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Last year, novelist Elinor Lipman could not find an American publisher for Rachel to the Rescue, a romantic comedy set in the Trump administration, so she published the book in the United Kingdom instead. Publishers’ reluctance on this side of the pond was understandable at the time. There was nothing funny or lighthearted about that regime as long as it remained in power. Still, who can deny that Trump’s presidency was full of both threats to our democratic institutions and moments of bizarre black comedy, given the ignorant, crass, shamelessly self-serving person in charge of it?
Most inside accounts of that presidency that have appeared so far have taken a sober approach to the three-ring circus of the Trump White House. That tone has also largely been in keeping with the self-importance of the author penning the book, be it the sub-Mencken contempt of Michael Wolff or the establishment ponderosity of Bob Woodward. However, while it turns out there’s still no way to be lighthearted about the inner doings of the Trump administration (and romance? … ugh), funny has indeed become possible. I’ll Take Your Questions Now, the new tell-all book by former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, is the sitcom version of Trump’s White House years. Grotesque as it is, I found myself LOLing every few pages.
Part of this book’s perverse appeal lies in Grisham’s basic-ness. The quotations that serve as epigraphs to each chapter read like wall art picked up along with the latest Rae Dunn products at TJ Maxx. (“Say yes to unexpected opportunities—even if it scares you” goes one, citing designer Tory Burch but perhaps just misquoting “The Sunscreen Song.”) At one point, she notes that the rooms at Mar-a-Lago are “quite dated,” which is code for “not enough shiplap or barn doors” and “no giant clock faces on the walls.” What on Instagram would be aesthetically irksome, in a Trump memoir is weirdly endearing. Grisham is so average, and so comfortable in her averageness, that she becomes a recognizable comedic figure, the chagrinned everywoman. The tale becomes Bridget Jones Goes to Washington, but instead of finding a decent chap to fall for, Grisham gets involved with a creep Trump nicknamed “the Music Man” for his ability to queue up enough Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes to soothe the savage president.
Grisham is famous for never giving a briefing during her tenure as press secretary, and she explains that this was partly the result of Trump’s dissatisfaction with her predecessors and penchant for speaking directly to the public and media. It was also partly self-preservation, as she knew he would eventually ask her to make statements that were false or simply foolish. During Trump’s first impeachment crisis, he ordered Grisham to assemble the press before her “stage” and reenact his phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “with voices.” She describes leaving this meeting in shock, convinced “this was going to be my ticket to being satirized on Saturday Night Live—and not in a good way. I would be all over the news, sounding like a straight idiot that night and for years to come.” She got out of this ridiculous scrape—too broad a joke for the likes of even Veep—when a colleague suggested that they tell Trump that having a member of Congress read the transcript out loud would ensure that his “perfect” phone call would be entered into official record. Trump loved this idea, and Devin Nunes (“one of our most reliable ‘yes’ guys”) obliged.
At times, Grisham presents herself as a beleaguered professional coping with conniving co-workers, a crazy boss, and his sphinxlike wife (she also served as Melania Trump’s press secretary and eventually her chief of staff). At others, she sounds like someone’s scornful 13-year-old daughter: “There was that guy Rex Tillerson and then General Jim Mattis and then they were gone and then someone else came in and then another guy. I’d actually have to look at a list to remember who they all were—a blur of mostly middle-aged white dudes.” She calls Laura Ingraham a “rando” and pronounces Lindsey Graham “gross” for stuffing his face with free food every time he visited Mar-a-Lago. The whole last half of I’ll Take Your Questions Now is one long hiss of catty gossip about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and their camera-hogging ways.
Who but a “straight idiot” would want to work in a place that Grisham herself describes as resembling “a clown car on fire running at full speed into a warehouse full of fireworks”? And once there, who would stay? Grisham explains the first part as a temptation of the ego. Apparently, becoming a presidential press secretary is the pinnacle of flackdom. Grisham may even be an adept publicist. She perceptively attributes Melania’s public reticence to the fact that her “experience with the press was largely shaped by her career in modeling. In that world, photos were far more important than what was said in print or on television.” When the press was around, “I could see her working to ensure that her face was held a certain way, that she stood or sat a certain way.” This “made for great photographs but also gave off a chilly vibe to the people she was meeting with.” Once in, Grisham was in, like a sports fan pledging her complete loyalty to a hometown team. Melania was “my girl,” and Grisham fought and cheered for the first lady’s every petty triumph over the dread Javanka.
Grisham worked in the Trump White House for almost the full four years, tendering her resignation when Melania refused to make a statement against the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. She attributes her willingness to endure a chaotic, backbiting workplace under a boss who would eventually subject her to insulting tirades to an unspecified past history of abuse. Her relationship with the Music Man also became abusive, she writes, and she believes herself to be particularly susceptible to “people who had lied to me, berated me, made me feel like shit.” (The Music Man has called her allegations “absolutely untrue.”) This aspect of I’ll Take Your Questions Now is not so funny, needless to say, and while Grisham’s book shows considerably more humility and self-reflection than that of any other Trump administration veteran I’ve read (and I’ve pretty much read them all), it eventually becomes frustrating that she can’t seem to make the connection between the risible character of her boss and the policies he advanced. (When he advanced them. Trump’s only real interest in policy was whatever would sustain the adoration of his base.)
By Stephanie Grisham. Harper.
By the end of the book, Grisham has returned to her roots. Inspired by a loving grandfather who worked for the Reagan administration, she once worked for Mitt Romney and describes herself as a lifelong Republican. She defends Liz Cheney and is saddened “to see so many Republicans allowing one man to have the perceived power to rule our party; that is called an autocracy and that is not how this country was founded.” To her credit, she blames herself for not recognizing the dangers of Trumpism while she worked for him, and some of her explanations for this are plausible enough. It’s hard to gain perspective when you’re in a bunker. Yet she also insists that “the Trump administration put into place many excellent policies that I hope will continue, but those are Republican policies, not Trump policies.”
Just what policies those are, Grisham, like a surprising number of Trump memoirists, doesn’t specify. For all her soul-searching about why she spent so much time in the spectacular clusterfuck of the Trump White House, she does not ask herself how her own party became so beholden to a man who clearly cares about nothing but himself, a man so vapid he’ll interrupt a professional discussion to ask his press secretary if pantyhose is something only older women wear. I laughed at that story, too, because it so perfectly encapsulates the disastrous triviality of the man Grisham’s party chose to put in office and now can’t seem to exorcise. By all means, she should be questioning why she put up with so much personal abuse, and why she tolerated the abuse of her co-workers. But take it a step further, Steph, and ask yourself why you and your party put the rest of us through that mess, too. Now that’s a serious question.