Stephanie Grisham’s Turbulent Ascent to a Top White House Role

WASHINGTON — Stephanie Grisham doled out fast food and tracked lost gear as a press wrangler on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, far from the in-crowd flying on the gold-plated Trump jet. An early and hard-working convert to Mr. Trump’s cause, she told a reporter at one point that she was “riding it until the money runs out,” eager to return home to Arizona.

Instead, Ms. Grisham, 43, rode all the way to Washington with Mr. Trump. And now, after serving in the press office and as Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, she occupies one of the most prestigious roles in American politics, as White House press secretary and communications director for both the president and the first lady.

For a public relations specialist who once churned out news releases on traffic safety, the White House is the loftiest stop in a turbulent career trajectory that has mixed toughness and loyalty to her bosses with professional scrapes, ethical blunders and years spent alternately wooing and pounding the press on behalf of scandal-prone Arizona Republicans.

“I’ve always had a picture of the White House and it would always sit right in front of my desk” in the Arizona Capitol, Ms. Grisham told a local television interviewer from the state shortly after joining the administration. “Whenever I was having a hard day I could look at it and remember what my goal was.”

While Ms. Grisham is still developing her working relationship with the president, she has been less focused on crafting and delivering the White House’s message than on acting as a behind-the-scenes organizer for a president intent on selling and defending himself.

In the nearly two months since Ms. Grisham was named to her current role, she has not held a single on-camera briefing.

In an interview last week with Eric Bolling of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the only interview she has granted since her move to the West Wing, Ms. Grisham said it was up to the president whether to reinstate the daily White House briefing. “He’s so accessible, so right now I think that that’s good enough,” she said.

Ms. Grisham is the latest example of Mr. Trump’s tendency to value loyalty and an embrace of his unorthodox style ahead of other credentials when filling top jobs.

Her career history contains red flags that most administrations might deem troubling. They include losing a private-sector job after being accused of cheating on expense reports, a later job loss over plagiarism charges and two arrests for driving under the influence, the second while working on Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Colleagues say that on the campaign and in the White House, Ms. Grisham has been a coolheaded, encouraging presence. “When we were tired, she’d tell us, ‘Keep going,’” said Hannah Salem, a White House aide. “She was one of our biggest cheerleaders on the road.”

After Mr. Trump took office, Ms. Grisham joined the White House press office, but soon fled its upheaval and infighting for a job as Mrs. Trump’s communications director, becoming a staunch protector of the first lady.

Ms. Grisham, who repeatedly declined to respond to questions for this article, keeps a low public profile in Washington. Twice divorced, she is the mother of two sons, one in his early 20s and one in grade school.

From her bosses, Ms. Grisham “gets a lot of praise for being loyal,” said David Bodney, a media lawyer in Arizona who tangled with Ms. Grisham over reporter access to public records when she worked in state government there.

“But her job is to make information available,” Mr. Bodney said. “She’s now in a unique position to either serve or frustrate the public interest. Unfortunately, her tenure in Arizona does not bode well.”

Ms. Grisham got her start in national politics as a press aide on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. But she had worked for some time before that in public relations, including a job with the AAA auto club in Arizona, which hired her in late 2006 to help with “public relations, traffic safety initiatives and legislative efforts,” according to an announcement in The Tucson Citizen.

Ms. Grisham was gone within about a year. A former AAA employee with direct knowledge of the matter said Ms. Grisham left after accusations that she filed false claims for travel and other expenses. A spokeswoman for AAA Arizona declined to discuss personnel matters.

Ms. Grisham lost a subsequent job after an accusation of plagiarism.

She had gone to work for an advertising agency in Arizona whose clients included a start-up called GarageFly, an online service that helps car owners find auto repair shops. While making a presentation to the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, GarageFly’s founder showed off his website. In an interview, he said he was quickly informed by a furious attendee from AAA that the website included material lifted verbatim from AAA.

