‘I Was Part of Something Unusually Evil’

In Kansas with Stephanie Grisham, who does not believe she will be redeemed.

Photo: Dina Litovsky
Photo: Dina Litovsky

Stephanie Grisham saw the pickup outside and yelped, “That’s Larry!” She grabbed a small package and raced out her front door, down the steps of the porch, through the gate of the white picket fence, and leaned halfway into the truck via the passenger window. “I wanted you to have this,” she told him, handing it over.

Larry unwrapped the paper to reveal a shimmering whiskey glass embossed in gold with the presidential seal. Grisham told him that it had been engraved with the signature of the 45th president of the United States. “It’s one of the last ones,” she said. Larry’s eyes widened beneath the brim of his TRUMP-embroidered baseball cap. He turned the glass over in his hand. “Wow,” he said. “Thank you.”

Larry — “the meat guy” — is a generous local rancher who always comes bearing gifts. It was Friday afternoon in Plainville, Kansas, and he’d stopped by with an article he thought Grisham might like to read, about the importance of honoring the troops by standing for the national anthem at football games; he’d printed it out for her. Grisham flashed an enthusiastic smile and scanned the paper. “Thank you!” she said.

As he drove off, unease crept in. Grisham’s expression turned stricken. Larry did not yet know what she was about to do or what she had already done. He did not know that he was speaking, in effect, to a Stephanie Grisham who no longer exists. “I feel like one of the most hated people in the country,” she told me. “The right hates me. They really hate me now. And the left is never going to come around. I have no illusions that people are going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’”

Grisham was worried, she said, that Larry would be “disappointed.” A few hours later, he returned with several pounds of filet mignon.

Over the last four years, Donald Trump has moonlighted as literary muse, creating an entire publishing subgenre of tell-alls from former staffers and confidantes and hangers-on inspired to wield the mighty pen directly into his back. Team of Vipers, by Cliff Sims; Unhinged, by Omarosa Manigault Newman; The Room Where it Happened, by John Bolton; Disloyal, by Michael Cohen; A Warning, by Anonymous (later revealed to be Miles Taylor); and Tower of Lies, by Barbara Res. (This is a separate category from the neutral-to-positive memoirs churned out by politicos who have worked for or advised him, a group that includes Sean Spicer, Chris Christie, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Nikki Haley, and Oval Office secretary Madeleine Westerhout.)

There have been so many tell-alls that Stephanie Grisham isn’t even the first Stephanie to write one. With the release of I’ll Take Your Questions Now on October 5, she’s the third, after Full Disclosure, by Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, and Melania and Me, by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former friend and adviser to Melania Trump. “Maybe I’ve become jaded,” one ex-senior White House official said. “But it’s like, ‘Oh, another one?’”

And yet among these authors, Grisham — the former White House press secretary and chief of staff to the First Lady — represents the most serious breach. Though her book is a more casual affair than those by Bolton and Anonymous, and less of a takedown than those by Manigault Newman and Cohen, she spent more time working in a powerful position in close contact with the president and the First Family during his term in office than anyone who has made the decision to spill their guts to date.

She discloses how, at the G20 in Osaka, the president told Vladimir Putin he would be acting “a little tougher” on him “for the cameras, and after they leave, we’ll talk.” How Fiona Hill observed that Putin brought an attractive female translator to their meeting, likely as a means to distract the president (and it worked). How the president asked her then-boyfriend how she was in bed. How he ordered her to tell a political ally in Arizona to stop wearing sleeveless clothing because he thought her arms were unsightly. How he underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia to prevent Mike Pence from being in charge for even an hour. How Jared and Ivanka were dubbed “the interns” by White House colleagues who thought they were incompetent and entitled. How the president called Grisham from his Air Force One cabin to instruct her to defend the size of his anatomy after Stormy Daniels claimed he was penilely deficient. How obsessed he was with Sunset Boulevard. And on and on and on.

