Hope Hicks was celebrating a family wedding at a Bermuda golf club the weekend after Donald Trump was elected president when she overheard members of another party expressing dismay about his victory.
The young press secretary was off duty, but she couldn’t help inserting herself into the conversation at the next table. “I promise, he’s a good person!” Hicks chimed in, begging them not to worry, according to multiple people who witnessed the exchange.
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Hicks’ instinctual defense of the president is emblematic of how she views her role in the White House: as someone who deeply understands Trump, but also understands why, in her mind, people misunderstand him. The polite, soft-spoken 28-year-old newbie to Washington politics holds the lofty title of director of strategic communications, pulls down the top White House salary of $179,700 – the same as strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus – but operates outside of any organizational chart.
She is protected, in a world of rival power centers, by the deep bond she shares with the man at the top. He affectionately refers to her as “Hopester.” She still calls him “Mr. Trump.” And she views her job, ultimately, as someone who is installed where she is in order to help, but not change, the leader of the free world.
But an explosive Trump interview this week with the New York Times, in which Hicks was the only aide in the Oval Office with the president, has thrust her protected and preferred under-the-radar status into fuller view. In the interview, Trump expressed regret and anger over his hiring Attorney General Jeff Sessions in light of his recusal from the Russia investigation, and then left open the possibility of firing special counsel Robert Mueller—all risky statements, given the legal scrutiny he, his family, and his associates face.
Hicks’ sole presence in the office has raised questions about whether she’s helping Trump advance his stated America First agenda – or whether she is simply enabling a president with self-destructive tendencies to hobble the entire administration, and, ultimately, himself.
In the chaotic West Wing, rattled again on Friday by the surprise resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer, Hicks has been a stable, consistent presence at Trump’s side – her loyalty never in question, her status in the president’s inner circle never in jeopardy, her back never being stabbed by colleagues in the snakepit work environment. One person described Hicks, who worked for the Trump Organization before joining the campaign at its start, as a “souvenir from Trump Tower,” i.e. someone who has made the journey with the president from his old life, with whom he can wax nostalgic about the good old days in New York.
She also may be one of the only long-term survivors of a complete overhaul of the White House communications department. “Dan [Scavino] and Hope Hicks are staying,” incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci said at his first press briefing on Friday. “As it relates to the other people in the comms shop, I’ve got to get to know them.”
But her front row role in the New York Times interview had Washington veterans raising their eyebrows about whether anyone in Trump’s orbit can rein him in.
“What’s amazing to me is that Hope sat there and let it happen,” said one former top GOP Hill aide. “I have a very different construct on what it means to staff people. You exist because your job is largely to improve otherwise difficult situations. The fact that people around him are not trying to protect the president blows my mind at this level of politics.”
People familiar with the interview said Hicks, whose own comments during the session were off the record, did try to intervene on multiple occasions, reminding the president that he did not have to answer every question on the record. But Trump, who thrives off the easy back and forth with reporters he has been engaging in for decades, ultimately overruled her and wanted to charge on.
Some said Hicks isn’t to blame for acting like a gatekeeper who lets the fox into the hen house – they see her as part of a larger problem plaguing the Trump administration, where no staffer can control the president’s most self-damaging impulses, and there is no larger communications strategy beyond indulging the president in the instant gratification he enjoys from making news.
“He doesn’t have many people seasoned in governing around him, people who are able to give him the candid advice based on the experience of working in government who can help guide him to avoid pitfalls,” said Scott McClellan, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush.
Hicks, however, is different from his other aides. She stays off television, which has given her some cover and credibility with the media: she has never lied, on the record, in service of the president. She declined to comment for this story, and turns down most media requests that come her way, because she prefers to serve the president without a spotlight shining on her.
In a White House staffed with aides pushing their competing personal agendas, Hicks stands apart as a loyalist who is there solely because of her commitment to Trump and his family, who isn’t eyeing the next job up the food chain. She is sometimes treated like an extended family member of the close-knit clan. She has joined Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump for Shabbat dinner at their Kalorama mansion, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Trump family during an audience earlier this year in Rome with the pope, along with other inner circle aides.
