White House official Boris Epshteyn, a combative Trump loyalist tasked with plugging the president’s message on television, threatened earlier this year to pull all West Wing officials from appearing on Fox News after a tense appearance on anchor Bill Hemmer’s show.
Epshteyn, according to multiple sources familiar with the exchange, got in a yelling match with a Fox News booker after Hemmer pressed him for details of President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order cracking down on immigration from Muslim-majority countries — a topic he was not expecting to be grilled on.
“Am I someone you want to make angry?” Epshteyn told the booker, the sources said. When he threatened to pull White House officials from the network, the fed-up booker had had enough.
“Go right ahead,” the booker fired back, the sources said, aware that Epshteyn had no power to follow through on a threat that would have upended the administration’s relationship with a sympathetic news network.
Ultimately, White House officials have continued to appear on Fox News, and the network told POLITICO that it handled the flare-up professionally.
Epshteyn’s rise to a position of prominence in the Trump White House reveals how the president has rewarded his loyalists. But Epshteyn, who serves as special assistant to the president, has added to the impression of an antagonistic White House by throwing his weight around in a manner that has further strained the relationship between the administration and the television networks.
Epshteyn’s official job is to oversee White House officials who appear on television to speak on behalf of the administration, and defend and explain Trump on TV himself. In recent weeks, he has been aligned with counselor Kellyanne Conway in pushing the administration to use Cabinet secretaries to talk about policies on television, and reduce the on-air profiles of White House staffers.
Epshteyn declined to comment for this story. In an interview, White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended Epshteyn as an important member of his team. “Boris is a fierce advocate for the president and his policies,” Spicer told POLITICO. “Obviously we’ve got to make sure that everyone is treated with the appropriate level of respect. I have not seen a problem.”
But on all three cable news networks, according to more than half a dozen interviews with TV insiders and contributors, Epshteyn has earned a reputation as someone who is combative and sometimes difficult to work with, even when he arrives at studios as a guest of a network. He has offended people in green rooms with comments they have interpreted as racially insensitive and demeaning.
“His off-camera behavior was even more distasteful than his on-camera behavior,” said Joy-Ann Reid, a national correspondent for MSNBC, who often sparred with Epshteyn on television during the campaign.
During an incident last summer, Epshteyn was chatting at Fox News with Basil Smikle, chairman of the New York State Democratic Party about an upcoming story segment on affirmative action. Smikle, the son of Jamaican immigrants, explained to Epshteyn, who is a Russian Jew, the challenge of feeling like you have to work twice as hard to prove your worth when you’re black in America, he told POLITICO in an interview.
In response, “Boris suggested affirmative action means that institutions have to lower their standards to let African-Americans in,” Smikle said in an interview, noting that Epshteyn seemed to imply that the bar for success was lower for him because of the color of his skin. Smikle, who holds degrees from Cornell University and Columbia University, said he was “stunned at the comment, and I found it offensive.”
It was not an isolated incident of making offensive statements in public. Sitting in the green room at CNN during the election, Epshteyn rankled Christine Quinn, a paid network contributor and the former speaker of the New York City Council. “Why does she dress like that?” he said out loud, in front of multiple people, pointing to a woman with very short hair, wearing a loose-fitting pantsuit.
“Why do you dress like that?” Quinn, who is gay and a longtime LGBT rights activist, fired back. Epshteyn, Quinn said in an interview, appeared stunned by the reaction to his comment.
Epshteyn entered Trumpworld as a surrogate, thanks to a friendship with Eric Trump developed as fellow undergrad students at Georgetown University. He became a ubiquitous presence on cable news throughout the 2016 campaign, first as an outside supporter and then as a paid Trump campaign staffer.
One CNN contributor interviewed for this story, who declined to speak on the record without approval from the network, recalled Epshteyn arriving early for a segment during the campaign and sprawling out on the couch in the greenroom to rest — and then complaining to a producer that the makeup staff wasn’t quick enough to powder his face.
Now, Epshteyn is a White House official, with an office in the Old Executive Office Building, steps from the West Wing. He is often spotted in the West Wing, near Spicer’s office, or sporting his signature three-piece suits in the briefing room.
Internally, Epshteyn is well-regarded for his loyalty to Trump and for his ability to publicly speak on behalf of the administration — no small posting for an administration where the president is keenly focused on how things play on cable TV.
“Boris is someone who is willing to go on the battlefield in support or defense of candidate and now President Trump,” Conway said in an interview, noting that many of the unflattering stories about Epshteyn are par for the course when your job is to defend Donald Trump. “Everyone here is aware that if you are someone who continues to support President Trump, you, yourself are a target,” she said. “I think some people are looking for a body count.”
But his recent blow-up with Fox News has put him on thin ice with some senior White House officials, according to people close to the administration. When Epshteyn joined the administration’s communications team, Spicer was warned by campaign aides about past complaints from the network about his behavior, and Epshteyn was warned that his campaign antics would not be tolerated by the White House, multiple sources familiar with the discussions said. Spicer declined to comment on any specific warning delivered to Epshteyn.
As the communications director for Trump’s inaugural committee last January, Epshteyn met with all of the networks ahead of the president’s swearing in. At a meeting with NBC executives, he aired his grievances against Reid and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. In the room, his jokes about how he enjoys appearing on television in part because of the free food fell flat, according to multiple sources in the meeting.
“He calls women girls, and he has no decorum about how he speaks to people,” said Reid. “He’s somebody that just makes the room uncomfortable. When he leaves the room, the conversation is, ‘I hope he never comes back.’ He enjoys making people uncomfortable.”
Despite his critics, Epshteyn’s political profile has quickly risen, thanks to his early allegiance to the president. Just eight years ago, Epshteyn was a junior staffer on Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. Today, Epshteyn is a senior White House official who is considered critical to the mission of creating the image of a successful presidency. And in Trump’s world, loyalty and ubiquity on television count for a lot.
“He goes on TV and he defends Donald Trump,” said one former campaign aide. “That carries a lot of weight.”