A second ex–White House official said that the book had recently come up in conversations with the former president and First Lady. “I think she’s very surprised,” this person said of Melania. “Here’s the word I hear most: I don’t hear betrayal — I hear ungrateful. Those of us who worked with them both at the same time know the truth, which is that Mrs. Trump went above and beyond to help Stephanie personally and professionally.”

The ex-official emphasized the hypocrisy inherent in Grisham’s decision to scrap her allegiances only after it became safe to do so and to write about things she tried to stop the press from reporting on, which I agreed was true. (Grisham, famously, is the only White House press secretary in history to never hold a press conference.) “She was the one pushing back on all of you! You wanted to write about Melania’s feelings about Stormy Daniels three years ago,” the ex-official said, referring to a profile of the First Lady that I spent months reporting but never published, “and she was the one trying to prevent all of that, and now she’s putting it in her own book.” In I’ll Take Your Questions Now, Grisham describes how Melania was “unleashed” by her anger over the public disclosure of her husband’s affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and how nearly every move the First Lady made was a passive-aggressive response directed at him. At the time, Grisham had denied it.

In the weeks leading up to publication day, MAGA forces have mobilized to discredit Grisham. Someone leaked her text messages. The Daily Mail published invasive photos of her lying on the carpet of the White House on Election Night, with anonymous sources implying she was intoxicated or somehow spinning out of control. (Grisham said she had sat down to remove her heels and rest.) Statements by Donald and Melania Trump and a whisper campaign from their allies make Grisham out to be like a crazy ex-girlfriend who never had any power to begin with. Even by the standards of Trumpian responses to critical books, it’s been vicious. Grisham told me she expected it.

“I was weighing the fact that I myself had said so many nasty things about people who had written books. I was weighing my own loyalty, because even though I resigned, I still am to this day —” she hesitated. “I feel guilty,” she said, “because I was so entrenched with them. They were a huge part of my life for a really long time, and I gave up a lot to work for both of them, and I really believed in them, and I don’t think you just shut all that off overnight. I’m not a cyborg.”

Still, she swears that turning on the Trumps was never her plan. She didn’t keep a diary during the 2016 campaign or the four years she worked in the White House. She didn’t take contemporaneous notes. She didn’t save troves of documents or download an archive of her official communications before she resigned on January 6, during the insurrection at the Capitol. She had not been preparing, in other words, to become a MAGA defector. She once hated those people. She helped the White House draft statements attacking those people. She worked to discredit those people. She thought she was better than those people.

“Stephanie Winston Wolkoff — when her book came out, I was disgusted,” she told me. “I remember saying to Mrs. Trump how I would never do that.”

Plainville is a town of fewer than 2,000 people in northwestern Kansas, hundreds of miles in any direction to the nearest city of moderate size and a three-day drive across the Midwest to Washington, D.C. Sometimes, if she was in a hurry, Grisham made it in just two.

For much of the final year of the Trump administration, Grisham commuted 1,337 miles the way other people travel from Montclair, New Jersey, to midtown, from the center of the mayhem engulfing the doomed president to the calm of this remote expanse of the Great Plains. She did so in secret, with Benjamin and Eleanore, her French bulldogs, on her lap, while maintaining her top-tier positions and $183,000 salary.

Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins

In I’ll Take Your Questions Now, she writes in detail about the demise of her relationship with a colleague, but she does not identify her ex, whom she accuses of infidelity and physical abuse, by name. (The ex, Max Miller, is now running for Congress in Ohio with an endorsement from the president and dozens of White House and Trump-campaign veterans, some of whom Grisham considered friends not long ago. Miller’s lawyer recently told Politico: “Mr. Miller has never, ever assaulted Ms. Grisham in any way whatsoever.”) After the traumatic breakup, she bought a house in Plainville across the street from her sister, Heather, a nurse, and her nephews. The place was falling apart, and as the coronavirus tore through the country and the highest levels of the government, and the economy teetered on the edge of collapse, and Trump campaigned his way to a loss, Grisham busied herself with home-improvement projects, which quieted her mind.