Internally, she has joked that her title is not about strategically communicating with the press – it’s about strategically communicating with the president. She knows that telling Trump what not to say, ahead of an interview, is a losing proposition. She has accepted that he will say things that people find shocking, or upsetting – but she long ago made the decision that she deeply believes in Trump as a leader, and that she wasn’t going to change or judge a 70-year-old man whose career highs have been based on trusting his own instincts.
When it comes to indulging his desire to speak on the record to the New York Times, insiders said, she also understands the important place the respected hometown broadsheet holds in his Queens-bred psyche.
To colleagues and reporters, she often expresses frustration at why the president is often described as angry or fuming when she views the man she works for as generally charming, supportive and friendly.
Hicks, a Greenwich, Connecticut, native and onetime teen model who rose through the ranks of the Trump Organization, has also become more solitary and protective of herself as her power in the White House has grown. Friends said she rarely ventures out socially in Washington because her close relationship with the president makes her feel like a target. She is not on Twitter, and her Instagram account – where she is followed by Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Jr. and the president himself – is set to private.
Colleagues described Hicks as someone who communicates with Trump in a similar way to his daughter Ivanka – she can express her disagreements to the president privately, but ultimately supports his decisions unquestioningly.
Internally, she has become something of a Trump whisperer – other aides rely on Hicks’ judgement to gauge when is a good time to speak to the president. “She can help give readouts on conversations the president has had with legislators,” said Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs. “If there’s something that’s happening in urgent fashion, she’s able to convey that information quickly to the president and get back with the answer that we need.”
He added that the “continuity” she represents is an important ingredient in a White House filled with newcomers to the Trump Train.
It’s become self-evident, six months into Trump’s first term, that no single person can change Trump’s style of communication. First Lady Melania Trump’s presence in the White House has done little to stem the flow of outrageous Tweets, and his communications team has fallen apart in because the president, ultimately, acts as his own press secretary. But Hicks’ management of the president – knowing what battles not to fight, and pushing no outside agenda of her own – might make her the last aide standing, even if it’s a break from how people in her position have acted in the past.
In the pre-Trump world order, an interview with the president of the United States was used by the administration as a cherry topper to sell a policy proposal the White House sought to highlight. In his final interview with the New York Times, for instance, President Barack Obama was interviewed in Hawaii and then in Midway Atol about climate change in order to land a front page story about his legacy on the issue.
“Every time a president talks to the press, it should be part of a coordinated communications effort to promote what the president is doing,” said Ari Fleischer, another former press secretary to George W. Bush.
Not so in Trumpworld, where reporters are often invited into the Oval Office by Hicks with no warning, for free-wheeling conversations that read like venting sessions and do little to further any policy agenda being pushed by the White House. “Coordinating interviews with him – that’s all her,” said one White House official.
From her perch near the Oval Office, Hicks has become part of Trump’s shrinking circle of trust, overseeing more of the president’s response to damaging stories as he has lost faith in the rest of his communications team.
In May, for instance, the Times reported that Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to shut down his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Spicer wasn’t involved in the response and only learned of the story’s publication minutes before it landed, White House sources said. Instead, it was Hicks shuttling in and out of the Oval Office, working on a response with the president.
Some Trump critics are sympathetic to Hicks’ task of managing an uncontrollable personality. “She’s doing an excellent job with the worst client in the history of the world,” said Stu Loeser, former press secretary to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “There isn’t a permanent solution to him calming down.”
Loeser credited Hicks with channeling Trump’s comments on the ongoing Russia investigation to the Times, rather than waiting for him to spout off on Twitter. “Not threatening the Justice Department and independent counsel is not one of the options that faces her,” Loeser said. “She arranged for him to say what he is inevitably going to say in the most dignified and professional way he could.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report