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Daily Signal Exclusive: Kellyanne Conway on the Opioid Crisis, Her Critics, and Being a ‘Problematic Woman’

"I'm a problematic woman trying to solve problems—for men and women," says Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, spoke to The Daily Signal’s Kelsey Harkness and The Federalist’s Bre Payton about the administration’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis, how she handles critics, and her take on feminism. Conway spoke at the White House’s Generation Next forum for millennials Thursday. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Kelsey Harkness: You just finished a panel at the White House that was focused on millennials, and specifically, the opioid crisis. You also just returned from New Hampshire, where you were speaking about that issue. Can you tell us how you think the president, the White House, can address this issue? And specifically, how it’s affecting young Americans?

Kellyanne Conway: Here at the White House, we refer to the opioid crisis and the entire drug demand crisis as the “crisis next door,” because no state has been spared, no demographic group remains untouched, and people can no longer say, “This is someone else’s kid, someone else’s community, someone else’s co-worker.”

It’s all around us. Everywhere we turn, literally, there’s somebody who’s been affected in some way. With every age group, all racial and socioeconomic groups. Geography knows no bounds. Both genders.

Really trying to get the message out there first to cut through the stigma and the silence. If people have a problem or they’re starting to see the signs of addiction or misuse in someone else, that they come forward to get that help before, God forbid, it’s too late.

In addition to that, the president has made a goal to cut down on the prescribing by about a third. We are about 5 percent of the world’s population and we use about 80 percent of its opioids, so that tells you something that, in this country, pain management automatically means pain medication when you have that dental procedure, or the surgery.

Or in the case of a high school or collegiate athlete, they’ll be prescribed several bottles of pills for a sports-related injury. That ends up being a gateway to other problems, other addictions, other drug use in some cases, in too many cases.

The president has also called for a wide-scale, nationwide public-facing messaging campaign where there will be ads. As the president said, some of these ads will be very tough; we’ve got to shock the conscience. We also have to warm the heart and show those examples of successful treatment and recovery.

The president also wants to crack down on the illicit flow of drugs into this country. He’s the one who ran on, and successfully won on, a promise of a border wall. People didn’t listen carefully; they may have missed that he’s not just talking about people coming over illegally, but he’s talking about the poison that comes over illegally.

About 80 percent, 90 percent of the heroin in this country comes from the southern border. We know fentanyl is being synthetically manufactured in foreign countries and coming here through the mail, through the ports, through the airports, and through the southern border. This president is really calling on his entire administration, indeed, the entire nation, to come together.

And lastly, he’s focused on treatment. He knows that people who are already suffering need to get the treatment that will help them perhaps overcome. We also have departments and agencies like Housing and Urban Development and Department of Agriculture to talk to rural America, and also the Department of Labor. Because we find, when people are lucky enough to come out of treatment, sometimes the only thing they return to that’s familiar are the drugs. There are no housing opportunities, no skill sets, no job opportunities, perhaps. So, we’ve taken a long-term, wholistic view of it.

This nation could not be more blessed to have President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on the front lines of this crisis next door, lending their considerable heft and their considerable platform to informing us, and to educating us, and to trying to make us each part of the solution. I think it’s going to go a long way.

Bre Payton: I had a question about the public ad campaign. You and others in the administration were calling for $13.5 billion toward the ad campaign and other aspects of fighting the opioid crisis. I’m wondering, is that really enough, and is money really going to fix the problem? How is a public ad campaign today going to be different from the tactics that were taken during the Reagan administration?

Conway: Let me just correct a couple of things.

First of all, in fiscal year 2018, the short-term budgeting for this year, there’s $3 billion for opioids, and then in 2019, there’s another $3 billion. The total package exceeds $13 billion when you look at it a couple years out from now. So, I just wanted to clarify the numbers.

That is not all. In fact, most of it is not for ad campaigns. It will go toward interdiction and law enforcement, backing the blue. It will also go toward, obviously, prevention education, like you said, the ad campaign, and other prescriber protocols, medical community being better informed.

Some medical colleges over the years have never even necessitated as part of the curriculum safe-prescribing practices, believe it or not. You have some doctors learning how to perform an abortion and they’ll never be in that situation, nor do they want to be, and yet they have to learn how to do that. Some are not even learning about safe prescriptions.