She learned how to sand floors and wire lights and tame backyard snakes. She built a chicken coop and rescued chicks from the grim fates of a farm-supply store. She named each one for an East Wing staffer: Annie, James, Emma, and Baxter the rooster. She built the birds an elaborate herb garden and vowed never to harm them. She brings their eggs to her new neighbors. She loves her life here, she said, but she could not find peace in silence. “It sounds stupid, because I saw this happen for four years, I guess,” she said. “But this was different.”

It was Friday, and we’d been on her back porch for a few hours, talking about January 6 and the decision she’d made — and how she’d ended up in a position to make it in the first place. She was anxious. It was difficult to provide answers that satisfied every inevitable question, not because she didn’t know what the answers were but because the answers sometimes defied understanding — mostly, I think, because they weren’t excuses. Often, she would respond by shrugging and shaking her head and saying, “I know, it was fucked up” or “I know, it was selfish of me.”

As I read Grisham’s book, I kept thinking that it felt, in some ways, like the story of the Trump presidency was less about one demagogue than it was about the everyday choices of the smaller people working at the levels below policy-making, and how run-of-the-mill self-centeredness and expediency, when practiced by dozens or hundreds of people in an organization, amounts to the system that allows evil. The Trump administration was not possible because of Trump and his brain trust, as it were. It was possible because of the people like Grisham who let them, in minor and individual ways, function.

When he first started, I loved the stuff he said,” Grisham said. “I loved that he wasn’t worried about talking points. He just said what was on his mind. The way I saw people react made me excited. Like, The Republican Party can be exciting again, and we can have this new, fresh way of doing things. Maybe it won’t be all these old white men telling women what to do with their bodies.

I laughed. This was a president who put, maybe, a sixth vote to overturn Roe on the bench. “It can be a new white man with a fake tan?” I asked.

“Well, I know,” she said. “But at least he was refreshing. And behind the scenes, the man can be charming, he can be funny.”

Grisham was a John F. Kennedy superfan as a child, she said, and loved sparring with her grandfather, who had worked for Ronald Reagan. She was the kind of kid who liked C-SPAN and, later, The West Wing. But by her early 20s, she had married a local news anchor and given birth to her first son. And by the time she was working on a presidential campaign, as an assistant press aide for Mitt Romney in 2012, she was 36. She returned to a job with the Arizona attorney general after that. She didn’t believe she’d make it to the White House, but she kept a framed photo of it on her desk.

It was a friend from the Romney team who called her in the summer of 2015, a few weeks after Donald Trump rode an escalator to the atrium of Trump Tower to announce he was running, to ask if she would assist with staging and logistics — what’s known in politics as “advance” — at a rally in Phoenix. She’d advanced a few events already for another Republican candidate, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and she was a huge fan of Celebrity Apprentice. She said yes.

By the time Trump became the Republican nominee, she said, “you’re in it, and you’ve been on this journey for a year with the same people, and, yes, a bunker mentality has set in. For people like me — and I’m not proud of this — you have a sick sense of pride. All the people who told you how terrible he was? You’re like, Oh? He’s the nominee, buddy! I’m not proud of that. And then he wins, and you get into the White House, and you’re in the White House.” She raised her eyebrows in an expression of awe. “I thought that they were the only ones who would ever get me there,” she said. “My lack of confidence in myself as a single mother and someone who has made mistakes in my past, I thought, Well, this is my only shot. Nobody’s gonna ever want me, really, but these people did. So I’ll stick around.

Being inside the White House, she said, brought out the worst in her. “You’re catered to and you do feel important and you do become power hungry. If people say they don’t love the powerful feeling in there, they’re lying. It’s kind of gross. I’m not saying something nice about myself right now. I was so proud that I was surviving over everyone else, and I had such a complex that I hadn’t been let into the inner circle in the beginning, so once I was there, I took a lot of joy out of it. You get into this bubble of behavior and you lose track of the outside world. You lose track of real life.”

One of the former senior White House officials I spoke to about Grisham described the career options that typically await an ex-presidential aide as “formulaic.” This person said, “They have these lucrative jobs in lobbying, or big corporate jobs; they write a memoir-type book — typically not a takedown, but more These are my experiences and I was privileged to have them.’ They get a contributorship, they have some board seats, they get a position at a think tank. There’s a universe of opportunities that exist. For most people leaving the Trump White House, especially post–January 6th, that lane is very narrow and those opportunities don’t really exist.”

In any era, the arenas of politics and media are not full of generally earnest people who do things for the greater good. This was especially true of the period when Trump assumed power, and it’s difficult to assess I’ll Take Your Questions Now without suspending some cynical critical faculties. “If you’re really trying to absolve yourself of your immoral culpability in something, I don’t think people would view a public smearing of others as a crucial step in that process,” the ex-official said. “Is taking this check now going to be worth more than whatever opportunities might exist? I don’t understand how that calculation falls on the side of favoring a book like this. It doesn’t ever work out well for the person who authors the book. They get used by the cable-news circuit for a period of time and then they get cast aside.”

By this logic, Grisham’s book doesn’t make “strategic” sense, according to the ex-official, and the story she tells about how she soured on the Trumps doesn’t make much sense either. Trump is Trump and has always been Trump and always will be Trump. “There’s nothing that you know about him now that you didn’t know when he ran less than a year ago,” the ex-official said. In fairness, this person said, it was not hard to understand how anyone exiting Trumpworld could be uncertain and confused. “If the calculation doesn’t add up, maybe there isn’t one. Maybe this is a very raw, I don’t know what the fuck to do decision. I hope this brings her closer to whatever it is she’s looking for. A lot of us feel very lost after this experience because of the tumult and the upheaval and the way it ended.”

Back on the afternoon of January 6, Grisham told me that she had resigned but that she didn’t want to publicly announce it. “Not today. A woman died,” she said. (The death toll would eventually amount to nine, including the suicides of four Capitol police officers.) “I’ll ensure people know when it happened — I have time stamps — but today feels cheap.”

I told Grisham I thought she was mistaken, and I made my case for why she should let me, or someone else, break the news. “For whatever my opinion is worth,” I said, “there’s a tendency among staff to think that their actions could only matter in terms of how it looks for them on a cynical, personal level.” I told her that I wasn’t trying to lecture. “But I hope you think over the fact that, if any senior staff leaves today, and it is known, it truly will have ripple effects for the next 14 days. It might compel someone else to do the right thing. It might compel someone else to be tougher on him privately. Who knows.” Grisham leaked the news of her resignation to CNN that evening. “I swear,” she told me at the time, “you really made me think.”

Whether or not that was the case, it was true that Grisham had been persuadable. Now, she told me in Plainville, she’s hoping there exist others like her and that she can convince them it’s not too late to change their minds before the next election, when she believes Trump will seek the presidency again. “If I was going to write the book, I wanted to be really honest and not make myself out to be some hero. I hate when people do that,” she said. “Even if you hate me, I hope some of the things in my book make you rethink 2024. If he runs and wins, he won’t have to worry about reelection this time and he can do whatever he wants. That’s scary.”

That’s the justification in the public interest. In the private interest, Grisham said, there were the matters of profit, of reputation, and of revenge. “I thought, I’m going to tell people what he’s really like and get my story out, and in the meantime, selfishly, at the end, a lot of bad things happened to me and I wanted to get that out, too. My children, my nephews, my family will read stories about me, and I want to chronicle what really happened. That’s the selfish piece.”

Early Saturday morning, Grisham and her sister brought me to the Hays Regional Airport, where we boarded a flight to Denver. From there, they were off to La Guardia and more media interviews. “I don’t think I can rebrand. I think this will follow me forever,” Grisham said. “I believe that I was part of something unusually evil, and I hope that it was a one-time lesson for our country and that I can be a part of making sure that at least that evil doesn’t come back now.” For the next week, Grisham would be explaining and apologizing and seeking understanding. But she wasn’t asking for redemption.

‘I Was Part of Something Unusually Evil’