With fewer than 100 hours until Donald J. Trump is inaugurated as the next president of the United States, Boris Epshteyn, the communications director for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, is “totally crazed.”
Of all the painful tasks Trump loyalists have taken on over the 19 months of his meteoric political rise, Epshteyn’s is by far the strangest: to explain why it’s no big deal that the country’s first celebrity president—a man preoccupied by Hollywood, obsessed with movies, with talent, with glitz—will enter office in the least star-studded inauguration in recent memory. Hell, even George W. Bush managed to get Ricky Martin to saunter down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, crooning “Do you really want it?”
But fear not, for Epshteyn has a compelling series of alternate-universe talking points at his disposal, intended to convince you that no, Trump really does not want it. And luckily for the soon-to-be POTUS, Epshteyn is as skilled a spin master as Trump could ever want after his campaign stint as a “senior adviser” and frequent TV pundit trained him, through trial and error, to hardly ever veer off a script of platitudes that make “Make America Great Again!” sound specific.
“Our message has been, and my completely full-hearted, convinced belief is that this inaugural, just like the campaign was and just like the presidency will be, is about the American people,” he told me. “That’s what this inaugural’s all about. So, do I—am I worried about the celebrities or certain ones that aren’t showing? No, but we have a lot of great performers coming—Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down—and you know what? We have the biggest celebrity in the world, and that’s the American people.”
It was Martin Luther King Day and we were in the gloomy confines of the L’Enfant Plaza food court in Southwest Washington, a venue for which Epshteyn was entirely overdressed in his carefully tailored suit and Murano glass cufflinks resembling glittering marbles, which he obtained in Venice. In his mid-thirties (he implored me to “guess” when I asked him to confirm his age), he’s tall and broad, with thinning dark hair and a calm demeanor, even amid the chaos that has become his daily life.
Trump cast the media as his enemy throughout the campaign and transition, but Epshteyn—like Kellyanne Conway and others on staff—has always been an affable presence in the green rooms, makeup chairs, and after parties where press members and political operatives sometimes meet and superficially interact. And it’s on cable news, where Epshteyn can be seen on a near constant loop, that he’s lately been dispensing this snappy argument: “You know, this is not Woodstock. It’s not Summer Jam. It’s not a concert. It’s not about celebrities.”
It’s not—it’s instead become about their absence. Trump’s inability so far to secure even one legitimate star for his big day has been a delight to his political foes, who need every opportunity for comfort that they can get in this time of grave uncertainty. For his fans, well, this is just another example of the lamestream elites being out of touch with real America. How’d Katy Perry work out for Hillary, after all? Or Beyoncé, with her polka dotted pantsuit?
Still, Trump’s entire existence is a protracted quest for approval from the powerful, the famous and the good looking. To accept the conceit that he doesn’t care who’s on his guest list is to ignore 30-plus years of evidence that, in fact, that’s all that matters to him.
“We’re going to have a very, very elegant day,” the president-elect said during his press conference last week. “The 20th is going to be something that will be very, very special; very beautiful. And I think we’re going to have massive crowds because we have a movement.”
But the day Epshteyn and I met for this article, the B Street Band—that’d be a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band—pulled out of its scheduled performance, citing “respect and gratitude” to The Boss, a liberal Democrat who adamantly opposed Trump’s candidacy.
And they weren’t the only ones to acquire stage fright.
Andrea Bocelli, whose soaring tenor often boomed through the stadiums where Trump held his campaign rallies, backed out of his tentatively planned concert after his fans expressed outrage—although Thomas Barrack, the inaugural committee’s chair, claimed it was Trump who told him you’re fired.
Jennifer Holliday, of Dreamgirls fame, canceled her appearance after reading a story, published by The Daily Beast, explaining that her gay fanbase was dismayed by her decision to sing for the president-elect. She apologized for what she called “a lapse in judgment” adding, “my only choice must now be to stand with the LGBT Community and to state unequivocally that I WILL NOT PERFORM FOR THE WELCOME CONCERT OR FOR ANY OF THE INAUGURATION FESTIVITIES!”
Throughout Trump’s rallies, Elton John’s music—specifically “Tiny Dancer”—played continually, as often as half a dozen times in a single afternoon. And the Donald knows Elton socially, once taking to his Trump University blog to congratulate the singer on his marriage to another man. It made a bit of sense, then, when Anthony Scaramucci, a transition official, said John would be performing. “This will be the first American president in U.S. history that enters the White House with a pro-gay-rights stance,” he said. “Elton John is going to be doing our concert on the mall for the inauguration.” But Scaramucci’s claim was quickly swatted down by Elton’s own publicist, Fran Curtis, who said, “Incorrect. He will NOT be performing.”
Which leaves the Radio City Rockettes, the Talladega College Marching Tornadoes, Jackie Evancho, a former contestant on America’s Got Talent, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to go along with Keith, Greenwood and 3 Doors Down.
For comparison, Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration featured Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, and Springsteen (the real one, not a cover band).
“It’s the mainstream media who focuses [on the negative],” Epshteyn said dismissively. “It’s a mistake in perspective. A perspective of, ‘Well, XYZ said they’re not gonna perform’—Well, that’s like me saying ‘I’m not gonna play quarterback for the Giants.’ No one’s asking me!”
He’s not receptive to the concept that people who voted for a former reality TV star who sold his own line of steaks and cologne might in fact be enamored by celebrity. “What does a coal worker in Pennsylvania, what does a mom in Florida, what do they care about?” he asked. “Do we really think they care about whoever’s sipping champagne cocktails in the Hamptons or mojitos? No. Now, having said that, we’ve got amazing events, very beautiful celebrations are planned.”
