Once upon a time, before the pandemic, before Donald Trump became president of the United States, Hope Hicks was making her way up the corporate ladder at the Trump Organisation.
For a former model and champion lacrosse player, the communications role at the business empire of the New York real estate mogul and reality television star came with an office high up Trump Tower overlooking the Fifth Avenue skyline. That was 2015, the world was a different place — so too the White House — and when Trump announced his plans for an outsider bid for the presidency, Hicks became his campaign press officer.
Squeezed among the fake Time magazine covers featuring her employer — “Hopie, you’re the greatest” was scrawled across one autographed by Trump — was an inspirational poster.
“Fate whispers to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm’,” it read. “And the warrior whispers back, ‘I am the storm’.”
Fast forward five years and Hicks finds herself at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak that saw President Trump hospitalised for three days and the top echelon of his White House administration crippled by Covid 19. Is Trump’s close personal political adviser responsible for bringing the virus into Trump’s close circle and coterie of advisers just a month before Americans pass their verdict on four tumultuous years of his presidency?
Over the past several days, the President, the First Lady, the Chairman of the Republican National Convention, Trump’s Press Scretary, two US Senators, a cabal of close senior advisers, Secret Service agents and employees of the White House have been infected with the virus — an outbreak that health experts say can be traced back to September 26 when the administration’s new Supreme Court nominee was unveiled to the nation.
But it is Hicks who tested positive first. She travelled on Air Force One on a series of campaign and fund-raising events — she was put in isolation on the plane when Trump used it to take part in the stormy televised presidential debate with Democrat contender Joe Biden in Cleveland on September 29 — and seems to be the common denominator in the outbreak. Pointedly, the Trump entourage refused to wear masts at the Cleveland debate and social distancing rules were not in place during the Rose Garden instruction for Judge Amy Coney Barrett either.
So who is this wunderkind who was hand-picked by Trump himself to lead his campaign press office while working for daughter Ivanka’s luxury lines? She had never worked in politics before and her widest exposure had been as a co-star in a Nickelodeon children’s television special about golf. Now she plays confidante and erstwhile gatekeeper to the president as he seeks his second term.
Hicks had trained at Hiltzik Strategies, the powerful public relations firm that represents Hollywood clients and corporate executives, before Ivanka brought her in-house. She was commuting from an apartment she shared with her sister in Greenwich, Connecticut above the dive bar where her father had his first beer at 18. Suddenly, she found herself a near-constant presence by Trump’s side, flying in his jet, living rent-free in a Trump-owned apartment and attending to his mercurial moods.
She comes from a family well-versed in politics and public relations.
Her parents met while they were working on Capitol Hill — her mother as legislative aide for a democrat from Tennessee and her father Paul as chief of staff for a republican congressman from Connecticut. He also served as CEO of the Americas for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and as executive vice president of communications and public affairs for the National Football League before starting his current job as managing director of the Glover Park Group.
Her late grandfather, also Paul, was in charge of public relations for Texaco.
“Her most important role is her bond with the candidate,” noted Paul Manafort, the veteran Republican adviser, convicted felon and bank fraudster who headed up Trump’s successful White House campaign. “She totally understands him.”
Now 31, Hicks prefers to stay under the radar — a difficult task given her current position in the inner West Wing circle and given that she replaced Anthony Scaramucci as the president’s communications director when he was fired after 10 days in 2017.
Having modelled for the likes of Ralph Lauren as well as appearing on the cover of a Gossip Girl spin-off book — she also modelled some of Ivanka’s clothes as part of her job.
Her appointment following Scaramucci’s very brief tenure did little to dampen stinging criticism that the White House had a very loose relationship with facts, with alternative facts creating an alternative reality in Washington.
After leaving the White House in March 2018 she worked as a commentator at Fox — then returned last spring as an aide to senior adviser Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband.
Hicks previously came under scrutiny after she told House Intelligence Committee panel members investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election that she occasionally told “white lies” for President Trump but had not lied about anything related to the Russia investigation.
What is known now is that she tested positive for coronavirus before the Trump cavalcade travelled to the Midwest but was still allowed to go on the trip. Perhaps now that may be considered a mistake: perhaps not — given the seemingly cavalier attitude that prevails in the West Wing to the pandemic itself.
So far, some 212,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 since March. Now, with the virus fully circulating through Trump’s closest political and administrative advisers and polling just over three weeks away, the question is whether it can be politicised to best suit the candidate’s campaign objective: Win at any cost. Hick’s fairy tale might very well have a happy ending.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe