Trusty Trumpkin Boris Epshteyn (rhymes with “stein,” as in “beer stein”) is the unlikeliest of television stars.
His five-night-a-week commentaries as chief political analyst for President Donald Trump’s favorite local news cartel, the right-leaning, 193-station Sinclair Broadcast Group, enjoy a potentially bigger audience than Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, and are notable for their steadfast adherence to White House talking points, delivered with Epshteyn’s customary hectoring zeal.
Carried as a “must-run” segment in the 73 media markets where the suburban Baltimore-based Sinclair oversees the local newscasts—soon to grow to around 230 stations reaching an unprecedented 72 percent of the nation’s 118.4 million television households when, as expected, the Trump administration green-lights Sinclair’s $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media—it’s a defiantly untelegenic self-presentation.
The video equivalent of a home invasion, Epshteyn’s 90-second commentaries, titled “Bottom Line With Boris,” are graced by his unblinking hazel eyes, grimly unsmiling lips, and a strident staccato featuring the vestigial accents of his Russian-émigré roots.
“He’s not polished, he’s not coming at you with a high degree of finesse; he’s not trying to be the smoothest guy in the newsroom,” said former Republican National Committee chairman and Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele.
Steele encountered the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Epshteyn—who lasted two fractious months as a Trump White House communications staffer before his abrupt departure—when he was a Mitt Romney surrogate during the 2012 presidential campaign.
“He is raw. That’s the Trumpian nature of the guy. That’s appealing in politics right now. But how much longer that works remains to be seen.”
Indeed, Sinclair—and Epshteyn—have prompted increasing scrutiny in recent days, to say nothing of indignation both inside and outside the company-owned stations, with the revelation that corporate executives in Maryland forced dozens of local anchors across the country to read the exact same Orwellian manifesto denouncing alleged media bias and “fake stories” in language that Trump himself enthusiastically endorsed.
“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” the 45th president tweeted this past Monday. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
On HBO’s Sunday show, Last Week Tonight, investigative satirist John Oliver lampooned the 35-year-old Epshteyn’s “regular batshit commentaries” and physical appearance—“he’s the same age as Nicki Minaj while somehow looking like Jon Favreau’s father”—during a segment on the latest Sinclair controversy.
“I hope it makes him feel good inside,” Epshteyn responded to Oliver’s mockery in an emailed statement to The Daily Beast. “God bless him if it helps his ratings and gives him more viewers—he definitely needs it…Oliver has an obvious political agenda but he tries to hide behind the fact that he is a comedian, and, in my opinion, a not funny one at that.”
Other prominent Epshteyn critics include CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter and NPR media reporter David Folkenflik. In his Wednesday night “Reliable Sources” newsletter, under the headline “The Boris problem,” Stelter wrote: “Many staffers at local stations resent having to run the former Trump campaign advisor’s boosterish segments.”
He quoted Folkenflik: "The problem isn't really that Sinclair's chief political analyst worked previously for Trump. It's that Epshteyn seemingly never deviates from a pro-Trump or pro-GOP line—no independent 'analysis' to enlighten viewers. Just a line being hawked..."
“I’m not doing anybody’s bidding,” Epshteyn claimed in another statement. “I’m on my own when I’m on TV. What I’m doing is not driven by the White House, the president, or anyone but me.”
Epshteyn stoutly defended his role—and diminished the role of working journalists—in a “Bottom Line” segment taped, as usual, at the Washington, D.C., Sinclair station, WJLA, and broadcast by Sinclair stations around the country on Wednesday.
He compared his relatively limited political expertise—he’s a securities lawyer and investment banker by profession—to that of a medical doctor discussing healthcare issues.
“Yes, I worked for President Trump in the twenty-sixteen campaign, I worked on the inaugural, and I was at the White House,” he declared to Sinclair’s viewers in that oddly exotic cadence. “I was also on the McCain campaign in twenty-oh-eight and was a surrogate for the Romney campaign in twenty-twelve. Some critics would have you believe that my experience somehow disqualifies me from providing my analysis and commentary.
"But here’s a question: Wouldn’t you want someone talking to you about politics only if he had actually worked in politics?”
In a statement to The Daily Beast about the opprobrium regularly heaped upon him, Epshteyn wrote: “Is it good for the brand? It’s better than being ignored. If you’re yourself and you’re doing something right, people are going to smear you. It represents the fact that I’m hitting a nerve, and my program—which goes out to millions and millions of people every day—is hitting a nerve. And if CNN and Brian Stelter and others are upset about it, well, then God bless them.”
Epshteyn affects to share the president’s low regard for establishment journalists—especially from The Washington Post—and applauds Trump’s relentless attacks on the paper’s owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and on Amazon as a too-powerful company.
“Here’s the funny thing about it,” he emailed. “If the president goes after the Washington Post, everybody loses their minds, and yet every liberal-leaning outlet out there is trying to crush Sinclair. So where’s the fairness?"
Epshteyn continued: “Do I have a problem with him going after Amazon? No, he’s president of the United States. He’s spoken about Amazon extensively. And you know what’s interesting? This shows how broad the president’s support is. Bernie Sanders is agreeing with him on Amazon.”
The Vermont Socialist senator’s press secretary, Josh Miller-Lewis, bridled at Epshteyn’s claim: “Bernie voices concerns about the size of Amazon, and the monopoly power they have, and he has serious concerns about how Amazon treats its workers. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have concerns about how workers are treated in this country or the wages they’re being paid. His obsession with Amazon seems to be more over the negative coverage he gets from the Washington Post than anything else. I think Boris Epshteyn sums it up right there.”
As a much-televised Trump campaign surrogate and senior adviser in 2016, and later reportedly in the White House communications operation, Epshteyn was notorious for outrageous assertions, delivered like a sucker punch. (This was an act he was literally arrested for after he cold-cocked a much smaller man in a January 2014 pre-dawn bar fight in Scottsdale, Arizona, resulting in misdemeanor assault charge that was eventually dropped after Epshteyn pled guilty, paid a $360 fine, did 25 hours of community service and submitted to anger management counseling.)
In March 2017, Politico reported that after a somewhat testy exchange the previous month with Fox News personality Bill Hemmer, during which Hemmer drilled down on the president’s thwarted executive orders to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, Epshteyn yelled at a Fox News booker.
“Am I someone you want to make angry?” Politico quoted Epshteyn—whose White House job was coordinating the television appearances of Trump surrogates—as he reportedly threatened to pull administration officials from the Trump-friendly cable outlet.
“Go right ahead,” the booker reportedly replied, realizing that it was an empty threat that Epshteyn had no authority to fulfill.
In another emailed statement, Epshteyn dismissed the anecdote as “a totally bogus story. Why would I go threaten somebody at Fox? Hemmer and I have a very good relationship.”
Yet a knowledgeable Fox News source told The Daily Beast that Politico’s report was largely accurate, except that the booker didn’t taunt Epshteyn, but said only, “That’s your decision. I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“After the piece came out,” the source added, “he called the booker and apologized.”
Since he accepted the job offer last April from Sinclair’s senior vice president of news, Scott Livingston, and company chairman David Smith—who last November told New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi that “print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble”—Epshteyn apparently has endeavored to become more user-friendly.
“I know there’s a narrative about me,” he said in another emailed statement. “Actually, I’m a pretty cordial guy.”
“I think he very much realizes that while he’s a strong supporter of the president and he produces a product for the company, his name is on the segment, but it isn’t on the door,” an Epshteyn friend and former Trump campaign coworker told The Daily Beast, asking not to be further identified. “Boris has matured into that realization.”
Livingston didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Unlike his hero, President Trump, Epshteyn these days is carefully parsing his words—at least when it comes to his interactions with non-Sinclair journalists. Thus, in several phone conversations with The Daily Beast, the uncharacteristically cautious Epshteyn refused to speak on the record.
After a seemingly endless negotiation, he let us use some of his words.
