White House aides grapple with newfound celebrity

Kellyanne Conway could barely move across the White House lawn at the Easter Egg Roll on Monday without being accosted by a crush of selfie-seeking fans and enraptured young girls who wanted to stare at her.

The onslaught of attention hardly came as a shock to Conway, who has been recognize-on-the-street famous since her ubiquitous television presence during the 2016 campaign. Being swarmed by crowds — some full of adoration, others with disdain — has become the new normal for the White House counselor, who is often stalked by paparazzi as she makes her way around Washington, D.C., now with her own Secret Service detail.

Conway might be the most overexposed of President Donald Trump’s West Wing aides; in November, the Daily Mail published a 59-photo slideshow of the Republican strategist lounging poolside in her bathing suit while on a family vacation in Key Biscayne, Florida.

But she’s not the only White House official who has transformed into a bona fide national celebrity, completing a melding of politics and entertainment that Washington observers say has been years in the making.

Photographers stake out Trump staffers’ homes or venues where they are known to be speaking. Hollywood actors have volunteered to play Trump’s aides on "Saturday Night Live." And their national name recognition is abnormally high for typically inside-the-Beltway famous jobs.

Press secretary Sean Spicer’s name recognition is above 60 percent nationally, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll this month. That finding was in line with a Quinnipiac University poll in late February, the first time the polling institute ever even polled the favorability of a White House press secretary, according to pollster Tim Malloy.

And his name recognition was off the charts for a mere staffer — Spicer enjoyed about the same level of name recognition nationwide as Republican Sen. Rob Portman does in his home state of Ohio, which he has represented since 2011. Spicer, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who lived his life in relative anonymity, has been on the job for about 90 days.

“One thing we can say for sure: No one in his position has attracted this much attention from the media, and as much mocking and criticism,” said Malloy. “He’s been the tip of the spear of the criticism of the Trump White House.”

The aides themselves are adjusting to the sudden fame. “This is nothing I ever sought or expected,” Conway said in a phone interview as she boarded Air Force One on Tuesday to travel to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with the president. “It’s not as if I said to my children, ‘Mommy is running for governor, or starring in a new film, so attention will intensify and the unhappy people with poison keyboards will get nastier.’”

The easiest explanation for the overnight celebrification of the president’s staffers is that it reflects the man at the top. The "Apprentice" star-turned-president has created a reality show in the White House, with Americans eating up storylines of who is rising, who is fading and who is screwing up. It’s the opposite of how “no drama Obama” dictated the tone and tenor of the West Wing.

“His minions become ancillary stars of the Real Housewives of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a frequent Trump critic. “Donald Trump’s ego is this singularity, which draws everything into it. The demand for constant attention and media coverage has led people to focus on the minions in the same way.”

Other political strategists credit “Saturday Night Live” for turning government staffers into household names. None of President Barack Obama’s press secretaries was so memorably lampooned in viral comedy sketches as Spicer, portrayed by Melissa McCarthy.

“There’s an old axiom: Everybody in politics wants to be in show business, everyone in show business wants to be in politics,” said Ken Sunshine, founder of public relations company Sunshine Sachs and a former Hillary Clinton donor. “This is the merger. We’ve never seen anything like this."

But the obsession with West Wing staffers is more than gossip. Trump appears on many issues to not be driven by ideology, and he is often influenced by the last person he spoke with. That means that a focus on the aides he chooses to elevate in the West Wing is more than prurient interest in the staffers enacting the president’s agenda — it is a way of deciphering what Trump’s agenda even is.

Paparazzi photographer Mark Wilkins used to stalk movie stars like Shia LaBeouf, who once famously threw a cup of coffee on him. He’s now taken to following White House aides instead.

Last week, he stationed himself outside the Newseum, where Conway was speaking at a conference, to snap pictures of her as she left. “When she was walking in front of The Willard, they treated her like a rock star,” Wilkins told POLITICO.

Wilkins also sometimes sits outside of Spicer’s house in his car, waiting for a shot he can sell to the tabloids.

“I’m going to try to work on him and get him at church,” said Wilkins. “I get tips from airlines and train stations, when they fly in and out. Waiting around the White House is boring — you don’t know what entrance they’re going to use.”

The Daily Mail pays photographers a daily rate to sit outside the Kalorama home of Trump’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, tracking them as they come and go, sometimes in their gym clothes, two industry sources said. In the Morning Consult poll this month, only 17 percent of respondents had not heard of Ivanka Trump.

The fashionable First Daughter, who now is an official White House staffer, is part of the gray area of formerly famous people who are now aides, as opposed to aides who are newly famous. Assistant to the President Omarosa Manigault, a former reality television star on The Apprentice who now works in the West Wing, tipped off The Daily Mail last month to her own wedding at the Trump International Hotel, industry sources said.

After the popularity of McCarthy’s turn as Spicer on "Saturday Night Live," actress Rosie O’Donnell volunteered herself to play chief political strategist Steve Bannon on television, briefly changing her Twitter avatar to a picture of herself dressed as the bomb-throwing former Breitbart chairman. Comedian Jimmy Fallon lampooned Kushner last week as a powerful but meek and voiceless aide.

Spicer, who declined to comment for this article, appears to be trying to tamp down the attention. He rarely makes television appearances outside his daily press briefing, which is still being carried live by all three cable networks most days. Still, in March, Spicer was accosted by a woman at an Apple store in Washington, D.C., who asked him, “How does it feel to work for a fascist?” Her Periscope of the confrontation went viral.

By contrast, former Obama press secretary Josh Earnest, who ceded the podium in the White House briefing room to Spicer on Jan. 20, said he is rarely recognized. Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, said it was only in the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that public attention infringed on his private life.

“My wife and I went out to dinner at a French restaurant, and I got written up for going soft on Bush because he was anti-French,” Fleischer recalled. “There was an awareness that people were looking at me, sort of, but there were no selfies then. The instances where it was intrusive were few and far between.”

Some former White House officials said having separate spotlights shining on staffers is counterproductive to running the government effectively.

“I would not say you’re doing your job effectively if you become the story,” said Jen Psaki, communications director in the Obama White House, who lived in relative anonymity while working there. “That was always our mantra. But they don’t have a lot to sell. There are not big policy proposals they are putting forward, which leads to more interest in the parlor game of who’s up and who’s down.”

Fleischer warned against getting caught up in the attention. “You have to recognize that the only reason anyone knows who you are is because you’re in service to the president and the country, and you recognize it’s all temporary,” he said. “You have to remember that you, as an individual, never get invited to anything, your job title and position do.”

But Conway admitted there is part of the A-lister attention she thrives on — and helps her advance Trump’s agenda.

“When people see me and they think of President Trump and it’s a positive connection, it makes me happy,” she said of the spotlight. “It makes the president even more accessible with the public.”

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