The June 6 Monitor Breakfast with Kellyanne Conway was a classic.
Ms. Conway, a top adviser to President Trump, arrived at the St. Regis Hotel at 9 a.m. on the dot, not long after the boss had started tweeting. “Fake News” was the operative phrase – Fake News about Tuesday’s primaries, Fake News about first lady Melania Trump, over and over.
Mr. Trump kept at it while the breakfast was under way. I know, because my phone, sitting on the table before me, kept lighting up with push notifications. And I could see other reporters checking their phones. At one point, I picked mine up to take a peek. “He just tweeted again!” I interjected, showing my phone to Conway. She smiled.
“It was surreal, really: a mash-up of one of the most orderly and enlightening of Washington press venues – a Christian Science Monitor breakfast where Conway spoke – with the free-wheeling tweeting of a commander-in-chief who has made the media the enemy,” one of the 30 reporters present, Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News, wrote afterward.
Conway had told me that Trump knew she was speaking at our breakfast that morning, so it’s tempting to think he was trolling us. Of course, morning tweets are part of his routine – often about “fake news” – though the next day, he didn’t use that phrase once.
At the breakfast, Conway told us she is an advocate of traditional media inside the Trump White House. “I’m somebody who believes that the more that the president engages with the press, the better, ”she said, while also touting what she called his “small-d democratic,” direct-to-the-public use of social media.
Conway’s title is “counselor to the president” – the highest level – and her brief is wide, including leading Trump’s response to the opioid crisis. She’s also a mother of four, and her no-nonsense style reflects that. But Conway has always been a sharp debater. I know, because I used to talk to her regularly back when she was “just” a Republican pollster who specialized in understanding women, both as voters and consumers.
Her only other appearance at a Monitor Breakfast came back in 2005, to discuss a book she co-wrote called “What Women Really Want.” As Trump’s final campaign manager, her advice may well have been crucial to his victory. Now, her name and face are widely recognized as one of Trump’s top TV surrogates.
I have run into Conway several times since Trump became president, both in the White House press room and at social events. Each time, I told her we’d love to have her appear at our breakfast, and she was always enthusiastic. Eventually, we got her on the calendar.
But on the eve of the breakfast, Conway’s office said she could stay just 45 minutes. The next morning, a half-hour in, it was clear that her long answers were eating up time. Only a few reporters had gotten their questions in.
I glanced nervously at her assistant across the room, and she gave me a thumbs-up. Indeed, Conway seemed to be enjoying our highly civil form of combat, and at the 45-minute mark, she agreed to keep going. In the end, she stayed at the table 15 minutes beyond the customary hour.
The reports on the breakfast took a variety of tacks. I wrote about Conway as a White House “survivor.” Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote about Trump and pardons, following her near-interrogation of Conway about Illinois’s imprisoned former governor, Rod Blagojevich. S.V. Dáte of The Huffington Post wrote about Trump and truth. John Gizzi of Newsmax wrote about the chatter around chief of staff John Kelly.
We didn’t have TV cameras in the room, but you can listen to our audio recording here.
I must also add that I loved the wide shot photographer Michael Bonfigli took at the breakfast, viewable above – a female guest, flanked by female reporters. Lots of girl power in that image.