Among other comments he kept off the record were his answer to a question about Trump acolyte-turned-detractor Ann Coulter’s recent remark that the president is “a shallow, lazy ignoramus.”
In Trumpworld, Epshteyn has for years been a divisive figure—celebrated by some as a tough, effective warrior (“loyal soldier” and “good soldier” are common utterances) and derided by others as an incompetent, abrasive liability.
A source close to Trump’s former campaign CEO and defenestrated chief White House strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who privately takes credit for helping Ephsteyn land the Sinclair gig, told The Daily Beast: “He always saw Boris as brawler—a heavy pair of hands you send in for the toughest fights.”
During his brief stint in the White House, according to Epshteyn’s friend and former colleague, he chafed under the authority of Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, both apparatchiks of the Republican establishment that Trump—and by association, Epshteyn—ran against during the GOP primary race.
“He and Sean bristled a bit,” said Epshteyn’s friend, although in recent months Spicer and Epshteyn have spoken and even gone to lunch.
Concerning his quick exit, “I don’t think there was an acute incident, like ‘OK, you have to leave,’ as much as it was just overall not meshing with the program.” Spicer, who exited the White House last summer after a rocky tenure at the briefing room podium, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Michael Steele, meanwhile, said Epstheyn was caught up in the constant conflicts between “the Trumpers,” represented by Bannon, and “the anti-Trumpers,” represented by Spicer and Priebus—who, as RNC chairman, famously advised Trump, then the GOP nominee, to drop out of the race after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016.
“When the anti-Trumpers inside the administration got the upper hand, he got nixed,” Steele said. “And we’ve seen how they have systematically taken each other out in this process. It’s the most amazing thing to watch as each side suffered massive casualties. And yet the president sits there, master of all he surveys and watches with a smile on his face.”
“The White House is a tough place to work,” Epshteyn noted in a statement, arguing that if Twitter, Axios, Politico and other online platforms had been around during the Reagan, JFK, FDR and even Lincoln administrations, reports of internal White House strife would have been equally as ubiquitous as in the portrait of the Trump White House that emerges from press accounts that “blow those stories out of proportion.”
During the campaign, Epshteyn’s allies, and even his critics, acknowledged that he could “food-fight with the best of them” on cable news, as one former senior Trump campaign official characterized it.
Senior staffers would book Epshteyn on cable panels specifically to defend Trump in a hostile manner and “raise hell and upset the more traditional TV personalities,” thus sabotaging the segments so that “nobody won” and “neutraliz[ing] the panel,” the former officials said.
Candidate Trump loved it.
“During the campaign, inside the White House, and now outside the White House, Boris has always been supremely loyal to the president and his family,” former Trump campaign and White House official Andy Surabian told The Daily Beast. “He was an absolute bulldog for the president on TV during the campaign and was unafraid to throw some sharp elbows on the air to defend him, no matter the situation. That was his job and he did it well.”
Epshteyn, who shares a young child with his wife of nine years, Google sales manager Lauren Tanick, was born in Moscow to a Russian-Jewish family; as refugees, they emigrated to Plainsboro Township, New Jersey, when Boris was 11.
He had studied basic, elementary-school English in Russia, and, like the mermaid played by Daryl Hannah in the movie Splash, absorbed the language of his adopted homeland by watching American television; he was almost fluent by age 12.
At Georgetown University, where he graduated from the School of Foreign Service and then received his law degree, he met and befriended the president’s second son, Eric Trump—a friendship that continues to this day, though he insists it had nothing to do with his pro-Trump political activism.
“It wasn’t like Eric Trump plucked me out of obscurity, and said ‘I want this guy to come on the campaign,’” Epshteyn said in a statement. “The idea that I came to the campaign with no political experience is totally wrong. Eric didn’t play a role in the job I got at the White House, as far as I know.”
Regarding the many people who regularly disparage Donald Trump—and, by extension, him—Epshteyn claimed to be unconcerned.
“I continue to be a supporter of the president,” he stated. “If his detractors take it out on me personally, that’s fine. I’m a big boy. I’ve got thick skin.”
Additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng