One day you're just a smiley PR lackey; the next, you're a major operative in the nuttiest campaign in decades. Such is the strange year in the life of Hope Hicks, the 27-year-old accidental press secretary for Donald Trump. How did she get here? And how much longer can she last?
From the antechamber to Donald Trump's office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, I was fetched by Hope Hicks. She was apologetic for the wait and a little nervous about what I'd come to discuss—namely, her.
The 27-year-old press secretary was clad in a teal dress, and she dug her stilettos into the colorless carpet as she showed me into the office, a room festooned with enough Trump memorabilia to suggest a serial killer's shrine. There before me sat Trump himself, behind his giant desk, upon which there was nothing resembling a computer, a PalmPilot, or even an Etch A Sketch.
"Oh," Trump said, flashing his notorious disdain for handshakes as I extended my arm. He stood and reached, Martian-like, for my hand, as if the ritual were not the habit of businessmen or politicians. Hicks, meanwhile, settled into a $5,000 red velvet Knoll lounge chair. She affixed a smile to her face, and then said nothing more to me. As if speaking were not the habit of a spokesperson. But then, Hicks—who never appears on TV and rarely talks to reporters—resembles a traditional political spokesperson about as much as Trump resembles Mister Rogers.
Hicks is a product not of Washington but of the Trump Organization, a marble-walled universe where one's delightful agreeability and ferocious loyalty are worth more than conventional experience. She is a hugger and a people pleaser, with long brown hair and green eyes, a young woman of distinctly all-American flavor—the sort that inspires Tom Petty songs, not riots. And yet Hicks has, almost by accident, helped architect the strangest and least polite campaign in modern American history.
I wanted Hicks to help me understand just how all this had come to pass, how a person who'd never worked in politics had nonetheless become the most improbably important operative in this election. But she declined my request to talk. Instead, she arranged something more surreal: I could talk about her with Donald Trump, in front of her.
Trump, of course, has little experience with subjects other than Trump, which he made clear when I asked him about Hicks's quick ascent to his inner circle. "Bill O'Reilly last night said it is the greatest political event in his lifetime," Trump said, exaggerating O'Reilly's point. "The most incredible political event in his lifetime! That's pretty big. You know, who knew this was going to happen? So..." He pivoted, reluctantly, to the topic at hand. "Hope's been involved from the beginning, and she has been absolutely terrific."
Hicks's job—a sui generis role of outsize importance that she half invents on the fly—involves keeping the media at bay and operating as Trump's chief gatekeeper. But she's also summoned in critical moments of confusion to play instigator and score-settler. It was her job to facilitate Trump's rebuke of the Pope after His Holiness questioned the Christianity of anybody who would build a border wall (kind of Trump's thing). And it was she who helped malign a female reporter who'd been manhandled by Trump's campaign manager, immediately claiming she was a lying attention hound. Hicks was also called on this spring to explain why Trump, over the course of three days, advocated four positions on abortion. She tried without success to quell the confusion, declaring, finally, that President Trump would end abortion, simple as that: "He will change the law through his judicial appointments and allow the states to protect the unborn."
Hope Hicks had never worked a day in politics when she was told to pack her bags for the campaign trail.
Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
Still, for all the grenades Hicks has to both jump on and lob, it's a more quotidian skill set that seems to impress the boss. "If you see her phone going"—he raised both hands and mimicked Hicks answering several devices—" 'This is Hope. This is Hope. This is Hope.' " He hung up the make-believe phones. "She gets a call a minute, probably," he said, seemingly pleased with this antiquated barometer of his own popularity.
If Hicks is not much like a conventional press secretary, well, that's all the better for Trump, who hasn't ever wanted one. "He's always been good at being his own spokesman," Howard Rubenstein, the New York publicist who represented Trump in times of tumult, told me. (Rubenstein might have been speaking literally. In the '80s and '90s, Trump reportedly employed flacks called "John Barron" and "John Miller," spokespeople who'd phone reporters, sounding suspiciously like Trump.)
