Who is Rhona Graff and why is she important?
In recent weeks, as her image flashed across television screens, this question was repeatedly posed and probed by the news media.
For the uninitiated, Ms. Graff has been variously described as Donald Trump’s “right hand,” his “gatekeeper” at Trump Tower, and even as Trump’s version of Rose Mary Woods, a reference to President Nixon’s Watergate-era secretary who was asked to explain the 18-minute gap in White House tapes that contributed to his downfall.
About 30 years ago, around the time Graff was seeking a secretarial position with the Trump Organization, I was a friend of her brother and a passing acquaintance of hers. He was familiar with his sister’s thinking about Mr. Trump, then well known to New Yorkers as a flamboyant real estate mogul whose professional and personal life was daily fodder for the local tabloids.
According to her brother, she was somewhat bemused by the prospect of entering that world. She apparently considered it a “lark,” a stopgap that would be a brief detour from her path to a desired career in sports marketing. She was offered the job, and took the detour.
Three decades later, she is still at Trump Tower. Now a senior vice president, Graff makes no bones about her fierce loyalty to Mr. Trump, once quoted as saying, “I’d never leave him.” She has long been a vital link between him and high-level officials who wish to engage him.
It is widely understood that she is the one through whom these contacts are best facilitated. And this has not changed with his transition from businessman to presidential candidate to president. Each step of the way, she has remained a back channel to him.
Such was the case when, in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., received an email from Russia-connected publicist Rob Goldstone regarding a proposed meeting at Trump Tower where “dirt on Hillary Clinton” would be provided to his father’s presidential campaign. The email said, in part, “I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra-sensitive, so wanted to send to you first.”
The meeting took place, and is now of considerable interest to special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees looking into Russian meddling in our 2016 election. Beyond the fact that Graff is a pivotal figure in Trumpworld — and is presumably privy to a lot of sensitive information — the appearance of her name on the email chain that led up to the June 2016 meeting was yet another reason she became a person of importance to the investigators.
For a long time, they wanted to talk to her. And, by all accounts, she was more than willing to go to Washington and answer their questions. So with 2017 drawing to a close, a long-sought interview was finally scheduled with the House Select Committee on Intelligence. However, the arrangements were notable for the conditions attached.
The interview took place the Friday before Christmas weekend and, in a departure from standard protocol, was held not in Washington, but in an undisclosed location in New York. Beyond lessening the media attention this interview might otherwise attract, the designated time and place also created a logistical problem for most committee lawmakers that prevented them from attending.
Consequently, it resulted in a crucial interview being conducted largely by congressional staffers rather than by elected members of the House Select Committee.
To California congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Republican-controlled committee, this was clearly by design. He charged that trying to throw roadblocks in the way of a proper and thorough questioning of this witness was just part of a broader concerted effort by Trump loyalists in the Republican majority to denigrate, impede and ultimately shut down the entire Trump/Russia investigation.
We don’t know what happened in the Graff interview, or whether it might have been more productive if done differently.
And we don’t know whether the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Mueller’s team will have the opportunity to question her under more favorable circumstances, if they haven’t already.
What we do know is that, where these investigations are concerned, too many congressional Republicans appear to be prioritizing party loyalty over country, taking steps that are more obstructive than constructive. They supplement frontal attacks from the White House and Fox News that drive the relentless daily narrative casting doubt on the integrity of the investigation and the investigators.
And this is happening despite, or because of, growing indications of possible Trump campaign collaboration with the Russians in undermining our electoral process.
Given the stakes, it is imperative that important witnesses like Rhona Graff be allowed to provide testimony, unimpeded.
This is no lark.
The author is a retired advertising executive, and a freelance writer.