RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Donald Trump's adviser, Steve Bannon, describes his colleague Kellyanne Conway this way. Quote, "she can stand in the breach and take incoming all day long" - incoming fire, that is, rhetorical fire aimed at her president and his White House. And Conway can fire back at inquiring reporters, like when she sparred with Chuck Todd on "Meet The Press."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
KELLYANNE CONWAY: No, that's just flat-out false. And...
CHUCK TODD: And it was corrected immediately...
CONWAY: But why - Chuck, why was it said?
TODD: But Kellyanne - no, let...
CONWAY: Why was it said in the first place?
TODD: I don't know. Climb into the head of that reporter.
CONWAY: Because everyone is so presumptively negative. No - that it's OK - no, excuse me. Oh, no, no, no, no. That reporter...
MARTIN: Kellyanne Conway has emerged as one of President Trump's closest advisers and most effective public advocates, able to spin like the best of them.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
CONWAY: You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving - Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains...
TODD: Wait a minute. Alternative facts?
MARTIN: Kellyanne Conway is the subject of a new profile in The Atlantic magazine out today. The piece is called "Kellyanne's Alternative Universe." Molly Ball wrote it, and she joins us in our studio this morning. Hi.
MOLLY BALL: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Thanks for coming in. So I'm going to put you on the spot right out of the gate. You have spent time now with Kellyanne Conway and those who know her well, including her mom. What's the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Kellyanne?
BALL: I think she's really important, a lot more important than a lot of people have given her credit for. In fact, she may be the most powerful woman in America right now.
MARTIN: And collectively, people have underestimated her? I mean, explain just what her role was in getting Donald Trump across the finish line in the election.
BALL: Yeah, I think there's a very good case to be made that Donald Trump would not have won the presidential election had Kellyanne Conway not been by his side. She was his campaign manager. And also, she was constantly defending him, even at his lowest points, even at the point in the - when the campaign was really in crisis after the "Access Hollywood" tape came out.
She was on the air defending him, validating him with conservatives. He could not have won the election if conservatives hadn't, in a lot of cases, held their nose and voted for them, and validating him with women. And the fact that she can always find some rationalization, some way to defend Donald Trump, I think gives a lot of people a way to keep believing.
MARTIN: How did she end up in Donald Trump's orbit - at the center of it, really?
BALL: Well, it's funny. You know, I've known Kellyanne for many years because she's been sort of a mid-level, you know, Republican consultant and flack. She was not a big deal before she signed up with what ended up being a winning presidential campaign. She worked for Newt Gingrich in 2012. She's sort of been, you know, in that middle tier of consultants for a long time.
MARTIN: She supported Ted Cruz - right? - in the primary.
BALL: She was working for a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz in the primaries and was somewhat critical of Trump at times. But she now says those criticisms were situational.
MARTIN: What did the two see in each other? I mean, what did Donald Trump see in Kellyanne?
BALL: Well, Donald Trump sees Kellyanne as a high-energy person, which, of course, is the highest compliment that he can bestow. But there are so many similarities in their personalities. And I think that's a real reason that they get along and that she really has influence over him. You know, she's someone who never backs down. And that's something that you always hear about Trump.
She is someone who has a - who nurses a grudge, has a sort of sense of grievance, has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder. And she's someone who comes from a working-class background. And while Trump certainly did not grow up working-class, you know, he had this ability to appeal to working-class voters. And I think a lot of that was Kellyanne Conway's influence and the message that she helped devise.
MARTIN: You say she has a chip on her shoulder. Where did that come from?
BALL: Well, I think a lot of it comes from where she came from. I spoke to her mother for this piece. I went to where she was raised, in rural South Jersey. And this is something that I heard from so many Trump voters throughout the election, this sense that life isn't fair for us, the sense that we're, you know, getting screwed by the elites, the sense that someone has to stick up for us because we've been left behind. And that's something that, you know, even as she has ascended to the ranks of the elites financially and in terms of zip codes, she has always felt that sympathy with the people who don't have access to that.
MARTIN: We heard that clip of her talking about alternative facts with Chuck Todd of NBC. She got a whole lot of flak for that. And a new meme was born in the alternative facts phrase. She also said this on MSNBC. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)
CONWAY: Two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized. And they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre.
MARTIN: So that's a massacre that, of course, did not happen. What is your take on Kellyanne Conway's relationship with the truth? I mean, is she intentionally setting out to mislead? Is it just something that happens in the moment?
BALL: Well, everybody makes mistakes. And - but I do think that this is an important characteristic that Kellyanne Conway shares with Donald Trump along the lines of what I was saying before, that she does have this very questionable relationship with the truth. And in that way, she is a perfect emblem, perfect mascot for this administration that seems so cavalier about what is a fact and what is not. She, like Donald Trump, seems to - seems willing to believe a lot of conspiracy theories but also willing to dismiss a lot of what is reported as fact.
MARTIN: Does she believe them? Or does she just see their utility?
BALL: I don't think we'll ever know. I don't think we'll ever know. But, you know, there's this knowingness to her persona, unlike Trump, that - she literally likes to wink a lot when you're talking to her. She will wink one eye. And she's - and she's funny. And she talks fast. And so there's a sense that people have - this is apparent in some of the "Saturday Night Live" portrayals of her - that maybe she's in on the joke. But if that's the case, publicly or privately, she never lets that mask slip.
MARTIN: With the last few seconds we have, can you clarify her role in the White House? You said she could be the most important woman in America. What is her relationship to the president? What does it mean to be a senior adviser?
BALL: That seems to be somewhat a work in progress. He likes to have her out in the media. She wants to be behind the scenes, influencing policy. And she's quite frank about the fact that she is still working on him in terms of the role that she wants to play.
MARTIN: Molly Ball's profile of Kellyanne Conway is out today in The Atlantic magazine. It is called "Kellyanne's Alternative Universe." Molly, thanks so much for coming in today.
BALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.