Celebrities

How Far Will Chanel Rion Go For Trump?

If you watch the White House press briefings with semi-regularity, you’ll likely see her there: ever-present scarf, belted trench dress, brows flawlessly filled in, piles of dark hair teased to near-Nineties Fran Drescher heights. She will always be wearing heels; she will almost never be wearing a mask. All heads will swivel as she poses her query, which could double as an excerpt from a journalism-school textbook for how not to ask a question. Does President Trump feel he is being unfairly maligned by the media for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic? (Yes.) Does President Trump plan to exert maximum effort in fighting the child trafficking epidemic in the United States? (Also yes.) Does President Trump find it awfully curious that antifa.com directs you to Joe Biden’s campaign website, and should Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris probably address that? (Absolutely!) President Trump has received criticism for referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” but does President Trump consider the term “Chinese food” to be racist? No, he does not, and neither does Chanel Rion, if her sympathetically knitted brow is any indication.

Rion is a correspondent for One America News Network, the small pro-Trump outlet whose broadcasts and posts have been enthusiastically trumpeted by the President on Twitter. “They’ve fully embraced Conspiracyland as their brand, and are fully trying to run to the right of Fox,” says one right-wing media insider. “It seems like they are part of Trump’s PR team, in a way.” In early April, the White House Press Corps voted to revoke Rion’s press credentials when she repeatedly violated social distancing guidelines during briefings; the White House apparently overrode the ban, and Rion continues to appear at the briefings, albeit while standing in the back of the room. 

Rion’s brand, if it could be described as such, is asking the president disorienting, almost comically leading questions during news briefings that rarely, if ever, have to do with the issues other reporters are asking him about. “At one time it seemed like the White House would be feeding her questions that Trump would like to answer,” the right-wing media insider said. “But I don’t even think that’s the case because a lot of the time, Trump seems confused.” Last month, she conducted an exclusive interview with the president featuring such hard-hitting queries as, “We’re watching Joe Biden slip very gently into senility while you’re at the top of your game. What’s your secret?”

In some respects, Rion is firmly ensconced within the Washington, D.C. establishment. She is engaged to Courtland Sykes, a granite-chinned former Missouri senatorial candidate and self-described admirer of Steve Bannon. She dresses primly yet tastefully, in trench coats and knee-length sheaths and double-breasted blazers, a millennial Nancy Reagan with copious eye makeup and ombre highlights. She is regularly photographed with such figures as Donald Trump, Jr. and Rudy Giuliani, beaming with her head thrown back in a photo with the latter as if he’s just told an uproariously funny joke. 

Yet, much like Trump himself, Rion positions herself as an outsider, sniffing out supposed cabals and conspiracies with the nose of a well-coiffed bloodhound. She has classified the White House Correspondents’ Association as a “cabal” looking to demean the Trump administration, “repeating propaganda from enemy forces.” She has promoted the (oft-debunked and false) conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in a lab. In her tweets about the COVID-19 press briefings, she regularly highlights the stats that are most generous to the president and few others; most recently, she has boosted the elaborate pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon, telling the Patriots’ Soapbox news network, “Q is anonymous for a reason, for a very good reason, and I think that people need to respect that.” She’s such an omnipresent passenger on the Trump train that even Bill O’Reilly has accused her of bias (“why are you a correspondent if you have a pro-Trump viewpoint?” he asked her during an interview). 

Chanel Rion (left) with Rudy Giuliani and his personal Communications Director Christianne Allen July 1st, 2020.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Rion is not a journalist so much as she is a pundit, and she is not a pundit so much as she is a crank, and she is not a crank so much as she is an organ for the administration. “She, and OAN, are largely creations of Trump, who is eager for a reliably loyal TV outlet,” says Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi. Unlike fellow OAN correspondent Jack Posobiec or even far-right pundits like Milo Yiannopolous or Ann Coulter, Rion does not garner attention by trolling well-known establishment Democrats; unlike Fox News pundits like Laura Ingraham, she doesn’t trot out racist dog whistles or gnash her teeth about the dangers of Black Lives Matter activists. “She’s presenting a very polished intentional and deliberate professionalism that clearly has a partisan bias, but she’s not just being inflammatory,” says Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, who has been tracking Rion’s career since her hiring at OAN. “Her brand is not actively ankle-biting and picking fights. She’s building a brand as an organ and extension of the campaign and of Trump.”

On her website, Rion frames her political awakening as a direct response to the 1996 candidacy of President Bill Clinton, when she would have been less than 6 years old. (Rion appears to almost exclusively provide interviews to platforms perceived as conservative-friendly, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Though she says she was born in Texas and raised in Missouri, Texas, and Florida, she writes that her father moved the family to South Korea in 1996 because “he wanted us to see what a debauched idea socialism was and that socialism was what the Clintons stood for. He wanted us to see what socialism did in the real world — how it destroyed people and human happiness in practice.” 

