person that, if he takes a check from someone in a job, he’s gonna be loyal to that person.” In the next breath, Huckabee addressed the question that hangs over any human shield for this president. “If it ever gets to where he can’t, then maybe he’ll find something else. But he’s not gonna go out and burn his bridges.”

When Mike’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, replaced Sean Spicer as press secretary, she brought along her “big brother” Hogan as a special assistant to the president. In the very West Wing that inspired a tell-all book called Team of Vipers, he’s distinguished himself as “a golden retriever,” “a great teammate,” and “a really sweet person,” in terms that were repeated by more than half a dozen current and former White House staffers who spoke to New York. Across the board, but never on the record, Gidley’s colleagues described him as a nonthreatening force for good, for making things run a tiny bit smoother in what can charitably be described as the very definition of a hostile work environment — a happy-to-be-here functionary who keeps things light and in perspective. However, these qualities can sometimes read more like haplessness than virtue.

It’s not uncommon for officials in this White House to misdirect, stonewall, or outright lie to members of the press. But more often, Gidley — who speaks to the president half a dozen times a day and hosts his closest advisers, including his daughter and son-in-law, at his home for cocktails — seems to be genuinely unaware of what’s happening around him. Reporters tell of how he makes morning visits to the cramped office space beneath the briefing room to ask what’s being worked on, what staffers need, then never follows up. “I do get the sense that the White House comms shop is not always clued in on things efficiently,” one White House reporter told New York, “so sometimes I am the one informing people in the White House — and not just the people in the comms shop — what is actually happening.” Once, in his office, Gidley was talking to me while distracted by the emails accumulating before him on his desktop computer. He leaned in closer to the screen and squinted, a look of confusion on his face. “Now why would anybody be asking us about Elon Musk?” he said. I told him that Musk had been a member of the president’s business-advisory council. It had ended poorly and very publicly. “Oooohhh. Right, right,” he said, nodding.

He wasn’t embarrassed. Or, if he was, he didn’t show it. This lack of defensiveness or suppression of ego — at least compared to everyone else in the building — explains why he’s still there. While those around him have spent their White House careers elbowing and backstabbing for proximity to the president, or just strategically leaking in order to create the perception of proximity, Gidley has survived longer than most by making friends instead of destroying enemies and performing with what might ordinarily be considered bare-minimum competence. “Where I work, people tend to accumulate and retain and sometimes hide information,” one senior White House official said, describing the attitude as one of, “‘If I know something you don’t, then that’s good.’” The official added, “I always find Hogan is not that way. He shares.”

“In some ways he’s a killer, but he’s not a viper,” one senior administration official said. “You have certain people who you don’t want to have in meetings because then things end up in the press. Hogan’s definitely somebody who people trust. He’s in the inner circle … He understands the president, he’s not trying to change the president.” The official added that, over these last four years, “the president has become more aware of who in rooms you want to talk in front of and who you don’t.” It’s been a process for Trump to “learn the game,” and insofar as he has, “he’s very comfortable with Hogan.”

But to what end? The ultimate political communications perch is the podium in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Unless you’re a true believer, getting there is the whole point. “He’s been screwed over twice for press secretary,” the senior White House official told New York. “He’s been promised the job two times now, and it’s really unfair to him. He would’ve been great.”

McEnany’s appointment came amid broader changes to the West Wing, and specifically to the communications shop, implemented by Trump’s fourth chief of staff, former North Carolina representative Mark Meadows. After more than a year with no daily White House press briefing, Meadows brought the practice back (although it’s still not daily; it’s more like a few times a week). His goal has been less about taming the president, as former chiefs of staff have tried and failed to do, and more about making this White House operate as a normal White House might — or at least creating that impression. “Some executives see policy as the top thing and communications as a secondary thing,” a second senior White House official said. “Like the president, Meadows sees communications as the top thing in any administration.” If you can believe it, this remark was not intended as criticism.

It may not matter who the face of the campaign is, since the president will overtake and overshadow any hired messaging guns. But if it does, Gidley is an interesting choice.

