Kellyanne Conway is a consistent figure in the otherwise revolving-door world of the Trump White House.
She is a survivor.
In an administration marked by chaos and turnover, Conway remains: relentlessly on message, reliably defending her boss, no matter what the circumstances.
Fighting for President Donald Trump on television is valuable currency for a cable news-obsessed commander in chief. Yet Conway’s influence extends beyond her public profile. She wields more power than people realize in private as well, sources tell CNN.
The reason for that, she says, stems from her access to the most important person in Trump’s White House: The President himself.
“First and foremost, it would be my relationship with the President,” Conway said.
“It’s solid. It’s personal, and professional, and unique,” she told us in an interview inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.
But to really understand Conway’s survival skills, we went to where the Jersey Girl honed them – Atco, New Jersey, to be exact.
At age three, her father left.
“My mother was married at 21, had me barely at 23, divorced by 26 and had to pick herself up,” Conway, who is the first female campaign manager of a successful presidential campaign, told us as she welcomed us into the home where she grew up – which was originally her grandmother’s house.
She and her mother moved in not just with her grandmother but also great aunts. She jokes that she was brought up by “South Jersey’s version of the ‘Golden Girls.’”
“I never heard the words, ‘Women Empowerment.’ But I always knew that they were empowered women. I also don’t remember the words politics, or conservative,” Conway said.
“No pictures of John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan ever in this house, lots of crucifixes, lots of saints,” she joked.
There are, in fact, a lot of crucifixes and saints adorning the walls of the devout Catholic home, which Conway made additions to over the years in order to accommodate her own family as it grew.
Her childhood room is now a hallway, but still has memorabilia from her younger years everywhere, from her ’85 graduation tassel to a corsage from when she was named Blueberry Princess.
In fact, Conway says where she grew up is known as the “blueberry capital of the world.”
Up the road a bit is a blueberry farm where she worked for years growing up, and earned her first claim to fame: World Champion Blueberry Packer, which means she packed the blueberries faster than anyone else. It’s a skill she learned after realizing the faster she packed the blueberries, the more she would get paid.
The last time CNN visited Conway was at home in Alpine, New Jersey, a wealthy New York city suburb.
She worked hard to get there from her blue collar South Jersey home, where she grew up alongside the kind of voters Trump appealed to when she was his 2016 campaign manager.
“When he talked about the forgotten man and forgotten woman, I knew exactly of whom he spoke,” Conway said while driving through the town.
“It’s many of these people, and when they say forgotten they just mean that they’re looking at the system from the outside staring inside with their nose pressed up against the glass you know saying ‘what about me?’”
Man’s world of GOP Pollsters
After law school Conway entered the man’s world of Republican polling where she said she often missed out on getting clients because she wasn’t on the golf course or in the bar where one would normally learn about a chance to bid on a project.
“I didn’t know when I was being excluded, because I had no idea that they were doing big projects, or that five firms got to bid on something, and I never did,” she said.
“But it happened.”
Then, in the mid 1990s CNN hired her, then Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, as a Republican “Gen X” analyst.
“All of a sudden, things changed for me, because people – senators, members of Congress, candidates, business leaders, were turning on CNN and listening,” she recalled.
“I realized, that if anybody was trying to throw logs in my path, they couldn’t get past me speaking directly, one-on-one,” she added.
And she is still doing that.
Fighting for Trump
Conway said her relationship with the President “is such that I know he hears me.”
“He hears and listens to any number of people. Why does he hear me? Because I always tell him the truth.”
And the fact that she’s a woman?
“I think my gender helps me with the President in that he has never been afraid, and in fact, always been willing to treat men and women in his employment the same,” she said.
“I don’t feel like he listens to me any less or any differently, or any less seriously,”
When we told her a lot of people hearing her say that may have a hard time believing it, given the derogatory way Trump has referred to various women over the years.
“I think it’s too unfortunate to always conflate the two. So the President has helped countless women in this county. We have 157,000,000 Americans working now, the highest number ever,” she responded, reciting multiple statistics.
Classic Conway – she is relentlessly on message. It is her calling card. But she is also heavily criticized for sometimes taking it too far – entering the realm of alternative facts, a term she now-infamously used on NBC’s “Meet The Press” in 2017, days after Trump was sworn in. She was trying to defend and explain the President’s obsession with – and inaccurate claims about – his inauguration crowd size.
Those moments have made Conway a polarizing figure. People love to love her, and they love to hate her.
“I see so much more of the love than one would ever see if they’re reading twitter or social media or watching TV,” she said.
‘Mr. Kellyanne Conway’
Watch TV and Twitter lately, and one of the President’s most vicious critics is her own husband, George.
In recent days he’s been striking hard and deep – attacking the President’s mental state, saying he has “narcissistic personality disorder.” She was forced to respond to her husband’s criticisms of her boss.
“No I don’t share those concerns,” she said flatly standing on the White House driveway this week.
“I have four kids, and I was getting them out of the house this morning to talk to the president about substance,” she added.
Conway and CNN spoke for this story last month, before the latest drama, which includes the President himself tweeting that George Conway is “a total loser.”
But our conversation was well after her husband started going after her boss, which she says she didn’t see coming.
“George was so excited, literally crying with joy in his MAGA hat – black not red – with his MAGA hat on election night. So, in that way, he’s changed his opinion on matters with the President, the presidency. I haven’t and Donald Trump hasn’t,” she said.
When George Conway – a veteran GOP attorney – first started getting aggressive, even forming a group of anti-Trump conservative lawyers, the President lashed out – referring to him as “Mr. Kellyanne Conway.”
When asked about it, Kellyanne Conway called the term “clever.”
“It was an unusual situation, especially in politics, or Washington, and certainly in Republican politics … it’s very unusual for a husband to get his notoriety and power through his wife. It’s usually the other way around,” she said.
“People are always saying, ‘George and you should write a book, George and you should come to Harvard and speak,’ you know side by side and we should do all that, and I think, ‘oh, OK,’ but then I’d have to give him my power,” she added.
The President, his family and top aides – her colleagues – are stepping up their response to George Conway and rallying around her personally, especially as a mother of four children.
“These children who are now 14, 14, 10 and nine, and so they’re all old enough to read everything. And they’re all old enough to have embraced DC as home, which took a while, especially for one of my children. It took a long time,” she said.
When we noted that those are tough ages for children to move, she made a point of underscoring that they relocated because of her.
“Let’s face it, it is the rare occasion where a family is moving for mom’s job,” she said.
Doing it all
A question we ask a lot for this series is the one women get asked often – “how do you do it all?”
But Conway talked to CNN about that question in the context of whether or not that has become sexist – since men with children don’t usually get asked the same thing.
Is there still a double standard?
“We’re moms: that’s the way to look at it,” she said with a smile.
“It is such an inexplicable blessing to have these four children. And I also want to say to professional women even those of you who don’t like me or my job or the place I work, if you want to be a mother, be a mother, don’t let anybody tell you, ‘well, you’ll ruin your career or your schooling or there’s not time or debt. Dah, dah, dah.’ When is it ever a good time to do something so transformative in your life? Such a big change, right? But when is it not a good time after you’ve made that decision and you want to be a mom and to actually do it?” she said.
Still – parenting is a challenge for any working mom in any situation, nevermind someone in the public eye who stirs a lot of passion both for and against her.
It’s why she likes take her kids back to the home she grew up in, pre-politics.
“I tell them if you cure cancer or figure out how to put a man on the moon or you go do great things to really help people, then I’ll be known as your mother and that’ll be the best of all,” she said.