WASHINGTON, D.C. — White House spokesman Raj Shah felt both the spotlight and the intensity of its heat on Feb. 8, when he conducted a White House briefing shortly after White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned in the wake of domestic abuse allegations.
As principal deputy press secretary and deputy assistant to the president, Shah was faced with having to defend earlier statements by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders who had showered kudos on Porter as a man of “integrity” and apparently urged him to fight back and continue to deny the allegations.
As opening acts from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room go, it was baptism by fire. Sanders, who was vacationing at the time, had earlier described Shah on Twitter as “one of the best and the brightest in the Trump administration.” But his debut at the podium also came less than a week after a New York magazine article reported on derogatory comments Shah had made about Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” controversy during the 2016 election.
That afternoon, Shah faced salvo after salvo about Kelly and Porter, appearing tense and on the defensive, saying at one point that Porter was “terminated,” and later correcting himself and noting that “he offered his resignation and it was accepted.”
There was a brief respite, however, when one reporter asked him to comment on the White House’s reaction to unflattering comments made by former White House aide Omarosa Manigault on TV’s “Celebrity Big Brother.”
“Omarosa,” Shah noted, “was fired three times on the ‘Apprentice’ [the NBC’ show that Trump hosted] and this was the fourth time we let her go. She had limited contact with the president while here. She has no contact now.”
Afterward, some of the cable news networks panned his performance, with CNN describing his briefing as “disastrous” and the Washington Post wondering, “Will he ever again appear at the podium?” Other reports in the media said Trump was peeved over Shah’s acknowledging that the White House could have done a better job in handling the reports of Porter’s abusive behavior, including a photo of one of the wives with a massive black eye after he allegedly attacked her.
During the briefing, Shah had said, “It’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours — or the last few days, in dealing with this situation. But this was the Rob Porter that I and many others have dealt with, that Sarah dealt with, that other officials, including the chief of staff, have dealt with. And the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we have come to know.”
Shah has hit the ground running since the announcement on Jan. 4, 2017 by then President-elect Donald Trump that the Norwalk, Connecticut native would become one of his White House point people. At 33, Shah had just become the youngest and the first Indian-American to serve as a White House spokesman. He was fresh from his stint leading the Republican National Committee’s opposition research hit team against Hillary Clinton.
At the time, sources said the appointment was strongly recommended by both incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and incoming Communications Chief and White House press spokesman Sean Spicer — the erstwhile chairman and communications director and chief strategist of the RNC who had recruited Shah for his second stint with the RNC — this time to direct the GOP’s research on Clinton.
At that time, Priebus, as chairman of the RNC, described Shah as “an accomplished researcher with a wealth of experience, the right instincts, and the keen eye that makes for a successful research director.” Shah had previously served as cofounding partner and managing director of America Rising LLC, where he developed the organization’s Hillary Clinton opposition research playbook.
Spicer told India Abroad that “Raj was the go-to guy at the RNC and has been an invaluable member of the White House Communications and press teams. He knows how to distill massive amounts of information into effective messaging.”
An alumnus of Cornell, where he had received his bachelor’s degree in government studies and honed his political skills, Shah possesses a professional track record that also includes stints in the Senate and on presidential campaigns, including Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid in 2008. He also worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel in the Bush administration.
But by Sept. 12, 2017, Shah’s patron saints Priebus and Spicer were gone —fired in the wake of the chaos and dysfunction in the White House — and the betting was that Shah’s fate, with the advent of Priebus’ bete noire, Anthony Scaramucci as new communications director, also hung in the balance. He was expected to resign.
Instead, Scaramucci himself was fired by the-new Chief of Staff Kelly after only 10 days on the job following his profanity-laced interview attacking Priebus in the New Yorker magazine. Shah not only survived, but was promoted to principal deputy press secretary — highest ranking position ever held by an Indian-American in the White House press office. He retained his position as deputy assistant to the president.
His situation appeared reinforced after the arrival of Huckabee Sanders and Trump’s trusted aide Hope Hicks, who was also confirmed as the new communications director. At the time sources said that Shah had not only endeared himself to Sanders and Hope, but had been clearly recognized by them as a steady hand and anchor with invaluable strategic communications expertise.
For more than two-and-a-half months after his promotion, Shah remained behind-the-scenes and as a shadow to Sanders as she battled with the White House media corps.
On Nov. 29, Shah’s visibility grew as he held his first gaggle with the traveling White House press corps aboard Air Force One, while accompanying Trump to St. Louis. This was the first time an Indian-American administration official had held a press gaggle — an informal briefing which is on-the-record but does not allow for videographing —with the White House press corps.