Of course, a central component of Trump's appeal is his lack of political experience, which he advertises as proof that once in office, he will do things differently, and better. Similarly, Hicks, a registered but dispassionate Republican since 2008, had never so much as volunteered on a campaign. So I asked Trump if he viewed her outsider status as an asset, much as he did his. "No, I don't think there's a benefit to that," he said flatly and frankly, "but she was able to build political experience quickly. She was very natural. She was very natural when it comes to picking it up, and a lot of people can't pick it up, because it's so fast-moving. It's faster-moving than anything else. You know, for real estate, you have two days to get back. This thing"—by which he meant campaigning to lead the free world—"you have, like, four seconds before the story goes blasting out."
As Trump prattled on about the crazy-making swiftness of it all, it wasn't hard to imagine the idea resonating with Hicks, now blushing. The speed with which your whole life can spin—it has to be disorienting. I looked at Hicks, trying to ascertain a reaction, but her face was buried in her hand. And it was clear, just then, that to wonder what Hicks has gotten herself into is to wonder something similar about ourselves.
Hicks's big job in politics started—not that long ago—with a comparatively tiny gig in Trump Tower. In 2012, two years after she'd graduated from Southern Methodist, Hicks was working for a New York PR shop when she was dispatched to help one of the firm's major clients: Ivanka Trump.
At the time, Trump's daughter was expanding her fashion line, and Hicks was enlisted to pitch in—and even do a bit of modeling, appearing online in a practical mint-colored dress, black clutch, and heels, all from the Ivanka Trump collection.
Hicks grew close to Ivanka and began dressing like the heiress, who seemed worthy of the emulation. Ivanka was that rare female corporate leader who is also kind to other women, and she affected an air of competence that seemed to temper the boorishness of the Trump brand. Conveniently, as Hicks ingratiated herself to Ivanka, she won over The Donald as well—helped by the eager-to-please disposition she'd displayed since childhood.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, as a kid, she was an athlete and a model who—after appearing in a Ralph Lauren ad—told a local magazine she intended to be an actress. By high school she was swimming, rowing, and captaining the lacrosse team. (She'd go on to play on SMU's club team.) Kylie Burchell, Hicks's lacrosse coach, recalled her as one of the only players to abide by a no-alcohol policy. "I think the girls were annoyed at her a little bit," she said. "She was trying to be a leader. She was showing by example what to do." She wasn't always so earnest, however. In her senior yearbook, she mistakenly attributed the words of Eleanor Roosevelt—"The future belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams"—to Jimmy Buffett.
That Hicks, a pretty young lady from a tony town, would gravitate toward PR after college might have seemed obvious. Warranted or not, the PR Girl has become a kind of stereotype—the land-bound stewardess of the aughts. A profession thought to require little more than the ability to walk in a pair of Louboutins and harass people via e-mail. But the sorority-girl caricature wasn't what Hicks had in mind, or in her pedigree. In addition to her father, Paul, who directed PR at the NFL and now works for the D.C. power firm Glover Park Group, both of Hicks's grandfathers worked in public relations.
After meeting Matthew Hiltzik, a New York PR shark, in 2011, Hicks landed a job at his firm. It was here that she began working with Ivanka, putting her in the orbit of The Donald, who was quickly impressed. "I thought Hope was outstanding," Trump told me, recalling his decision to tell Hiltzik that he was poaching Hicks to work for him. In Trump's telling, Hiltzik was powerless to deny him what he wanted. "I wouldn't say he was thrilled," Trump told me, "but, you know, we give him a lot of business." (Hiltzik says the parting was amicable all around.)
So Hicks joined the team at Trump Tower in October 2014, without any idea her new boss intended to become president. Or that she had just signed on to his campaign.
One day in late January of last year, Hicks was summoned to Trump's office. There she found Michael Cohen, Trump's ball-busting attorney, and Sam Nunberg, a nervy political adviser and protégé of Trump confidant Roger Stone. On the speakerphone was Corey Lewandowski, a journeyman operative whom Trump had just hired for a purpose unclear to Hicks.
