WASHINGTON -- Katrina Pierson has shown an astonishing ability to fail upward. That she has fallen high enough to land a job as the chief spokeswoman for Donald Trump says as much about her as it does about her new boss.
Pierson has become one of the most-booked cable TV news stars this election cycle, appearing multiple times a day to defend Trump and spar with Republican and Democratic pundits alike.
Preternaturally unflappable, Pierson is in many ways Trump's opposite, having risen to her position overcoming staggering obstacles. But just like Trump, she's left chaos and carnage in her wake -- she was booted as a volunteer on Ted Cruz's Senate campaign, her attempt to oust a House Republican as a tea party insurgent failed, and the political action committee she worked for was labeled a "scam." Each time, she only emerged stronger.
"You don't rise in politics by leaving a trail of destruction everywhere you go," said Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak, who has known Pierson since she worked on Cruz’s campaign in 2012. "Katrina is the exception to that," he told The Huffington Post.
Pierson, who did not respond to requests to comment for this story, emerged on the national Republican scene as a prominent tea party activist in Texas. Her inspiring up-by-her-bootstraps life story made her an instant star within conservative circles.
You don't rise in politics by leaving a trail of destruction everywhere you go. Katrina is the exception to that. Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak
Pierson was born Katrina Lanette Shaddix in Wichita, Kansas in 1976. She has said that she was born because her grandfather would not allow her mother, who was 14 when she became pregnant, to have an abortion. Pierson does not often speak of her father publicly, other than to say that he is African-American (her mother is white). She told conservative radio host Glenn Beck that her mother tried to give her up for adoption, but the local agency in Texas "didn’t specialize in biracial babies, so my mother was sent to Kansas to give birth to me and give me up for adoption." She said her mother changed her mind and brought her back to Texas.
Pierson's birth story is part of her conservative credentialing. "People always ask me how I became so conservative considering where I came from," she told Beck. "And the simple answer is I just lived it."
In speeches, Pierson has recalled the difficulty she faced growing up on "the side of the tracks that most people forget about." She's described her home as an abusive one and has said her mother was “very much codependent on government and then very much codependent on drugs.”
Pierson also became pregnant as a teen, and gave birth to a son in 1996. She married her son's father in 1997, but filed for divorce less than a year later.
In 1997, a 20-year-old Pierson was arrested in a Texas JCPenney for allegedly attempting to steal $168 worth of clothing. According to the police report, Pierson said she needed the clothing for a job interview. She pleaded no contest and was given deferred adjudication.
Yet Pierson persevered. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2006 and took a job in sales at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis.
Pierson's detractors and allies alike say they are still inspired by how far she's come. "I have watched Katrina withstand some of the fiercest storms, yet no matter the controversy, she continues to be a solid refuge of strength for so many," said conservative pundit Scottie Hughes.
Pierson says she was spurred to join the conservative movement in 2008, after President Barack Obama attracted controversy for saying he had decided to stop wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.
"The first thing was that he did not wear the flag lapel pin, and actually put up an argument against wearing the flag lapel pin on his jacket, which should just be understood," Pierson said in a 2011 interview. "You’re running for the president of the United States and you won’t wear the flag? That was very upsetting to me."
Once she got involved in politics, she employed a brand of eyebrow-raising rhetoric that quickly launched her to tea party stardom.
Pierson identifies herself as African-American in interviews and court documents. She has referred to Obama as the "head negro" and criticized him for not truly being African-American -- even though both were born to a white mother and black father. "Perfect Obama’s dad born in Africa, Mitt Romney’s dad born in Mexico. Any pure breeds left?” she tweeted in 2012.
She's kept that up on the Trump campaign trail, drawing attention for wearing a necklace made of bullets on national television. She defended her decision by saying "maybe I'll wear a fetus next time" to protest abortion.
Pierson leveraged her days as a volunteer for the Cruz campaign to pick up cable news appearances and speaking gigs in which she praised the candidate. Her tone then was remarkably softer than it's become today.
In a 2012 interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, she argued that Cruz was a "walking testament to immigrants who have fled their countries to seek freedom and achieved the American dream."
Four years later, Pierson has taken up Trump's line that Cruz was ineligible to run for president because he was born in Canada.
"According to the time he was born, there might be some requirements that his mother may have had to go through and maybe didn't," Pierson said of Cruz’s eligibility.
While her time volunteering for Cruz earned her publicity, she was controversial within the campaign. Other Cruz volunteers and staffers say they thought Pierson didn’t put in enough work, and they were skeptical of her behavior around Cruz.
"She would always act extremely self-important around Ted, even when she wasn't in an official capacity. She'd act like she was getting close to him, trying to make herself look like she was actually on the campaign team," said one former Cruz staffer who asked to remain anonymous. "Kat tried to take everything over and act like she had some kind of unique relationship with Ted."
This apparently did not sit well with Cruz's wife, Heidi. Mackowiak and other Cruz campaign staffers tell HuffPost that it was Heidi Cruz who eventually pushed Pierson out. Cruz’s spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Despite being iced from the campaign, sources close to Cruz say Pierson assumed she would end up having a job with him in the Senate, but no job ever materialized. Rejected, Pierson decided to launch a primary challenge against Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in 2014. She accused Sessions of abandoning his conservative principles and not doing enough to stop Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Even though Pierson had alienated Cruz’s wife and many of his allies, she still tried to get Cruz’s endorsement in that race, according to former Cruz staffers. Cruz chose not to endorse Pierson, but Cruz's father, Rafael, endorsed her as "a strong conservative" who "wants to do what’s right.”