During the 12-minute session on Air Force One, Shah defended Trump’s controversial re-tweets of an anti-Muslim British group, which had evoked a public reprimand from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
He also took questions on North Korea’s latest firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile and on tax-cut legislation. It was described as a feisty, lively exchange.
A few weeks later he told a group of Indian reporters that he was reveling in the White House experience, declaring that “it’s awesome. It’s is a lot of fun to represent the president, to represent his views, not just to a domestic but an international audience.”
The gaggle, however, was just a warmup for the Feb. 8 encounter at the James S. Brady press briefing room podium, where he acknowledged the White House could have handled the Porter situation more deftly. If Trump was angry over Shah’s admitting that the White House could have done a better job, he was provided some cover by Vice President Mike Pence while in PyeongChang, South Korea, for the Winter Olympics.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Pence said he was “appalled,” by the abuse allegations, and asserted, “There’s no tolerance in this White House, and no place in America for domestic abuse.”
Pence also referred to Shah’s briefing and said, “I think the White House has acknowledged that they could have handled it better.” He also said he would “look into the matter” when he returned to Washington and share his counsel with the president directly.
The Washington Post’s question of whether Shah would ever appear at the podium again was put to rest on Feb. 22 when Shah was back for an encore performance: Subbing for Sanders a second time, he was peppered with questions about how Trump and the White House would respond to recurring gun violence, following the deadly shootings at a school in Parkland, Florida.
Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, told India Abroad that “Raj has been on the front lines for a White House that’s facing an awful lot of tough issues and he’s shown that he’s calm, not easily ruffled and professional. In my experience, he wants to be helpful to the extent that he can and I appreciate that.”
He noted that Shah was “working inside a system where the challenges for press spokespeople are enormous. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have a boss who considers himself his own best spokesman. And, you can find yourself contradicted by the president at any moment.”
Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, echoing similar sentiments, said, “In a very short time and under a glaring spotlight, Raj has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s most effective communicators.”
Referring to the first briefing Shah conducted on Feb. 8, Karl said, “He made his debut in the White House briefing under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but managed to keep his cool as he faced a barrage of tough-to-answer questions.”
Anita Kumar, White House correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, who said she had known Shah from his RNC days, recalled that “as you note, he had never taken the podium before February 8 — although he had briefed reporters on Air Force One before — and many of us did not know what to expect.”
She said, “I spoke to many other reporters after the briefing and most everyone had a similar impression. Raj remained calm and answered questions without being snarky like some of the people who have delivered briefings before.”
In an interview with India Abroad before taking up his White House position, Shah described the GOP as “a big and diverse tent party, when reminded that many Indian-Americans and South Asian-Americans traditionally have been Democrat…Meanwhile, Democrats continue to propose the types of job-killing policies that will undermine this country’s unique standing as the land of opportunity that inspired my parents and many like them to come to America.”
More recently, Shah told India Abroad that he considered it “a true honor and privilege to advocate for this president and his policies every single day.”
Asked to respond to attacks from even Indian-American progressives and Gen-Xers like himself for defending Trump’s perceived anti-immigrant policies, Shah said, “I’m not concerned about small-minded attacks from those who’d rather demagogue this important issue than fix it.”
He described Trump’s four-pillar plan on immigration as “both compassionate in providing an eventual path to citizenship for 1.8 million and [securing] our border while implementing the merit-based reforms to fix our legal immigration system.”
The son of immigrants from Mumbai, Shah’s political activism began while he was still attending Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut when he volunteered in Bridgeport for Republican Rep. Chris Shays and interned for Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman.
At 19, Shah cast his first vote for George W. Bush in 2004. He interned in the White House in 2005 and then went on to work in the White House Office of Personnel.
In 2010, he served as campaign spokesman for New Mexico Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez and two years later joined the RNC as deputy research director.
While Indian-American Republicans rejoice over Shah’s exponential rise in the White House West Wing press staff and consider him a trailblazer, he is anathema to Indian-American Democrats, particularly the progressive wing and Generation Xers like Deepa Iyer, former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and Shikha Bhatnagar, executive director of the South Asian Network (SAN), who have railed against him at various forums and social media, saying that he has defended Trump’s xenophobia, bigotry, and misogyny.
Shah is also right up there on the progressives’ #DesiWallOfShame along with others like Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai and the founder and chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar.
The social media campaign was launched on Jan. 30 by Iyer and California-based activist Anirvan Chatterjee, and is popular on Facebook and Twitter. Shah was inducted into the #DesiWallOfShame for defending Trump’s unflattering comments about African nations.
It exhorts fellow South Asian Americans to “learn the issues” and hold these inductees “accountable” for “pushing an anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-internet agenda.”