And then, of course, a lot of that money will go to treatment programs, as well it should. So, whereas many on the left have been screaming, “Where’s the money, where’s the money,” now there’s more money than anybody’s ever seen committed to a drug crisis of this nature.

And we’ve never had a drug crisis of this nature, by the way, if you look at it statistically. Last year, 64,000 Americans died. Those numbers will probably get worse before they get better. The sheer increase is almost a vertical line. It is not like this; it’s almost a vertical line, the number of Americans who are dying from drug overdoses, particularly fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid. It’s 50 times the potency of heroin and 100 times the potency of morphine.

In that case, the ad campaign is important because of all the information that we are constantly inundated with in this nation. It doesn’t include a lot of the finer points about drug addiction, about opioids, about fentanyl, the dangers of what lurks in the medicine cabinet if it was not prescribed for you, if it’s somebody else’s.

Even though that tiny bottle has a label that says the family doctor and local pharmacy and mom’s name on it or grandmom’s name on it, it’s not for you. And it’s not for you to be using haphazardly and then trying to feed your habit doing something else later on. We’ve just met too many grieving families who tell that story as the cycle. The cycle in which it all got started: in the medicine cabinet.

So, you’re right. The left has been screaming out, “Where’s the money?” We believe that it does take money, but it takes a lot of presidential will and it takes a great deal of deployment of federal, state, and local together.

We also, even though this is the White House—he’s the president, she’s the first lady, this is the federal government—at the same time, we believe that those closest to the people in need know best how to administer to those needs.

If there’s a fantastic faith-based organization or there is, as we’ve seen in some jurisdictions and localities, a great law enforcement program, or a take-back type of program, something that’s in the curriculum that’s really moving numbers among youth, we are very happy to shine a light on that and to show people this best practice may be appropriate for your jurisdiction and community also. You’ll need to decide that.

But we feel like the platform of the federal government, of the White House, of the president is such that he can go out and be a purveyor of that message, along with each of us. We still know that the best way to message is peer to peer. People will look at you and say, “I like you, and you’re like me.” That is the best way to do it.

Harkness: I think a lot of people are happy to see the administration address this. Time and time again, we see the administration, we see the president, we see yourself being vilified. Often, these issues being ignored and going with the more sensational news stories. Both of us are curious, as journalists, as women in this industry, how do you survive that daily onslaught of criticism, and often, very personal attacks?

Conway: Yeah, so I hear. Well, I say that because I turned my notifications off on Twitter over a year ago and it’s life-changing. I recommend everyone to do that; I’ve been trying to tell people, “Just do it.” I’m not here to read about myself. I’m certainly not here to whine about myself.

At the same time, it’s like anything else. If it’s not true, why would it bother you? It’s been very hard on my children. I have four small children, three daughters in there, and they’ve had to grow up very quickly because they see what invective and venom is out there. This is not the person they know and this is not the intention that I have in serving the country that I love so much.

You know what I’ve learned to do? I’ve learned to pray for all those people because God forbid that I ever, for a moment in my life, experience whatever it is that has them so miserable. It would be devastating to me. I wake up every morning, I choose to be happy, I try to be productive.

I’m an imperfect person raising imperfect children, working among other imperfect people, but at the same time, if you are committed and you can focus and you can realize that nobody can make you feel badly about yourself without your permission, then it’s very clarifying and it’s very edifying, frankly.

There’s also a lot of love out there. They just don’t either have the self-absorption or the time to be online talking about the love. They’re out there raising their children, working hard, paying their dues, and just minding their own business, worshiping their God how they want to. They’re not out there saying, “And I love the president, and The Daily Signal, and ‘Problematic Women,’ and Kellyanne.”

And that’s OK. We know there’s love out there. Tom and I travel all the time across the country, and frequently across the country, you see how much love there is for the president and his policies. They appreciate that someone is standing up against political correctness, against these assaults on speech, including if not especially on college campuses.

They appreciate somebody standing up for the sanctity of life. A man who was, for many years, pro-choice, a Manhattan male billionaire who, for most of his adult life, was for abortion is now really the most pro-life president we’ve ever seen.

You see the glory and the magic in getting things done for the country you love so much, and that’s very satisfying. It’s satisfying enough. Otherwise, there’s not much I can do about other people being unhappy. I think people have been talking badly about people forever, but with the internet, you could just read about it. So, don’t.

