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Politics

The Myth Of "Trump-Whisperer" Kellyanne Conway

Trump's high-profile campaign manager has been credited with "taming" the candidate. But some insiders tell BuzzFeed News she may not be pulling the strings.

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No one has gotten more credit (or blame) for the recent turnaround at the Trump campaign than Kellyanne Conway, the always-on-TV Republican pollster who was promoted last month to campaign manager.

In the five weeks since Conway took the job, Donald Trump has grown gradually more disciplined and adult-like as a candidate — reading speeches from teleprompters, backing away from pet conspiracy theories, even dialing down the frequency of his signature Twitter rants. And as the race has narrowed, Conway has emerged in the popular imagination of politicos and pundits as the deft handler who's finally succeeded in domesticating Trump. When the candidate gives a measured TV interview, it is assumed that "Kellyanne must be standing off camera with a tranquilizer gun." When he exercises restraint on Twitter, the joke is that "Kellyanne changed the passcode on the old Android." In one soft-focus profile after another, she is presented as the "Trump-whisperer."

It's a meme that's only likely to grow if, as many predict, Trump uses Monday's presidential debate stage to debut a newly chivalrous persona — but some insiders question how much influence Conway actually has over the candidate.

Interviews this week with more than half a dozen GOP sources close to the campaign suggest her “Trump-whisperer” status is more made-for-TV myth than reality.

"She's there to go on MSNBC or Fox, or whatever. That's sort of her job. They think she's good on TV, and they like having her there as the face of the campaign," said one source with knowledge of the strategy.

"The narrative that Kellyanne is a woman genius and saving Trump helps him as he runs against a woman ... [but] Kellyanne spends nearly 100% of her time on TV. That's her role," said another Republican who is close to Conway.

Even her most ardent fans and allies inside Trump Tower concede that her supposed stage management of the candidate has been overstated in the media.

"Is she the Trump-whisperer? I don't know," said one campaign strategist, adding, "She's easily the best surrogate [Trump] has."

Responding to questions for this story, Conway emailed BuzzFeed News, "My role is broad. We have a great and mutually respectful working relationship. ... Mr. Trump likes the fact that part of my role is to be a public face of the campaign through TV appearances."

Of the "Trump-whisperer" designation, she said, "You are on solid ground to question that particular description. ... He is his own person."

That's not to say Conway hasn't had any effect on the campaign. Like other advisers, she is in regular contact with Trump, and is said to be especially close with his daughter Ivanka. Among campaign staffers, she is widely credited with raising morale and creating a more stable workplace — especially when compared to the macho infighting and disruptive turf wars that dominated the organization for much of the past year.

"She's incredibly friendly and approachable," said A.J. Delgado, a senior adviser and surrogate for the campaign. "I think people are happy working under her just because she's a nice person to work for. She's definitely set a tone of positivity."

Yet, Conway continues to be cast in the political press primarily as the savvy Trump-tamer — why? One reason may be her uniquely chummy relationships with Beltway journalists (many of whom refer to her only by her first name in public). Another is Team Trump's constant touting of her "historic" role as the first Republican woman to run a general-election presidential campaign.

But the biggest factor driving Conway's outsize public reputation is her omnipresence on television. She spends far more time in front of the cameras than typical campaign managers do, appearing constantly on cable news, network morning shows, and even Bill Maher's HBO talk show Real Time, where the liberal host recently accused her of "enabling pure evil."

Some have questioned whether it's possible for her to effectively manage a national presidential campaign from a green room. Conway acknowledged that her schedule is packed ("I've mostly sworn off seated meals or hot meals until mid-November") but said her frequent TV appearances haven't interfered with her other duties.

"All this does is add an hour to my day each in the morning and the evening," she said. "The rest of the day is spent on strategy, long-term scheduling, huddling with our internal and external teams, traveling with the candidate, and naturally, poring over data, news, and other 'inputs.'"

Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster who has known Conway for years, also noted that Trump has "far fewer surrogates than the average presidential campaign" and therefore "needs all the articulate spokespeople he can get."

Conway, who once lived in a Trump building, has been a friend and informal adviser to the billionaire since 2011, when he publicly flirted with entering the presidential race. She conducted polling for him in 2014 when he considered running for governor of New York. But by the time Trump began staffing his campaign in 2015, she had apparently lost interest in his political pursuits. When Corey Lewandowski invited her to meet with him about joining the campaign, she stood him up, according to two sources. (Conway denied this, and said has "stayed friends" with Lewandowski.) She went on to spend the Republican primaries working with a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz.

Several people close to Trump said bluntly that his well-documented aversion to stage management could probably not be overcome by a woman — with the sole exception of his eldest daughter. Indeed, many inside the candidate's orbit believe that if there is any "Trump-whisperer" who deserves credit for his occasional forays into seriousness, it's Ivanka. Others attribute Trump's discipline to his own competitive drive and fear of losing the election.

Meanwhile, two sources close to Roger Ailes said the former Fox News chief is playing a much larger backstage role in handling Trump than most people realize. More than anyone, they said, it is Ailes — a master of political communications and media — that has succeeded in getting Trump to stay on script and soften his tone.

One source predicted that Ailes would get plenty of ink in the various post-2016 insider campaign books, but said he was "happy for now having his role downplayed." Though Ailes is not on the campaign's payroll, he is said to be actively advising the candidate ahead of Monday night's debate.

"Trump doesn't listen to anyone," said a Republican close to Ailes. "But he does listen to Roger sometimes."

McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.

Contact McKay Coppins at mckay@buzzfeed.com.

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