Epshteyn’s journey to the center of Trump’s orbit begins, like Trump’s victory might’ve, in Moscow. He was raised there until 1993, when he immigrated to Princeton, New Jersey, with his father, who he said is a scientist, and mother, a real-estate agent. He describes his family as Jewish refugees and doesn’t have much by way of a sense of humor about the coincidence of his Russian heritage and the claims that the country meddled in the U.S. election that made his boss president. “I was 11,” he said, sternly, when asked about any connections he might have to Russia now. He added that rumors, like one that he’s a Russian spy, which have been floated on Democratic message boards, are “offensive.”
Asked how he reconciles his Jewish faith with the enthusiastic support of some anti-Semites for the incoming president, he denied the premise. “If you look at my Twitter and the things the left has said about me, it’s as bad if not worse,” he said, “and I’ve had family who died in the Holocaust.” He added, “I know that the president-elect is somebody who’s accepting, uniting, kind, obviously he’s got members of his family who are Jewish—his daughter is Jewish, his son-in-law’s Jewish, his grandkids are Jewish, and to me personally, I cannot express the amount of support and positivity that I’ve experienced from the president-elect.”
Growing up, he said, his family was apolitical and it wasn’t until law school at Georgetown, where he also studied for undergrad, that he arrived at his conservative worldview. “I found myself, in a lot of the courses I was taking, taking a more conservative viewpoint,” he said. “I believe that there’s no country like America that gives you the kind of opportunities you’re gonna have here.” Georgetown was also formative in another way; it was there that he met Eric Trump, who didn’t respond to an email requesting an interview for this article. Epshteyn described Eric as merely a friendly acquaintance, but their relationship surely aided him throughout the campaign, where staffers were often thrown from the moving train amid ego clashes and backstabbing. He describes Eric as, “determined, resolute, smart, social—just a wonderful, wonderful guy.” Since college, he added, they’ve “gotten closer.”
While still a student, in 2006, Epshteyn co-authored a book with his now-wife and mother of his infant son, Lauren Tanick Epshteyn (née Lauren Gorlin Tanick), titled Where to Date In D.C., a guide to restaurants in the District, reviewed from a his-and-hers perspective. In the entry for Union Station, Epshteyn wrote, “In an election campaign, a new strategy that changes everything is called a Silver Bullet. Well, boys, this is your Silver Bullet, your moment to shine and show your girl that you are for real.” He suggests taking your date to Union Station under the guise of obtaining pizza, only to board a train to New York for real pizza, which is an objectively fine idea. In another section, Epshteyn advises readers that at Rosa Mexicano, “start off with a pomegranate margarita for your date and a Corona for you.” Tanick-Epshteyn, who does mobile ad sales strategy for Google, now writes under the pen name Lane Everett. In 2015, she released A Northern Gentleman, a work of historical fiction that follows a “handsome and quick witted” protagonist called Drucker May through his odyssey of reinvention and self-discovery in 1890.
Boris Epshteyn’s own journey into politics came during a sabbatical from his two-year stint at a New York City law firm, when he worked as a communications aide for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. He says he spent time with Sarah Palin in Alaska and at the Virginia headquarters, where he was part of the VP rapid response team. “That was a time in our country that was difficult for Republicans,” he told me.
In 2009, he joined West America Securities, an investment firm which The New York Times reported had a prickly relationship with regulators, and in 2016, TGP Securities, his current investment firm, was the subject of a suit which charged that Epshteyn and his partner had failed to deliver on an agreement for which they were paid $100,000. According to the Times, Epshteyn “boasted about his clout in the Republican Party and frequent television appearances” in an attempt to draw the plaintiff’s business, even telling them to “Google him and watch his videos.”
That kind of Trumpian confidence can be gleaned outside of business deals, too. He often sounds like his boss, overselling mundane things or unremarkable people as “wonderful” or “unbelievable.”
Lately, he’s good at keeping himself in line—“Being an attorney helps,” he told me. “The legal training goes a long way, because it’s all about messaging, right?”—but in 2014, he was forced to undergo anger management training after getting into a bar fight in Arizona and he sometimes struggled to discipline himself over the course of the campaign, resulting in the wrong kind of headlines. He infamously claimed Russia didn’t seize Crimea, which is objectively false, and he said Obama rigged the 2008 election despite a total lack of supporting evidence.
That was par for the course for a Trump surrogate, of course, which does not list strong adherence to the facts in its job description. But what sets Epshteyn apart is a kind of professionalism. Corey Lewandowski cried into his beer in front of a New York Times reporter and Scottie Nell Hughes relented to introspection in front of this one. Epshteyn, in contrast, is not prone to glimpses of his humanity. He’s a loyal soldier, first and foremost, concerned with #MAGA.
“We’re here to represent the president-elect and the vice president-elect,” he told me. “So anything I’m doing, including this conversation, I’m here representing them and I’m always thinking about making sure that everything I do reflects well on those who I work for, because I’m all in. I’m all in.”
But back to the show.
“The balls are going to be amazing! The Make America Great Again ceremony on Thursday, we did a walk-through yesterday at the Lincoln Memorial, people can just show up to this celebration, that’s where Lee Greenwood will be, that’s where 3 Doors Down will be. It is going to be a production and a setting like nothing anyone’s ever seen!”
He added, “We ask all Americans, from the area, from Washington, Virginia, Maryland, from everywhere, all over the world, come and witness this! Be together with us!”