I don’t want to drive these critics crazy, but chances are I haven’t seen what they’ve written. I know that would really make them pretty invisible.

Payton: You brought up the topic of abortion. We often talk about this so often that the feminist movement and feminism, while the dictionary definition of it means that women should have equal rights and equal access to things as men, a lot of times that gets co-opted with the abortion movement and other radical positions on the left. Do you consider yourself a feminist or do you consider yourself more on the problematic side of things and that scale?

Conway: If I were to label myself at all, it would be mother, patriot, blessed.

Harkness: I’m pretty sure you’re a problematic woman, though.

Conway: OK, good. I’ll take it. I’m a problematic woman trying to solve problems.

Harkness: There you go.

Conway: For men and women. But seriously speaking, I think most people today defy labels and they are very resistant to pigeonhole them one way or the other. But the point you made, Bre, is most important, which is that feminism, and even to call yourself pro-woman, or march for women, or women’s rights … it really is, it’s so much become a euphemism for abortion. They ought to just say that.

I just think everybody should own who they are and what they believe. I think these cable stations that have made a huge business out of being anti-Trump should just say, “You know what? We think it’s good for our ratings, great for our revenues, and we joke about it. Ha, ha.”

They won’t own it. They actually think they’re delivering news. Watch me while I laugh. They actually think they’re delivering news. Same thing here. The whole stuff about abortion as a euphemism for women’s rights and vice versa or even women’s health, most of the women’s health concerns in this country center on heart disease, obesity, cancers, including breast cancer.

They don’t talk about that. When’s the last time you heard them talk about that? They’re talking about abortion. This president has signaled to pro-lifers and even fence-sitters on the issue of abortion who say, “Well, I know I’m a woman; I’m supposed to be pro-choice, but it really bothers me to think you can have an abortion in the eighth or ninth month. Or after the fifth month. Halfway point, really; 20 weeks.” Or, “It bothers me that, increasingly, people seem to be having abortions here and there because they don’t want another daughter or one at all.”

So, sex-selective abortions, and taxpayer-funded abortions, and partial-birth abortions, and abortion on demand after nonpartisan scientists and doctors say a fetus can feel pain after the halfway mark, 20 weeks.

At least you have a president and administration that allows the other point of view to feel that they have a platform now, too. I think the combination of religion and morality for some and science and medicine for others has shown that the fetus beat us. What people were able to say, “Out of sight, out of mind,” is no longer true because everybody has seen a sonogram. You have a lot of women who have had trouble becoming pregnant and they realize how precious life is and they change their views as well.

There’s so much going on, really. They see the positive side of science where you can operate on a fetus in utero, a baby in utero. They literally can. Go watch it sometime; it’s fascinating. Then they’ve also seen the horrors of a late-term abortion.

I just believe that, if you’re for women, you should respect all women. Look what Hillary Clinton did recently. I don’t mention her name anymore. Look what that person who lost the election whose name I never see on TV anymore did recently, insulting just millions and millions of women.

This white woman who’s married to a man who was president—and that’s how we first got to know her—is suggesting that the rest of us have to ask the men in our life, including our husbands, how to vote and what to think. That’s why she lost.

I think most women are smart enough to just roll right past that, but it’s a serious point. I don’t want the next generations of women to think that they are less of a woman because the women’s movement and feminism does not embrace them since they believe that the right to believe begins at conception, and they believe the next generation of boys and girls ought to have a right to live and to live freely.

Harkness: Earlier you talked about the love that’s out there you don’t always see. I know our Daily Signal audience probably has a lot of love for you. So, we appreciate your joining us.

Conway: Oh, my pleasure. I love them back. Really, honestly, choose to be happy. It takes less energy than being miserable. It looks like it. I just don’t know what has some of these people so upset all the time. This sustained, constant, hunched over anger, it’s got to be unhealthy and it doesn’t look that fun either.

I think the alternative is much better, and you’re doing great work because you’re connecting America with information that they need and you’re showing an alternative viewpoint to what many say is really the only respectable way to be a woman in today’s day and age.

I respect women and their brain power, and their moxie, and their ability to do and think about so many things simultaneously that I know they’re not going to buy in to that ultimately. But so long as they have another platform, somewhere else to go, and to learn, and to congregate, and to discuss, that’s just a beautiful thing and a very powerful, magical thing. So, thanks for being a part of that.

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