NEW YORK – The “Raj whatever-his-name-is” – as christened by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, had his biggest career moment, on February 8, when he took to the lectern of the White House press briefing room, held forth a ‘stonewalling’ session; warded off an aggrieved press corps who relentlessly questioned the integrity of the Trump Administration on the issue of staffer Rob Porter’s controversial exit after allegations of domestic abuse.
The Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah, standing in for his boss Sarah Huckabee Sanders, put on his best game face. He grimly faced a fusillade of questions ranging also from evicted reality star Omarosa’s attack on President Trump, Green Cards for skilled legal immigrants who have taken to the last resort of demonstrating outside the White House, strategy on North Korea, and investigation of chemical weapons in Syria.
The sublime moment was not lost on anyone, least on Shah, who joined the Trump Administration in 2016, after a stint of digging dirt on Hillary Clinton with ‘America Rising’, an opposition research project funded by the Republican National Committee: he created history, became the first Indian American to be the official face of the US administration.
It might be unfathomable for many that Shah, 33, who grew up in Connecticut and is also officially Deputy Assistant to President Trump, would rise to this position considering his foibles in the past. He was arrested on a DWI charge, fired from his then job as campaign spokesman for New Mexico Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez, in 2010. He has also committed the sin of dissing on Trump, calling him disparagingly as a “deplorable”; applauded the release of Trump’s ‘Access Hollywood’ tape; even helped get embarrassing footage of Trump to use in a Jeb Bush commercial.
On the way to his meteoric rise, Shah has also faced an identity crisis of sorts; well, at least created by CNN. Apart from Cuomo’s dismissive and derisive remark, the network also put up a photo of former Obama Administration USAID chief Dr. Rajiv Shah, to pass off as Raj Shah. Both men are handsome enough, but that’s not the point.
Shah’s biggest moment in the limelight now comes with plenty of baggage, though.
Unlike his backstage, surreptitious work of the past, Shah’s every word is now recorded for posterity. In his line of work, that means few accolades, plenty of rebukes, become a willing scapegoat. His words, his defense of others, like an inept, unprepared attorney, could haunt him on a daily basis. And perhaps, in that lies the biggest headache for Shah, who realizes too that his high-profile glamor job is as futile as a woodpecker trying to saw off a redwood tree.
The fact is that in the new age world of Trump, the job of spokespersons like Shah is totally diminished and trivialized; made a mockery of. It’s almost a theater of the absurd, for the media to pick holes, cast aspersions on the Trump administration, instead of treating it as a meaningful exchange of information of sorts. The deep skepticism by the press corps is met with ridiculously stoic, blasé answers, by a spokesperson like Shah. It’s as if a heavyweight boxer takes to the ring in full gear and seriousness, allows a 5-year-old child to pummel him, without hitting back.
Forget nasty questions from the press. The true hidden danger to a Trump Administration spokesperson’s sanity lurks in comments from Trump that may come forth in unexpected ways, unexpected hours from the now-profitable Twitter. Shah, no doubt, must be wary of this every time he opens his mouth.
Despite being pummeled by the press for some ridiculous answers to the questions posed to him – apart from a moment of candor, when he said that the White House could have dealt with the Porter issue better, Shah’s true pat on the back came at night from Trump real official spokesperson, he himself, through Twitter.
Trump wrote: “Time to end the visa lottery. Congress must secure the immigration system and protect Americans.” This was in response to Shah’s comments when asked on faster Green Cards for skilled workers waiting in line: “The President wants to see legal immigration reforms. He wants to see us move from a process currently existing in law, of extended family chain migration toward merit-based legal immigration reform. We want to ensure that people coming in the country are the best and the brightest regardless of nationality, creed, religion or anything else in-between.”
Shah’s best moment though on his debut press day was a smart retort to a question on Omarosa’s animosity towards Trump: “Omarosa was fired three times on ‘The Apprentice,’ and this is the fourth time we let her go. She had limited contact with the president while here, and she has no contact now,” he said.
A real whippersnapper of a sound bite that one! Congratulations to you Raj Shah!
Perhaps, Shah might be wise to ponder this comment too from Omarosa, on her disillusionment with Trump, as he looks back on the day’s play: “I didn’t realize that by being loyal to him, it was going mean I was going to lose 100 other friends.”
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)