A house divided: She works for Trump; he can’t stand him

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 19, 2018

By Ben Terris

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Kellyanne Conway is in her living room, showing me an enormous painting of Audrey Hepburn wearing a peacock on her head, but her husband, George, really wants us to come into his office and look at a photograph of the moment everything changed.

It’s a picture he took on election night 2016: Donald Trump is reaching for the first draft of his acceptance speech, just as victory seemed imminent. Back then, George was such an ardent supporter of the president and so proud of his wife for her historic role as campaign manager, that he wept for joy.

“That photo was from before you cried,” Kellyanne says.

“Now I cry for other reasons,” George mutters.

Kellyanne pretends to ignore that comment, something she’s been doing a lot of lately.

“You gotta see this picture,” says George, 54. “You should like this; it’s your boss.”

“He’s not just my boss,” says Kellyanne, 51. “He’s our president.”

“Yeah,” George says, walking out of the room. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Here at the Conways’, it’s a house divided. She is Trump’s loyal adviser, the woman who carried him over the finish line to the White House. He is one of the president’s most notable conservative critics and wishes he had never introduced his wife to Trump in the first place.

Kellyanne invited me here because she thought it would be a good symbol for her commitment to, and the enduring strength of, the Trump presidency. The White House may be shedding staff at record speed, but this new home is a sign that Kellyanne isn’t going anywhere; that she is, in fact, flourishing.

And that may be true. But as I spent time with Kellyanne and George, I saw an alternative symbol: The Conways, like the rest of the country, have been jolted by the Trump presidency. They love each other, are exasperated by each other, talk about each other behind each other’s backs. They share a roof and live in different bunkers.

This may be the story of any marriage — partners can drive each other crazy and still stay together for 50 years — but this marriage is, in many ways, emblematic of our national political predicament, particularly on the right.

And their feud, thanks to George’s newfound Twitter hobby, is playing out for more than just the neighbors to see.

When the president was in search of a new communications director last year, George tweeted it was “absurd” that the president so often says one thing and then does the opposite. In addition to various tweets about corgis and the Philadelphia Eagles, he has retweeted dozens of articles critical of the president and his administration, and he wrote a 3,473-word essay rebutting Trump’s assertion that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is “unconstitutional.”

Because George is married to Kellyanne, the chief architect and top saleswoman for Trumpism, and because his dissent seemed to come out of nowhere, George went viral. His retweets were themselves retweeted and topped with bug-eyed emoji. His follower count soared to more than 90,000, and the left adopted this conservative super lawyer as an honorary member of the resistance.

And yet, anyone wondering how Kellyanne and George manage to live in the same place these days should really see the house.

The $7.7 million Mediterranean revivalist, with its terra-cotta roof and three-story turret, looks like a mini Mar-a-Lago. Clocking in at 15,000 square feet, it gives the Conways room for their four children, two corgis and art collection, with plenty of space left over for the kind of dinner parties typical in this tony neighborhood off Embassy Row.

Inside, Kellyanne, who’s shorter than she appears on television, scrambles up the staircase barefoot to put on workout clothes. George, a stocky man with a mop of dark hair (“He looks Hawaiian,”as Kellyanne puts it), retires to his office.

“George, we’re going for a walk,” shouts Kellyanne, now wearing sneakers and her hair in a ponytail.

George never comes on these walks.

• • •

In fairness to George, Kellyanne is difficult to keep up with.

We’re in the woods, chugging up a steep incline. We’re in Georgetown going on and off the sidewalk, and on and off the record. We’re in Tenleytown, weaving through the sideways glances of lookie-lous, then power-walking through Glover Park.

It’s a swampy August night, but Kellyanne doesn’t have a drop of sweat on her.

And she talks, about any and everything: issues with her father (he left when she was 3), feminists (the funny thing, she says, is she’s living the life they claim to want), or her thoughts on the administration’s practice, since reversed, of having federal agents separate migrant families at the border (She didn’t like it, she says, but that wasn’t the president’s fault).

It’s never his fault. Kellyanne prides herself as someone willing to “go into any den and talk about any subject,” and often the subject is her boss, our president — whether he deserves the latest volley of outrage from the left, the center, and occasionally the home office just off her living room. She goes on CNN and takes the fight to the journalists Trump calls the enemy. If the president throws playground punches at the press, the Justice Department, his fellow Republicans, she’ll find a way to explain that he was the one being bullied. She’ll do it with the ferocity of a mother — or a daughter.

It can be a spectacle. Fans call her courageous; critics call her shameless; TV bookers just call her.

Now we’re somewhere back near the house, and we’ve arrived at a different view of family loyalty, one she’d rather not discuss.

“If you make this story all about him, I’ll definitely push back on that after it’s printed,” Kellyanne says, talking about George. “There’s no story about me, except the overcoming of circumstance and the fact that I’m so independent.”

