Kellyanne Conway has a photograph on her wall of the moment she was sworn into office. It is from Jan 22 2017, two days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. On the left stands Conway, taking her oath as the US president’s counsellor. On the right, separated by a podium, is a gaggle of other senior White House aides.
Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer – at the time Trump’s chief strategist, chief of staff and press secretary – are all in the latter group.
“That picture’s fun,” Conway says, spotting it from across her West Wing office. It is blown up big, two foot wide at a guess.
“Jared’s behind the podium so you can’t see him,” she says, referring to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Then she adds: “But the others are all gone.” The picture encapsulates Conway’s improbable rise to the centre of US power. It depicts the day the 2016 presidential campaign she helped steer to victory completed its goal.
But it sums up something else, too – her reputation as the ultimate Trump White House survivor. Bannon, Priebus, Spicer and many more have all left the president’s inner circle. She is still standing.
“I’m here for the right reasons,” Conway, 52, says of her longevity during an interview with The Daily Telegraph – her first with a U.K. newspaper since taking office.
“The question that is asked of me, like, ‘Why are you still there?’, is really for them, ‘Why are you not?’” she adds, stressing that she is talking about no one former colleague in particular.
“Some have been fired or forced out. Some went back to private sector. Some talents are much better deployed on the outside… It’s not for everyone because it’s a president who is unconventional.”
From the original characters around Trump, only Conway remains in the White House, family members aside. A pollster and Republican consultant, Conway was appointed campaign manager along with Bannon in August 2016 when Hillary Clinton looked a dead cert. Three months later, Trump won.
She paints a flattering picture of the 45th US president. He is “very warm and funny, engaged, excellent storyteller, razor-sharp listener.”
The soaring economy, criminal justice reform, exit from the Iran nuclear deal, North Korean negotiations and bipartisan legislation to tackle the opioid crisis – an area included in her policy brief – are among the Trump achievements flagged. She also exudes confidence over his chances of 2020 re-election.
“I haven’t yet seen presidential timber,” she says of the candidates vying to take on her boss. “Just a lot of noise. But we take it all seriously.”
Part of Conway’s role is to be the president’s TV defender. She is a regular on cable news, not just Right-leaning Fox News, but CNN, a common target for Trump’s ire. Earlier this week, she was arguing his case before the State of the Union.
Critics say unflinching loyalty in public is the key to her longevity. George Conway, her husband, has made headlines with his criticism of Mr Trump.
She has been reluctant to discuss the issue and is always enthusiastic in her praise of the president.
Conway says she is willing to challenge Trump behind closed doors: “Part of how you stay on the president’s side is to be honest with him and to deliver the news whether good, bad or ugly. He appreciates that.”
Her importance to the Trump project also means a familiarity with the Russia investigation.
Already five Trump campaign figures have pleaded guilty to crimes. Some admitted lying to investigators when grilled on their Russia links. So did the campaign have a lying problem? “No, I think these people [were] lying to Congress long after the campaign was completed,” Conway responds. “Put me down as ‘lying to Congress is illegal and a bad idea’.”
But these were senior campaign figures? “And then there were senior figures… like the campaign manager for the remaining part of the campaign who doesn’t talk to Russians,” she counters, referring to herself. “I was talking to people in Macomb County, Michigan and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina – not in Moscow.”
Conway repeatedly returns to a familiar theme – the flawed portrayal of the Trump presidency by the press. It is deployed repeatedly when conversation stray into areas of potential criticism. Does Trump really display “humility” in office? Those who cannot see it are “blinded in their self-curated media consumption”, she says. Is Trump’s relationship with Theresa May cool? Conway twice calls it “cordial” before citing the “critics and sceptics always lying in wait, ready to pounce.:
The trend peaks when “alternative facts” comes up. The phrase, uttered by Conway to defend Spicer’s questionable claims on the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd just days into the presidency, was jumped on by critics at the time.
Any regrets about the way the comment was phrased? “I’m surprised someone who calls himself a reporter would go back in time,” Conway responds. “That’s kind of a lazy question.” She says she meant “alternative information and additional facts”, then continues to rip into the question – “that is such a ridiculous thing to say two years after” the event – and criticizes the media’s record on accuracy.
Told the question was not meant to rile, she hits back: “No, you didn’t rile me at all. I just, I can’t believe that passes as journalism. How in the world would you rile me? You’re visiting me in my White House office. I’ll be here every day until I decide not to be.”
After a lengthy back-and-forth, Conway reaches a conclusion. “I think that longevity, and surviving and thriving, and the president believing none of it and having none of it is probably the greatest statement I could ever make.”