GarageFly’s founder said he had not known because the website was created by GarageFly’s ad agency, Mindspace. And the Mindspace employee responsible for placing the AAA material on the GarageFly website turned out to be Ms. Grisham, according to two other people involved in the matter. Ms. Grisham lost her job. The agency’s owner, Brent Shetler, confirmed Ms. Grisham’s employment but declined to discuss the reasons for her departure.

Ms. Grisham declined to address questions about her departures from AAA and Mindspace.

Ms. Grisham shifted toward politics, working from 2008 to mid-2010 as a spokeswoman for the Arizona Charter Schools Association and in 2011 as a spokeswoman for Tom Horne, Arizona’s attorney general.

In 2012, Ms. Grisham took time off to work as a press aide on Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign. There, colleagues praised her organizational skills and sense of humor.

After Mr. Romney’s loss, “I was devastated for about a month,” Ms. Grisham said in the 2017 television interview. She returned to the attorney general’s office, where in 2014, Ms. Grisham fielded national press inquiries about a botched execution by the state. She described the condemned prisoner, who did not die for nearly two hours after being given a lethal injection, as “snoring” and said of the scene, “It was quite peaceful.”

Mr. Horne spent much of his tenure under investigation for alleged campaign finance violations.

When reporters from The Arizona Republic asked for public records related to the case, Ms. Grisham criticized their requests as “overreaching, an invasion of privacy and abusive use of your role in the media.” Mr. Horne lost his re-election bid and was fined in the campaign finance case.

Ms. Grisham next worked as a spokeswoman for the Arizona House’s Republican majority. In 2016 she revoked The Arizona Capitol Times’s press credentials four hours after the newspaper published an article, written by Hank Stephenson, detailing allegations that the House speaker, David Gowan, had traveled at state taxpayers’ expense while campaigning for Congress.

The fight culminated in Mr. Gowan requiring that reporters covering the Legislature submit to a personal and criminal background check. Those with convictions for serious crimes — and oddly, misdemeanor trespass — would be barred from the House floor.

Ms. Grisham billed the edict as a security measure. But Mr. Stephenson was the only Statehouse reporter with a trespassing charge on his record, related to a tavern fracas. Reporters refused to comply, and Mr. Gowan backed down.

Mr. Stephenson said he does not hold anything against Ms. Grisham, who often socialized with reporters in Phoenix, and even starred in a 2015 video made by The Capitol Times that spoofed her role as spin master.

“She’s fun,” Mr. Stephenson said. “She has a reputation as someone who puts out fires. But she starts a number of fires herself.”

In mid-2015 Ms. Grisham began working for Mr. Trump’s campaign.

In December 2015 in Arizona, Ms. Grisham was arrested for driving under the influence. She pleaded guilty and was fined, and in August 2016 the court ordered her into a treatment program. It was a second offense: In 2013 she was arrested for driving under the influence, speeding and driving with an invalid license.

The 2013 charges were reduced in 2014 to reckless driving, according to court records. Ms. Grisham has told The New York Times that she complied with all sanctions and disclosed both episodes to the White House.

Last year, while working in the East Wing, she helped launch “Be Best,” an anti-cyberbullying, anti-opioid campaign. When news emerged that a Be Best guide called “Talking With Kids About Being Online” was actually created in 2009 by the Obama administration, Ms. Grisham began a fierce defense against the plagiarism charge.

“I encourage members of the media to attempt to Be Best in their own professions,” she said.

In the West Wing, friends and former co-workers say, Ms. Grisham intends to remain a behind-the-scenes player. But she has shown a willingness to publicly assail those who displease the president.

“People who survive and thrive in Trump world are the people who come to grips with the reality that you’re just going to have to go where Trump wants to go, and echo what the president says,” said Cliff Sims, a former White House aide and friend of Ms. Grisham’s.

On Mr. Trump’s trip to Asia in June, Ms. Grisham earned plaudits from reporters after confronting North Korean guards trying to bar American journalists from Mr. Trump’s meeting with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

During a news conference with Mr. Trump and the South Korean president, the Korean hosts asked Ms. Grisham to select an American reporter to ask a question. “I’m going to let our president choose,” she responded.

Mr. Trump beamed. “She’s learned very well,” he said.