I have worked my ass off at the grassroots since 2009 for zero dollars. They just don’t understand what it stands for, so they’re going to criticize it. Katrina Pierson
But Pierson’s detractors used her past against her on the campaign trail, accusing her of hypocrisy for receiving $11,000 in unemployment benefits during her time volunteering for the Cruz campaign -- despite the fact that she frequently criticized government benefits as a candidate.
There was speculation that her campaign was more of a vanity run to elevate her profile and get on television than a serious primary challenge.
"She didn't raise any real money. Her campaign didn't do that much grassroots," said Mackowiak. "It was almost a scam of a campaign."
Sessions cruised to victory.
After her failed bid for Congress, Pierson became a spokesperson for the Tea Party Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has been labeled a "scam PAC” for spending almost 90 percent of the donations it received to support conservative candidates on expenses such as salaries and consulting.
Pierson defended herself from critics in an interview with Politico. "I have worked my ass off at the grassroots since 2009 for zero dollars," Pierson said. "They just don’t understand what it stands for, so they’re going to criticize it."
Hughes said that Pierson's political malleability isn't driven by greed or hunger for fame, but by her desire to provide a good life for her son. "I always get a chuckle at those who label her ambition as being selfish and in her own interest," said Hughes. "Those who get the chance to know her personally find it obvious her motivation is in providing for her son."
In 2015, as Republican presidential campaigns began to staff up, Pierson once again contacted Cruz allies, hoping she could find a way back onto the team, according to former staffers for Cruz’s presidential campaign. When it became clear that the Cruz camp wasn’t interested in bringing Pierson back on board, she aligned herself with Trump.
Still a favorite for cable news, Pierson defended Trump and advocated for him every chance she got. Her efforts paid off: Last November, Trump hired her as his spokesperson.
I always get a chuckle at those who label her ambition as being selfish and in her own interest. Those who get the chance to know her personally find it obvious her motivation is in providing for her son. Conservative pundit Scottie Hughes
Pierson has proven to be a highly effective face for the Trump campaign, appearing multiple times a day on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN to defend her boss’s most controversial statements and policies with a studied calm.
Like Trump, she is unbothered by contradictions. Though she is now the chief spokeswoman for the most overtly race-baiting campaign in modern politics -- one that decries political correctness at every turn -- she once accused her boss at Sanofi-Aventis of racially discriminating against her.
According to the suit Pierson filed against the company in 2010, her supervisor "willfully discriminated against her on the basis of her race, was rude and condescending to Pierson, speaking down to her as if she were a child" and failed "to provide her with advanced notice of periodic training tests." The suit also alleged that Pierson's supervisor "treated Pierson differently than Caucasian employees in that she did not allow Pierson a personal choice about when to take her vacation days."
Pierson's suit sought compensation for lost wages, potential future lost wages, mental anguish, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life.
Her employer denied all the allegations, and the case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Sometimes, though, Pierson's experience and Trump's rage marry up. Pierson struggled through a long court battle with her ex-husband over custody of their son, something she has drawn on in her talking points for Trump. She accused the judge in her custody case of having a political bias against her.
"I spent the last year fighting a liberal judge in the 254th District Court of Dallas County," Pierson said at a 2010 tea party rally. "Because not only did he try to take my child from me, but he then tried to deny my right to a trial. And his response to that was, 'Well I'm a judge, I can do whatever I want.'"
Reached for comment, the presiding judge in the case, David Hanschen, said he had no recollection of Pierson or the case, but told HuffPost he would have never done any of the things Pierson alleges.
Trump has also weaponized Pierson's animosity toward Cruz. Her time on the campaign indirectly led to what was perhaps the most bizarre news cycle in the most bizarre election in memory, when the National Enquirer dropped a story in March alleging that Cruz had not one but five secret mistresses.
Trump is widely known to be close to David Pecker, CEO of the Enquirer. The story certainly has the appearance of coming directly from Republican consultant and sometime Trump adviser Roger Stone. Cruz himself publicly blamed Stone for planting the story, even though he has denied doing so.
But Stone is the only person quoted on the record in the article, insisting that these rumors have been “swirling around Cruz for some time." Known as one of the dirtiest players in politics, Stone lived up to his reputation in the aftermath of the story's publication. When Cruz alluded to Stone's Nixonian nickname -- the term of art for somebody in Stone's business is a "ratfucker" -- Stone fired back in the most misogynistic way possible: "Knowing what a couple of these women look like, I actually think he's the one that's been copulating with rodents."
While there is no reason to believe the story is even remotely true, it landed at the perfect time for Trump, just as Cruz was rallying anti-Trump forces for a final showdown.
Among the blurred photos of Cruz's alleged mistresses in the Enquirer piece is one widely believed to be Pierson. People involved with the Cruz campaign said that they felt Pierson had long tried to create the false impression that she and Cruz were close -- so close, even, that they might be having an affair.
"A lot of homewreckers actually want to have the affair, whereas, Katrina may not want to have the affair, but wants you to think your husband is cheating," said Mackowiak, whose version of the story was backed up by three other Cruz campaign aides. All said the same thing: There was no affair, but Pierson seemed fine with the impression that there may be one.
While Pierson denied claims that she was among the women featured in the Enquirer story, she did not exactly scuttle the rumors about the other women.
A Trump campaign that thrives on conspiracy theories and preys on the anxieties and suspicions of its flock couldn't find a better spokeswoman.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist