The Slatest

How Is It Possible To Read 6,000 Words of Deep Reporting on Hope Hicks and Still Not Really Understand Her at All?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 21:  (AFP OUT) White House Communications Director Hope Hicks attends a listening session hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump with student survivors of school shootings, their parents and teachers in the State Dining Room at the White House February 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump is hosting the session in the wake of last week's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and teachers dead.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Hope Hicks. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It has been almost three weeks since White House communications director Hope Hicks announced that she was quitting her job. On Sunday, New York magazine published a succulent cover story on Hicks’s role as “Trump whisperer,” the circumstances surrounding her departure, and the chaos she leaves in her wake. This story left me with a needling question: How is it possible to read 6,000 words of deep, attentive reporting on Hicks and still feel no closer to understanding her as a human at all?

What Hope Hicks Knows,” by reporter Olivia Nuzzi, is a textured (if too-flattering) portrait of Hicks’s final months, a fine specimen of the palace-intrigue style of Washington reporting. She traces the undulating fortunes of Corey Lewandowski, and uncovers the shady “elite agency” that snapped the first paparazzi photographs of Hicks with now-disgraced paramour Rob Porter. She deploys delightful if possibly meaningless details, like the fact that Hicks made sugar cookies for the White House communications staff on Valentine’s Day; each little package included a note written in silver marker, with a message like “Believe in love.” And Nuzzi scoops up insight into Trump himself along the way. Hicks is “the only person he trusts,” one source tells the reporter. “He doesn’t trust any men and never has. He doesn’t like men, you see. He has no male friends.”

At the center of it all, Hicks herself remains a mystifying figure. Almost the only thing anyone seems to actually know about her is that she doesn’t want attention. Everyone around her agrees she wields enormous influence over Trump, but no one seems to have a bead on her core beliefs, or even if she has them. She’s a paradox wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an extremely glamorous tuxedo.

It seems likely that Nuzzi couldn’t have put together a profile this intimate without its subject’s help. Indeed, the reporter tweeted Sunday night that she had spent time with Hicks over the last few weeks, but her subject “declined to speak on the record”—a very different thing than declining to speak at all. The level of detail almost dares the reader to imagine any other possibility. In the opening set-piece alone, Nuzzi takes us inside one of Hicks’s private notebooks, recounts her prayer habits, and tells us exactly what happened in the Oval Office when Hicks resigned.

In Hicks’s three years in the spotlight, she has only spoken on the record a couple of times.
And even those interviews seem designed to obscure. In a Forbes “30 Under 30” feature last year, she drops bombshells including the fact that her favorite take-out order is coffee, and her favorite app is Uber. It’s the Proust questionnaire as filled out by a block of tofu.

Nuzzi profiled Hicks for GQ in 2016 in another write-around executed without on-the-record quotes from its subject; that piece notably opened with a scene in which Trump extols Hicks’s talents to Nuzzi as Hicks herself sits silently beside him. Another sharp piece, by Annie Karni in Politico last year, left Hicks seeming similarly opaque. Hicks doesn’t go on TV, and she doesn’t answer reporters’ questions about any subject for attribution. As Karni noted, her silence has surely been good for her stature. Kellyanne Conway tells Nuzzi in the new piece that Hicks’s avoidance of interviews is a “luxury.”

One thing we do know about Hicks, then, is that she is a canny cultivator of her own reputation, despite her supposed disdain for publicity. It sure seems like she persuaded Nuzzi to let her speak in great detail without ever attaching a quote to her name. Readers get a largely sympathetic, or at least humanizing, portrait of a key inner-circle member of the Trump administration. We learn she and Porter broke up after the public revelations of his allegedly abusive marriages; we learn she thought seriously about quitting twice last year. She wakes up at 4am and meets with a trainer to work out. She likes Tommy Boy. But we do not learn anything about her political ideology, or what exactly she admires in her boss. “She doesn’t particularly like politics,” one source tells Nuzzi. “She’s loyal to Mr. Trump.” We don’t even really know why she quit her job, beyond a discontent with the ongoing “psychodrama” in the West Wing.

If Hicks’s version of “loyalty” holds steady after she leaves the White House, we may never know what she really thinks about her years-long service to Donald Trump. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off: If you never answer questions, you never have to answer for yourself.