Rion’s roots are a bit vague, in part because, according to reporting by the Daily Mail tabloid, she has intentionally obfuscated them, changing her name from “Chanel Nmi-Dayn Ryan” to “Chanel Rion” last year when she applied for a White House press pass. This may have something to do with the fact that her father, born Danny Preboth, has been hit with numerous civil suits accusing him of defrauding property investors and has been known by a number of aliases, including Danford Dayn-Ryan and David Michael Ryan (he did not respond to a request for comment). Rion’s grandmother, a cotton candy-haired Kansas psychic named Allene Cunningham, was also a fairly well-known huckster, most notably gaining attention for reportedly predicting Oprah’s rise to fame and the long-term success of 1970s recording artist Donny Osmond. Rion’s family moved around the US and other countries, she says, her parents continuously homeschooling her and her two siblings. “The world was my classroom growing up,” she said in a 2017 YouTube interview. She then went on to Harvard Extension School — not Harvard, as she claims on her website, as the extension school offers remote and night courses and has a less rigorous admissions policy. (According to the Harvard Extension School, students must maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher in three pre-admission extension school programs to gain entry to the undergraduate program, a far cry from the average 4.18 GPA of Harvard proper.) 

It was at Harvard Extension School where Rion started honing her bona fides as a token conservative, appearing in a 2015 article in quarterly lifestyle publication DuJour Magazine about the Anscombe Society, a small right-wing group known for publishing provocative op-eds in the student newspaper the Harvard Crimson decrying hookup culture or calling for abstinence-only education. “They were sort of seen as this radical, extremely conservative group, in an old-school family values-y way,” says Jacob Carrel, a Harvard student at the time and former president of the Harvard Democrats. In the spread, she’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat and plaid shirt, looking like a conventional college student rather than the glamazon one sees at White House press briefings. 

It was also at Harvard that she met and eventually became engaged to Courtland Sykes, a fellow extension-school student and former Navy intelligence specialist and analyst. With his barrel-chested build and cleft chin, Sykes looked as if he had been bred in a lab to lobby for a right-wing political position, and in 2017 he ran for Missouri senate. Sykes made headlines during his run for referring to feminists as “she devils,” and praising Rion for sharing his conservative family values. “I want to come home to a home-cooked dinner at six every night, one that she fixes. It’s exactly the kind of family dinner that I expect one day my future daughters will learn to make after they too become traditional homemakers and family wives — think Norman Rockwell here,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (He lost, badly, receiving a little more than 2.1 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.) 

Rion, however, had loftier ambitions than merely cooking dinner. In 2016, she and her fiancé started following the Trump campaign around the country, which is how Neil McCabe, political columnist at the Tennessee Star and her former colleague at OAN, remembers first meeting her at Trump’s New Hampshire victory party. “The way they explained it to me, they were supporters of Donald Trump and they traveled around the country going to different Trump rallies because they supported Trump,” he says. 

On her Instagram and Facebook accounts, Rion has for years posted photos of her posing with various Republican luminaries like Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump at events like CPAC and at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. “Trump is so transactional. That’s just the way he works,” says Carusone. “[If you’ve built] a little bit of a following as not just an adherent, but an evangelizer, the assumption is you’ll get something in return. And so far that’s proven to be right, especially for her.”

In 2017, she became a political cartoonist of sorts, publishing crudely sketched images promoting such far-right conspiracy theories as the idea that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered or depicting a bucktoothed Hillary Clinton perched atop a pile of money. (One particular highlight is a wildly Islamophobic sketch decrying female genital mutilation, with a woman in a niqab made to resemble a shrieking clitoris in a vulva.) With the exception of a singular Instagram plug from Donald Trump, Jr., her cartoons got relatively little attention, garnering her only about 25,000 followers. So it’s hard to fathom how Rion landed such a plum role at OAN, where she was hired in 2019.

Prior to that, her employment history is paper-thin. According to her LinkedIn, in 2014 she held a job as managing editor at Cloverstone Publishing, a small publishing press; upon closer inspection, however, the press was founded by her sister Channing, its sole output an adventure tome called Lamonga: River of the Seven Spirits, authored by their father Dann Ryan (though it’s unclear who actually wrote it; her brother Baron also took credit for it as part of his Eagle Scouts project). Her website touts numerous independent works, such an adventure series of books for young women designed to combat “the gender-hostile, Hollywood ‘rip and hate’ spirit of radical feminism that has brought so much coldness, pain, failure and disappointment to so many young women whose lives radical feminism has twisted and irreparably ruined with its toxic and confused mental stew of pointless competition, manophobia, hatred, gender-confusion and blame” — but there is no evidence that such lofty projects have come to fruition.

Rion’s lack of credentials have led many to wonder how someone with a paucity of actual experience could stumble into a position as coveted as a White House press correspondent. Neil McCabe, former White House correspondent for OAN, tells Rolling Stone he brought Rion on after inviting her fiancé to OAN for a visit. McCabe happened to mention that the network was hiring for a weekend White House correspondent, and Sykes suggested Chanel. The network gave her a screen test, which McCabe says she aced despite her lack of journalistic credentials. “A lot of people are great journalists, but they don’t know how to look into a camera or know how to present themselves on television,” he says. “To be a television reporter, it seemed like she had the right skill set.”

PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, seated, watches Chanel Rion asks a question of President Donald Trump during a briefing about the coronavirus at the White House, Monday, April 20th, 2020.

Alex Brandon/AP Images

Rion’s stint at OAN did not get off to an auspicious start. A story she did in October, alleging an affair between former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, was subsequently retracted and removed from YouTube without explanation. Posobiec, another OAN correspondent, issued a statement saying the network had retracted the story. (OAN and its president Charles Herring did not respond to separate requests for comment.) Her three-part Ukraine investigation featuring Rudy Giuliani, however, regurgitating conspiracy theories about Joe Biden’s connection to the country, went viral in certain parts of the right-wing blogosphere, helping to further cement her reputation as a rising star at the channel. When former White House correspondent Emerald Robinson left OAN for Newsmax in early 2020, it was “natural” for Chanel to take her spot, says McCabe.

It was at that point that Rion started capturing people’s attention. Following her White House Correspondents’ Association ban, Rion no longer has a seat at briefings, but the Trump administration allows her to stand in the back of the room. Her position, as well as her refusal to wear a mask, make her a highly conspicuous presence, says Farhi, as it’s “rare if not unknown” for the limited number of reporters in the briefing room to go maskless. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has been something of a boon to Rion’s brand, says Carusone. “It’s this very weird thing there’s this reporter there who is not allowed to sit but gets a question every time he takes the podium because of this symbiotic relationship [she and Trump] have,” he says. “With all of these changes in response to COVID, she had this opportunity she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten” to maintain a presence among the mainstream media establishment, while simultaneously very publicly flouting its protocols.

Indeed, Rion’s persona appears specifically tailored to appeal to Trump. From her Fox News anchor coiffure to her soft-spoken demeanor to her Versace scarves and knee-high boots to her copious yet tastefully applied eye makeup, “she has the made-for-TV Hope Hicks kind of look,” says Carusone. By putting her in the press briefing room, Herring clearly understands the benefit of showcasing a female personality who can appeal directly to the president.

Because Rion appears on OAN, a small network that doesn’t even subscribe to formal Nielsen ratings, there is a limit to how much influence she can exert over the right-wing ecosystem as a whole. “Much of the attention for OAN and Chanel Rion comes from other news outlets (like mine) reporting on her unusual behavior and reporting,” says Farhi. “In that sense, I guess, she’s been good for OAN,” even if she hasn’t necessarily made the network a household name yet. But having the ear of the president and his family cannot quite be underestimated, and by virtue of her looks, her buttoned-up persona, and her burnished Ivy League credentials, Rion has achieved this goal. “She’s managed to be extremely tactically effective in an extremely short period of time,” says Carusone.

Given how tightly Rion has hitched her wagon to the Trump administration, it remains to be seen whether she’ll continue to maintain that efficacy come Election Day. Some media commenters speculate that OAN is gearing up for a potential sale to Donald Trump, Jr., in which case she’d be well-positioned to stay put if Trump is elected for a second term. Carusone believes the brand she’s built, while impressive in terms of its short-term efficacy, may not survive a Biden presidency, which will invariably create tight competition in the right-wing media ecosystem for a new Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter. “If her entire trajectory and staying power is tethered to the dynamic with Trump, she’s not building anything underneath it that is sustainable and durable,” says Carusone. 

But it’s also possible that Rion could do quite a bit of damage before then. She’s already given Trump a platform to propagate his lies about mail-in voting , sowing the seeds for future right-wing suspicion about election fraud; recently, she has started explicitly espousing the elaborate conspiracy theory QAnon, perpetuating such baseless far-right views as the idea that the COVID-19 shutdown is leading to a spike in human trafficking

Like many other right-wing figures, Rion has discovered that the key to building a brand and boosting engagement is to edge further and further into the realm of irrationality and fear; unlike others, however, her stage for spreading such ideas is not Telegram or Parler or YouTube, but the seat of the highest office in the country, regardless of whether she spends White House pressers in a folding chair or standing on her knee-high boot heels. Also unlike other right-wing personalities, she seems to be a “true believer,” says Carusone, to the extent that she may be squandering the opportunity to build her brand. “She may be so deeply invested in Trump that she has some myopia, but she hasn’t risen to the level of influencing the right-wing echo chamber, even though there’s so much potential there,” he says. 

Of course, there’s another significant figure whom the news media once made the mistake of underestimating, and much like Trump, Rion uses the narrative of self-creation to her advantage, while actually embodying its inverse. She is proof that if you appear to be wealthy and well-connected, and are totally lacking in humility, you too can succeed in Trump’s America. You don’t necessarily have to be a true believer, but it helps.

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