Unlike her former mentor, whose inelastic deceptions crumble under the slightest scrutiny, Omarosa Manigault Newman repays close reading. I don’t mean her book (haven’t read it). I mean the publicity tour she’s on, which has twin goals: selling books and carefully dismembering the administration she served until she was fired in January. As the White House reportedly roils in paranoiac anticipation, she may prove to be more effective at the latter than the former (whatever her motives). The former Apprentice contestant comes across as a younger, more vital, and more developed reality star than her former boss. She does not apologize. She acts in her own self-interest. And she is quite comfortable playing the villain if she needs to.
At this juncture, she’s opted to play turncoat to Trump’s circle. It’s a storyline that requires her to perform a kind of prodigal daughter script to the rest of the world, an awakening to her past mistakes. She’s done this with typical skill over the past week as she’s promoted her book. Her strategy is not to present as an innocent: The white outfit she wore to her NBC News interview was a blazer, and the yellow dress had some off-the-shoulder edge. “I was complicit within this White House [in] deceiving this nation,” she said. And while she claims that “being used by Donald Trump for so long” turned her into the proverbial frog boiling slowly to death, in the book she acknowledges her part: “Donald and I had a symbiotic relationship,” she writes, pre-empting the accusations she knew were coming. She intends her story, then, to be a redemption narrative.
It has to be. Reality-TV folks don’t build their brands on respectability—their freedom from conventional constraints like being predictable and well-liked is their power—but they can pull off One Big Pivot in their careers. Usually, it’s where they claim that, yes, they were part of the circus, but things have finally gone too far and gotten so bad that even they must shine a light on it! Only those who’ve been in the muck know what to fix.
This was the substance of Donald Trump’s own campaign message, and now Omarosa is using it against him. On Thursday, Omarosa released to MSNBC a tape in which Lara Trump, wife of Eric Trump, appears to offer Omarosa $15,000 a month to stay quiet after her firing. It is, to the zero, what Manigault Newman had asserted without proof. It’s not the first time: Omarosa had also previously claimed that campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson had been on a conference call strategizing a response to Donald Trump’s saying the N-word. Pierson originally denied it, saying it “did not happen” and belittled Omarosa, saying it “sounds like she’s writing a script for a movie.” Omarosa—who understood perfectly well that this team was going to attack her as a liar the moment she spoke up—released the tape that confirmed her account. Pierson was left offering a weak explanation.
Either because or despite the fact that Omarosa once belonged to this lair of liars, one can admire the skill with which she has orchestrated these tapes’ release so as to maximally damage the White House’s credibility just as it was trying to torpedo hers. The tapes are essentially booby traps. Katrina Pierson’s reputation may not be a central concern in Trumpworld, but Lara Trump’s is getting closer; no wonder the White House is scared. Omarosa knows—as even his lawyers do—that a man who lies about everything must be guarded against, and learned that lesson early. Even her onetime defenses of Donald Trump mimic the way he lines compliments with self-praise. “I am living the American dream because of Donald Trump,” she said in December 2016, citing her career as evidence of his broadmindedness—attaching his reputation to hers. Per Omarosa, because of her success, “It’s very difficult to make the argument that Donald Trump doesn’t like black people and black women.” This is a canny endorsement. It looks like gratitude, but as praise goes, this is actually (and obviously) conditional: If Trump mistreats her, it becomes possible to argue that he’s racist.
And now he has. Perhaps understanding that Trump never actually fires people himself, Omarosa taped a call in which Trump can be heard acting surprised that she’s been fired by Gen. Kelly. The recording (replete with an unconvincing “Goddamn it!”) makes the president look weak and mealy-mouthed and peripheral to his own administration. This is a point Omarosa drives home at every opportunity in interviews: Is Gen. Kelly really running the White House? she asks. And if so, that should concern the American people. It is the last thing Trump would want the public to think.
But for a pivot like the one Omarosa is attempting to work, there must be a bombshell of sorts that permanently separates the man she loudly supported from the “con” she now firmly condemns. This is the function of the alleged tape—not in Omarosa’s possession—of Trump using the N-word. The tape confirmed, she says, “what I feared the most: that Donald Trump is a con … that he is truly a racist.” This is silly. Trump’s racism is a matter of public record, not personal epiphany. But her story has to explain why she’s turned on the president now (a story less powerful were she to say she always knew he was racist).
That said, Omarosa handles her delivery of this news with immense skill. In each interview she does, she’s careful to establish herself as a person first and the source of a story second. Take her Daily Show interview. When Trevor Noah says, “Honestly, not in a bad way, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything new in the book, so why write it?” Omarosa’s reply is kind of devastating: “When you say there’s nothing new in the book, it’s not just about Donald Trump. It also talked about my childhood. I talked about my difficulty going through my father’s murder, my brother’s murder,” she says, noting that she has never talked about those things publicly. She knows the tape is the real selling point, but she makes her interviewers recognize her as a person first. When Chuck Todd asks whether she heard the tape or just a description of the tape’s contents, Omarosa is calm, gracious, but insists on niceties before replying to the question. “First of all, thank you for having me on,” she says, and if there’s the tiniest rebuke to Todd for his manners there, it passes quickly. (She does something similar with Noah, first thanking him for having her on, then apologizing to him for an earlier cancellation, which she blamed on Trump’s press secretary. It works: He waves away the offense, and the crowd cheers her.) “In this book, I describe this long journey of hearing these rumors, over and over again,” she tells Todd, explaining that three sources described “the same exact statements” to her while she was researching the book. Only then does she answer Todd’s question. “After I closed the book, I had an opportunity to go … and sit down with the person who actually has a copy of the tape, and I heard his voice, as clearly as you and I are sitting here.”
“You have heard the tape?” Chuck Todd says.
“I have heard the tape,” Omarosa confirms. It’s a good line, and she delivers it slowly, firmly, and with poise. She’s relaxed, not defensive.
The challenge for someone making their One Big Pivot is shaking off their old baggage. After all, this is the person who said in 2016 that “every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.” She’s become the critic, the detractor, and the principle of revenge she once praised. She boosted her immediate credibility by proving two of her assertions with audio. She’s softened the problem of her complicity by admitting to it. Next, she invokes principle: “And what I regret is that these people are probably trying to leverage it as this October surprise, and I don’t want to be a part of that,” she says, managing to stake out higher moral ground while simultaneously presenting the White House with an indirect threat. You don’t have to believe her to respect the game. And she’s anticipated the president’s response with remarkable accuracy. If there were lingering questions about the president’s racism, his calling her a “dog” just as she’s on TV—his favorite medium—made her point rather nicely.
Trump does poorly against women who don’t have much interest in pretending to be something they’re not. Using slightly different methods, Stormy Daniels and Omarosa have both shown themselves to be effectively immune to the Trump attack machine, which uses NDAs as the carrot and public vilification as the stick. They both seem to understand his thinking and predict his reactions better than his advisers do. Omarosa is taking on a powerful ship, even if it’s showing signs of listing. She may lose. But that doesn’t mean he’s winning.