To the assembled, Trump said simply: We're going to Iowa. Hicks must have known that that meant jumping into a media circus that might change her life, though she wondered only one thing, half in jest: What do people wear in Iowa? Soon she was at the Iowa Freedom Summit, fielding media requests and improvising in the role of real-deal political press secretary.
Within the tight, alpha-male circle of hired guns, Nunberg could sense her unease. A tall, heavyset man with slicked-back hair, Nunberg gifted Hicks a book, Running for Office. He nicknamed his new friend "Hopesicle" and quickly developed a fondness for her. "She was very cute, because she was very anxious at first about all of this," he told me as he sipped a Thai iced tea at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. "I joked with her once, like, 'You're like my Peggy, like I'm Don Draper.' "
In reality, there was plenty of competition for the role of bizarro Don Draper in the Trump gang. Michael Cohen—a consigliere of The Donald's for a decade, with a near-parody Long Island accent—told me he didn't know what to make of the novice Hicks. When he answered my call, he was in the midst of yelling at someone else on his other phone (showing a dexterity with the phone Trump would have appreciated, I'm sure). He described Hicks to me as a "sensitive person" who "takes things personally" when it comes to the coverage of her boss.
Hicks wasn't expecting to be the press secretary for long. Trips to key primary states came and went with nobody taking her place, though. Just ahead of Trump's formal announcement in June, Hicks's ambivalence about her position created drama fit for an episode of The Apprentice. Lewandowski, a short man with a shorter fuse who looks like a cross between Frank Sinatra's mug shot and Voldemort, would play a starring role.
A 42-year-old operative who'd worked for the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity, Lewandowski was now the campaign manager. Hicks was told she couldn't work for both the political and corporate branches of the Trump team. She had to choose: Join the campaign or go back to the kids' floor of Trump Tower. Hicks, who hates to disappoint, nonetheless told Lewandowski he'd have to find a new press secretary, which apparently set him off. "He made her cry a bunch of times," Nunberg said. In Nunberg's telling, Lewandowski said to Hicks, "You made a big fucking mistake; you're fucking dead to me." Lewandowski declined to either confirm or correct Nunberg's recollection. "I don't recall the specifics of that," he told me. "I can say definitively that I don't recall the specific incident that you're referring to."
Hicks reconsidered when Trump told her to stay. As she traveled with him and a tiny band of staffers around the country, things with Lewandowski eventually mended. Meanwhile, Lewandowski was consolidating power. Racist Facebook posts Nunberg had made beginning in 2007 surfaced and prompted his firing. (He trashed everyone from Al Sharpton to Marxist Muslims to Louis Farrakhan.) Nunberg believes it was Hicks and Lewandowski who petitioned Trump for his ouster and drafted a brutal statement that characterized him as a "low-level part-time consultant."
Nunberg still seemed wounded eight months later, when we met. "Of course she ratfucked me, which makes me proud," he told me. Nunberg maintains no feelings of warmth for Lewandowski. "I literally will suck the fucking blood out of his skull by the time I'm done with him," he said like a screwball gangster. Not long after Nunberg's firing, his mentor, Stone, left. (Stone says he quit, but the campaign claims he was fired.) The circle was getting smaller, and Hicks, the only staffer without a bald spot or a tough-guy lilt, had apparently learned how to hang on.
Trump's campaign headquarters in Trump Tower occupy an old fifth-floor production studio for The Apprentice. The walls are plywood, decorated by lawn signs and cutouts of Trump. For warmth there's a space heater. Befitting its TV past, the place feels quite literally like the backstage workroom from which the whole Trump Show is produced.
Getting the most out of the star requires keeping him informed. While Trump nurses an obvious addiction to cable news, the reading that's put in front of him is largely confined to a topic he already knows well. Every morning, staffers print out 30 to 50 Google News results for "Donald J. Trump." He then goes at the sheaf with a marker, making circles and arrows and annotating things he likes or doesn't like. The defaced article gets scanned and e-mailed to the journalist or the person quoted who has drawn Trump's attention, under the subject line "From the office of Donald J. Trump."