His idiosyncrasies are the stuff of legend and comic relief among the West Wing staff and the Washington press corps. He is part Southern Gentleman, part slapstick bro, all in on the joke. He rises at 4:50 a.m. to work out and maintains a meticulous diet in which his every bite (small meals every two hours) and sip (he takes his coffee black or with nonfat milk, always with one Equal, and his Muscle Milk chilled in his mini-fridge) are studiously accounted for, resulting in a muscular figure so unusually, invertedly pyramidal that he has to have his shirts custom-made. On uncovered rooftop surfaces throughout the nation’s capital and the parts of the world traversed by Air Force One, he has been known to perfect his bronzed complexion. Once, on a presidential visit to France, a tourist happened upon a sunbathing Gidley and told him he knew his brother. Gidley, confused, said he didn’t have a brother. But another White House official, sensing that Gidley was about to be savagely owned, asked the man to continue. “Who’s his brother?” She said. The tourist replied: “David Hasselhoff!”

And the custom shirts are only the beginning. At any given moment, Gidley, whose mother taught him how to dress well and whose late father taught him calligraphy, may be wearing up to four different items of clothing and accessories that are individually monogrammed, in navy-blue block lettering when appropriate, with JHG (John Hogan Gidley): stitched into the left-hand side of the belly of his shirts, etched onto his Tiffany’s tie bar and his silver belt buckle, and branded on the buckle of his Colonel Littleton leather satchel. His office is a green room, the desk cluttered with cans of hair spray and compacts of face powder and a coat rack draped in Burberry trench coats and Ralph Lauren blazers tailored so precisely to his frame that, when he struts down the White House driveway to appear on TV in the area known as “the Sticks” (for the plywood fencing that surrounds it) or “Pebble Beach” (for the bed of gravel on which it stands), he looks like he’s in a movie about Washington instead of actual Washington, a place where, famously, nobody knows how to dress.

While crisscrossing the country on the campaign trail, Gidley has seen his expansive wardrobe become a running joke for Huckabee. Instead of stuffing his clothes in a carry-on like a typically rumpled political operative, Gidley would carefully pack two large suitcases. “We used to say, ‘Hogan, checking a bag means we gotta wait for you to get your stupid bag. Why don’t you just do a carry-on?’ Of course, that wouldn’t work, because he couldn’t carry all the pairs of shoes he needed, and his jackets and shirts, and all the things he needed to make sure he was well-coordinated,” Huckabee said, laughing. “We called him ‘Miss America,’ because only Miss America travels with this much luggage for a short trip.”

Gidley’s other nickname, Tidley — and the nickname for that nickname, Tids — was unknowingly bestowed upon him by the president. In a meeting, the president announced to staff that someone named Tidley had been doing a great job for him on television lately. Nobody knew what the president was talking about. Who was Tidley? “Tidley!” Trump said, emphatically, explaining that he’d just been on Fox News. He said Tidley was “Sarah’s guy,” prompting Sanders to be called into the room, where she positively identified Tidley for the president.

I never got beneath the pocket square,” said Tim Miller, who came up in Republican politics at the same time as Gidley.

The two men aren’t close and never were, but the divergent paths they’ve taken after existing for the early part of their careers in the same universe highlight how American politics and conservatism have transformed in the Trump era. Miller worked for Establishment conservatives like Jeb Bush and was essentially exiled from the Republican Party after Trump’s 2016 election; he moved to California and joined Crooked Media, the podcasting collective of the #resistance, and now works for the Bulwark, the intellectual home of the Never Trump movement. Gidley worked for more fringe, often very religious, candidates like Rick Santorum, and he never ended up on the campaign of his party’s nominee. A lifelong Republican, Gidley believes, as many Christians do, that God uses imperfect people to carry out his will. He often points out that the Bible is not full of Jesuses, after all. In 2012, instead of “jumping on with Mitt to be a mid-level person,” as Miller put it, Gidley went to a consulting firm and often appeared on cable to take shots at Romney.

“His M.O. was going to second-tier or third-tier conservative candidates where he could be the guy, could be on a path to a TV career. There’s a brand of spokesperson that wants to do the Fox News hits, wants to be visible, wants to be photographed with the candidate. That was him,” Miller said.

About this, Gidley has historically been unusually transparent. “The reason I left TV is because I wanted to go into politics and get back into TV, because I thought, instead of going market to market to market, I could jump out and do politics and then have more knowledge of what I wanted to cover, which was politics,” he told GQ in 2012. “And the reason I did it was Chris Matthews. The reason I got out of TV to get into politics was because I knew Chris Matthews had worked for Tip O’Neill and he was — and now I was a Republican — but he was can’t-miss TV. Now this was pre-leg thrill, this was pre-thrill leg here, but he was can’t-miss for me.”