But it’s a story about both of them. Of course it is. The more time I spend with them, the more I know that. It’s the story of people who love Trump and the people who are trying to love them.

Kellyanne remembers how encouraging George was of that independence when they first got married 17 years ago. Back then, Kellyanne was just finding her footing as a sought-after pollster in Washington. She remembers one of George’s friends telling him that the best thing for their marriage would be for her to shut down her business — the company she built from scratch — and how George, even though he made enough money himself to support the family, encouraged her to keep working toward her own dream.

And now?

“I feel there’s a part of him that thinks I chose Donald Trump over him,” Kellyanne says as we walk. “Which is ridiculous. One is my work and one is my marriage.”

Naturally, though, the two things overlap. When George criticizes the president publicly, Kellyanne says, the media coverage and the implication that they are pitted against each other bothers their children. And as for the president himself, Kellyanne won’t say it irks him, but she does think he finds it “impolite.” On that, she’d agree.

“I think it’s disrespectful,” she says. “I think it disrespects his wife.”

Kellyanne is an independent woman, an independent woman stuck between two men who could blow up her day with a tweet.

“Nobody knows who I am because of my husband,” she says. “People know of my husband because of me.”

After our six-mile sojourn, it is late when we get back to their house. George is in his office, eating a bowl of cereal and yawning. He’s too tired for an interview at the moment, he says. He’s never done an interview on his thoughts on Trump, preferring to let the tweets speak for themselves.

Two hours after I leave, he’s awake and online. A tweet from Merriam-Webster has caught his eye, and he presses the retweet button:

Merriam-Webster: ‘Mendacious’ (adj.) — likely to tell lies

‘Mendacity’ (n.) — a lack of honesty or a lie

• • •

There’s a theory among District of Columbia Trumpologists that this is all a charade. A way for the Conways to be part of both the Trump White House and the Trump-leery establishment. They live in a part of the city where wealth and influence serve as a cooling balm for the partisan inflammation that has spread elsewhere. In their neighborhood, everybody — Democrat and Republican — belongs to the garden party.

They live across the street from Vernon Jordan, once a top adviser to Bill Clinton; just down the way from Adrienne Arsht, the uber-rich philanthropist and Democratic donor; and next door to a house that until recently belonged to Oleg Deripaska, the Vladimir Putin ally who owned Paul Manafort’s debt. Other than the Russian oligarch, whom they never met, the Conways say they get along with their neighbors swimmingly.

From here it’s easy to imagine, if you’d like, that not much has changed since Trump took office, save for a bump in everyone’s stock portfolio. Mendacity is a vocabulary word, and the border is 1,500 miles away. Here, a husband subtweeting his wife’s boss may seem less an act of moral courage than a juicy gossip item, or possibly a way for the family to hedge its bets. (After all, isn’t this the same George Conway who once — allegedly! — leaked details of the curvature of Bill Clinton’s genitals to the Drudge Report?)

Kellyanne, for her part, told me that part of George’s motivation might be that he’s just playing his favorite “role” of “agitator.”

She, too, is familiar with playing a role. Back before she was the president’s wing woman — a gut check for his political agenda and messaging — she worked for Ted Cruz during the 2016 campaign. Then, she called on Trump to release his tax returns, called him “vulgar” and “unpresidential.”

Now she’s bound to Trump, both on and off camera. She speaks with the president daily, offering advice both on policy and messaging. She hits the road in her “personal” capacity to stump for candidates and spread the gospel of Trump. She is helping run the administration’s war on opioids, works to maintain relationships with Republicans on the Hill and is one of the only threads from the White House that goes all the way back to the campaign. For a president who fears betrayal, that’s worth a lot.

“I think he looks at her as part of the family,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who knows both the president and Kellyanne.

In Washington, changes in allegiance are nothing new, nor is the art of redirecting any criticism that might follow. Trump loyalists have not changed the fundamental rules of the city — the weapon of shame remains most powerful in the hands of the shameless — but they have redefined the boundaries of play. Some people seem uncomfortable with that, but not Kellyanne. Here’s a conversation from a few days after our walk:

Me: You told me you found (George’s tweets) disrespectful.

Kellyanne: It is disrespectful, it’s a violation of basic decency, certainly, if not marital vows … as “a person familiar with their relationship.”

Me: No, we’re on the record here. You can’t say after the fact “as someone familiar.”

Kellyanne: I told you everything about his tweets was off the record.

Me: No, that’s not true. That never happened.

Kellyanne: Well, people do see it this way. People do see it that way. I don’t say I do, but people see it that way.

Me: But I’m saying we never discussed everything about his tweets being off the record. There are certain things you said that I put off the record.

Kellyanne: Fine. I’ve never actually said what I think about it and I won’t say what I think about it, which tells you what I think about it.