As for what arrives in Hicks's in-box, a typical day brings upwards of 250 media requests. Usually, she alone decides who gets in and who's kept out. But sometimes it's Trump who plays bouncer for his own private party. "She sees the tantrums, and there are tantrums," a source who's been with Trump and Hicks told me. "He reads something he doesn't like by a reporter, and it's like, 'This motherfucker! All right, fine. Hope?' He circles it. 'This guy's banned! He's banned for a while.' That's exactly how it works." Hicks plays parole officer to an extensive and expanding blacklist of outlets and reporters (your correspondent once included) no longer welcome at his events.
While Hicks is often eager to please, she doesn't mind upsetting the media and harbors no reverence for the civic duties of a free press. When reporters send her questions, she's often irked—convinced they're playing detective merely to irritate the campaign. She's seemingly unaware that they might just be vetting a potential United States president. Often she doesn't respond.
None of this has earned her many enemies, however. Like Ivanka, Hicks has managed to float above it all. For now. "I have always found Hope to be great to deal with," Maggie Haberman of The New York Times told me, "especially given the volume of requests she must be getting."
Hicks has been called on to malign not just Trump's rivals but also reporters and even the Pope.
Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
The demands of her schedule led to a breakup with her boyfriend of six years. And while she technically still lives in Greenwich—with her sister, Mary Grace—when she's not traveling on Trump Force One, Hicks stays in New York, in a Trump apartment provided by the campaign.
Getting cocooned in Trumpville can test one's psyche or dent one's reputation. Maybe even put one on a self-destructive streak. In May, Hicks, thinking she was e-mailing Trump strategy notes to a campaign staffer, sent them instead to a reporter. Days earlier, she'd landed in the New York Post after she was spotted on East 61st Street, screaming at Lewandowski. The spectacle was dismissed as an interoffice dispute. Though if that's to be believed, the emotional scene, as described to me by people who saw it—Hicks's fists balled, her face streaked with tears—makes you wonder what the hell goes on in the Trump War Room.
Outside the campaign, Hicks's colleagues gossip about whether she'll regret her heady first brush with politics. "She made a choice to work for the most fascist candidate in recent American history," one political spokesperson told me. "Everyone who knows her tells her to stop doing this and putting her name on stuff.... She is going to regret everything she's said and done. And I don't think she knows it yet."
Hawking golf resorts one day, Mexican-border walls the next, could Hicks have guessed what her job would become? The gig she signed up for called simply for the ceaseless execution of one man's whims. And she did it with such aplomb that maybe she didn't notice that while the directive never changed, the stakes sure had.
When I sat with Trump in his office—a few days before he locked up the nomination—I asked him if she would someday serve in a Trump administration. "Oh, yeah, sure," he said, deciding on Hicks's future while she smiled silently and helplessly beside me. "In either capacity, either there, or she'll stay here, but, uh," he said, "I think she wants to go there."
Olivia Nuzzi covers politics for The Daily Beast. This is her first article for GQ.
Team of Ruffians: Meet the rest of Trump's, uh, brain trust
Bengabbe/Getty Images; Danielzuchnik / Wireimage /Getty Images. Photo Illustration For Editorial Purposes Only
From left to right
The prickly campaign manager (and Monster- energy-drink guzzler) was arrested once for bringing a gun to work on Capitol Hill. He's had gigs in law enforcement and lobbying but had never run a presidential race.
The campaign chairman and chief strategist worked for Ford, Reagan, Dole, and Bush 41 and made a mint advising sometimes sketchy foreign leaders. He's also had a pad in Trump Tower for years.
A discreet adviser who dresses like a Depression-era banker, Stone's been in Trump's ear for decades. He got his start in politics helping Nixon—whose face he has tattooed on his back. Really.
Trump's daughter is an informal but key strategist and plays the part of political wife. It was she, not Melania, who spoke at Trump's announcement speech and campaigned with him in the primaries.
The lawyer-henchman is known for artful threats. He told a reporter recently to "tread very fucking lightly.... What I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?"