Heard Galis has been one of Gidley’s best friends since they met freshman year at Ole Miss. Like his anonymous White House colleagues, Galis had a lot to say about Gidley’s sunny disposition and adaptability. You can bring the guy anywhere and he’ll make friends, according to the people who consider him a friend. Although it didn’t sound like Galis is what you’d call a big fan of the president, he saw Gidley’s decision to work for him as a logical and not at all objectionable career move. “I mean, are you always gonna agree with everything your boss says?” Galis said. “No, I don’t think anybody ever does. But what a great opportunity for Hogan to showcase his gifts and his talent and help an administration be better, I think, than it would be without him on the team.” Galis emphasized how much he admired Gidley for creating his great opportunities in life for himself. Gidley’s parents divorced when he was young, and he was raised mostly by his mom, who worked as an accessories buyer in Tyler, Texas, and later as a public-school teacher, earning $18,000 a year. “It’s neat to see where he is and understand he’s gotten there because of his own efforts. There’s all kinds of things I can point to in my life that were maybe because of who I know, not what I knew, and I think Hogan is maybe a little bit different in that, if he knew someone, it was because he did a good job at something and they recognized him.”

If you can accept that Trump’s rise has done anything positive to our politics, it may be that it’s revealed the indecency of conventions we would’ve otherwise left unexamined. Did it always suggest rot when reporters toasted with the people they cover at a White House Christmas Party, or is that only the case now? To pose for group photos with the officials whose edict is to control which truths they obtain? To host cocktail parties to celebrate outgoing White House staffers? (I’m at an advantage when I think about these questions, having arrived to Washington too late to have taken part in the rituals of this weird place in the time of a “normal” administration.) On the other side, two presidential elections ago, Gidley’s tactical approach to a political media career was just shrewd, and it was nothing we hadn’t seen before. The revolving door is never idle in or immediately after any administration, from George Stephanopoulos to Dana Perino.

“On its face, wanting to be a spokesperson who just wants to be on TV is not inherently bad,” Miller said. “It says something about a person, sure — but that could be said about people across the ideological spectrum, it could be said about journalists, it could be said about me. But when it’s done in service of somebody who has no redeemable value and is a grave threat to the nation, all of a sudden it starts to seem pretty gross.”

In some ways, Gidley is an oddly traditional operative compared to some others who’ve represented this administration. He’s even traditional compared to McEnany, whose experience was limited primarily to cable TV before her gig on the campaign. Gidley has engaged in retail politics. He’s taken part in our elections before. He considers it an honor to work for the president. He does as he’s told. He’s not (yet) personally controversial. He’s going to try, in his way, to make the campaign messaging go, as he sees it, slightly smoother. Is the president sending his best? Does he hire only the best people? Or is this really a meaningless staffing decision that will have no impact on a campaign that seems doomed to fail? Probably that last one.

Okay, okay, but one more classic Hogan story from Mike Huckabee. “We were at this little county fair in Iowa during the campaign,” Huckabee said, “And Chip Saltzman, one of our campaign consultants—a close friend and a great guy—knew Hogan had this aversion to eating anything that wasn’t healthy. Hogan is, like, a health nut. Hogan is not one that goes to the county fair to eat junk food. So Chip offered to pay him $100 if he would eat a corn dog. And Hogan had to think about it!” He laughed. “We were all saying, ‘Hogan, you’re an idiot. You’re gonna get a 100 bucks for eating a corn dog. It’s not gonna kill you. In fact, you might even like the darn thing!’ For $100! You know, I’d probably eat a stick for $100 if you asked!” After significant deliberation, he finally ate the corn dog. “We still to this day give him a hard time about being the only person we know who had to be paid $100 to eat a corn dog at the county fair in Iowa.”

With this in mind, I asked Gidley if he had to think about it at all before he agreed to work for Trump.

“The answer is no,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct the following errors. Gidley’s mother made $18,000 a year while working as a teacher, not an accessories buyer. And Gidley’s leather accessory was initially described as a duffel bag, when it is in fact a satchel briefcase.

The Unburdened Believer