• • •

It’s three days after the house tour, and we’re in Ventnor, New Jersey, just a boardwalk away from Atlantic City, and George is out walking the two Corgis, Skipper and Bonnie.

“I have a dog trainer friend who says when they start pulling, the trick is to turn around quickly and pull in the other direction,” George says, spinning on his ankles and gently yanking the dogs to demonstrate. This has always been George’s way — not just resisting the current of the world but trying to redirect the stream itself.

We’re outside George and Kellyanne’s beach house, and I’m drowning in metaphors.

Kellyanne bought this house, back in the late ’90s when she was single and just starting to make good money. She had to renovate it a few years later, after learning it had been built by boatbuilders who didn’t know much about constructing a foundation.

She picked this spot because it felt like home; her mother had been employed at a casino nearby for more than 20 years and still lives in the house where she raised Kellyanne less than an hour away. The beach house also happens to be right down the road from Trump’s old Taj Mahal resort and casino.

“It was wildly popular,” says Kellyanne.

“It went bankrupt twice,” says George.

George isn’t from around here. He grew up in Massachusetts, a contrarian since, as a child, he decided to root for the Yankees instead of the Red Sox. By the time he was 30 he was a hotshot lawyer, a partner at a big-time law firm in New York City. While there, George fell into a clutch of Republicans secretly working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for Bill Clinton’s impeachment. It wasn’t his day job, just a hobby, but one that got him a lot of attention. One of his friends from that time, Ann Coulter, introduced him to Kellyanne.

George would, in turn, introduce Kellyanne to Donald Trump.

Shortly after getting married in 2001, Kellyanne and George moved into an apartment in Manhattan’s Trump World Tower. There, George made an impression on the future president at a condo board meeting where he argued against removing Trump’s name from the building. The speech earned George an offer to join the condo board, which he declined but passed on to his wife, who accepted.

“Knowing what I know now,” George told me later, back in Washington, “I would have said no, and never mentioned it when I got home.”

Nevertheless, George liked Trump well enough for a time that he considered joining his administration with a top role in the Justice Department. But his pre-nomination process coincided with Trump firing FBI Director James Comey and the beginning of the Mueller investigation. Friends of George told me he decided he didn’t want to be part of a DOJ that would constantly be at odds with the president.

Instead, George immersed himself in the small fraternity of anti-Trump conservatives. He is now a man without a party: In early May of this year, George changed his affiliation from Republican to “unaffiliated.” He has, according to Politico, offered unsolicited advice to journalists who have written articles critical of the president. And recently, he has been spotted at a semi-secret group of Trump skeptics known as the Meeting of the Concerned, eviscerating his wife’s boss among fellow conservatives who would like to see Trump, and by extension Kellyanne, out of a job.

If he’s being honest, that would make George happy, too.

“If there’s an issue,” George said, “it’s because she’s in that job, for that man.”

His wife may find his gestures of resistance disrespectful of her, but George disagrees. He can redirect criticism as deftly as she can. “Her problem is with her boss,” he says, “not me.”

“If my wife were the counselor to the CEO of Pepsi and I had a problem with her boss, I would simply drink my Coke and keep my mouth shut,” he says. “If the president were simply mediocre or even bad, I’d have nothing to say. This is much different.”

George is clearly worried about Kellyanne and her reputation, just as Kellyanne told me she is worried about George’s. But that doesn’t mean everything has changed. He’s still proud of what she’s been able to accomplish, he says. And when he looks at that picture from election night, he’s still reminded of the sheer elation he felt.

“I’m just saddened by how things turned out,” he says.

On their last full day together on the beach, George is in the kitchen with his wife by his side. Their four kids (Claudia and George, Jr., 13-year-old twins; Charlotte, 10; Vanessa, 8) are running around with their friends before the family takes a trip to the water park. Kellyanne has left her work phone in another room, and so has George. She’s more than her job, she says; he’s more than his tweets.

Tomorrow this house will be set up for “Face the Nation,” after which Kellyanne will be swarmed on the street by fans while George watches the second half of the show — the part where pundits analyze his wife’s interview — alone in the kitchen. But for now, things feel almost like they used to be. This is what George misses at times, his simpler life.

He starts to open up about his tweets. Kellyanne is cutting vegetables 10 feet away with a longtime friend. The women start singing “The Glory of Love,” a central song in the weepy movie “Beaches,” which also took place on the Jersey Shore and is about two childhood best friends.

“It’s an outlet; that keeps it a small part of my life,” George says of his tweeting.

You’ve got to win a little, lose a little, yes, and always have the blues a little.

“It’s a quick easy way to express myself, that keeps me from making it a bigger part of my life,” he says.

You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little.

“I think I’m actually holding back a little,” he says. “I think the reason why is obvious.”

Kellyanne is now singing loudly into a cucumber, completely drowning out George, who has stopped talking and just looks on.

That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.