“I remember walking home from the Hill,” Olivia Troye (C’99) says. “I remember walking home past the Pentagon while it was still on fire.”
Troye was a twenty–four–year–old Hill staffer when the planes hit on Sept. 11, 2001. She lived with several roommates in order to afford D.C. rent, and worked a full–time gig at the Republican National Committee that was offered to her following her senior fall at Penn in Washington.
“I wanted to do something to make a difference after that,” Troye says. Over the phone, her voice remains even. “I wanted to focus on hopefully contributing, in some way, to preventing that from ever happening again.”
Troye’s words, though told carefully, are almost strained. She deployed shortly after 9/11 and was a junior staffer in Baghdad in 2003—“in the middle of the main response and reconstruction of Iraq,” Troye said. Later, she would return to the Pentagon under the Bush administration.
In the present, news had just broken that President Donald Trump (W’68) was testing negative for COVID–19 for the first time since Oct. 1. According to a Tweeted memo from presidential physician Sean Conley posted shortly before my interview with Troye, Trump wasn’t contagious: he’d been negative for several days. This, apparently, indicated to the President that he ought to go maskless on Air Force One before even the aforementioned Tweet went live.
Trump’s photo was taken without a mask on Oct. 12, 2020. The 24 hours contained within that Monday saw over 48,000 new cases of COVID–19 reported in the United States, and the American death toll ticked higher by 351 people. Global cases, meanwhile, soared to 38 million.
Republican Voters Against Trump, a conservative coalition that endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 election, has an Instagram page: @rvat_2020 boasts 25,500 followers; the posts are largely selfie videos of middle–aged white Americans. Intermittently published are screenshots of particularly imbecilic Trump administration Tweets, cropped and pasted against blue–tinted backgrounds of waving flags, Corinthian columns, and the Statue of Liberty’s right arm.
There are also a few block quotes and the occasional polished film advertisement. The audio transcript of a post from Oct. 26, 2020 begins with this sentence: “For the first time in American history, a sitting president’s senior staff is warning you not to reelect him.” Troye is the second face in the ad, immediately following that of Miles Taylor.
Taylor anonymously published ‘A Warning’ in 2019, detailing the experience of the Trump White House as a senior official, and an anti–Trump op–ed in The New York Times in 2018. He is a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, where he worked for the first two Trump years before resigning in June 2019. Taylor shed his namelessness two days after the @rvat_2020 spot was aired, on Oct. 28.
On Twitter, she is Olivia of Troye. She said that it’s been a play on words for “many, many years now.”
I had asked her if she fancied herself a Helen, or maybe a Cassandra. Helen of Troy’s epithet comes from marriage; however, Olivia’s last name does not.
Cassandra, princess of the ancient city Troy by birth, was famous for her curse: everything she prophesied would eventually come true, but the gods doomed her such that nobody would ever believe what she said. She predicted the Greeks’ treachery within the hollow wooden horse, the events told in the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and even her own death. She was a whistleblower, too, of sorts, who would have changed the course of history had anyone simply listened to her. We listened to Olivia, though. She told us her truth, and now, history is changing.
Troye’s full reply ducked the leading Iliad reference in my question.
“[‘Of’] is not my middle name, or anything like that,” Troye said. The digression had ended.
“[I began] during a stage when there were not a lot of women serving in the state,” Troye said, “which is partially why I’m so passionate about supporting women and mentoring younger generations and helping them, because I had to navigate a lot of these environments on my own.”
Troye has a hefty amount of experience in decision–making bodies where men are in the majority—from even Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly to the COVID-19 task force. She views herself as fortunate to have been able to succeed under such circumstances, and is grateful for her colleagues’ mentorship, which supplemented her own networking abilities and expertise. But the Trump White House, Troye said, was a different environment entirely.
“[The President] refers to women as sweethearts,” Troye said. “This is a known thing, that’s just who he is. To be honest, for the first time in my life, there were meetings when I actually thought if my appearance was good enough.”
This familiar insecurity for those often critiqued on their appearance due to the outdated sting of gender roles is a personal point.
“And I consider myself to be a pretty strong woman—not very insecure.”
For the first time, Troye stopped and thought to herself: did she look okay? Was her hair in order? What was she wearing? Was the outfit good enough? She’d worked her way from being a victim of the most famous terrorist attack in recent American history to engaging in counterterrorism initiatives herself. She had already adjusted to this very male–dominated career path. This was abnormal.
“As someone who has been in the national security field for quite some time, not for a moment has that actually ever crossed my mind in a senior cabinet meeting,” Troye said. “I’d worked for several senior–level cabinet officials until…” she trailed off. “That gives you some perspective on what it was like.”
Troye’s mission, however, isn’t personal. She saw the repercussions of the Trump administration unfold from the very interior of the White House.
“Four more years of President Trump being in office is dangerous for our country,” Troye said. “We’ve seen the President, and we’ve seen truly who he is, this entire tenure. He’s non–discriminative about who he undermines.”
Troye claims that Trump’s threat to national security is both domestic and global. His disrespect of the office of the President and what that office signifies has had deadly consequences during the pandemic. Troye did indeed expect the retaliation she almost immediately received from her former coworkers and peers, along with vilification by the President himself. The cost of disloyalty was always clear, as Trump had been in power for three years before Troye left the White House.
“I knew that there was great consequence to speaking out, and I did have to leave,” Troye said. “I left [the Department of Homeland Security], I left government service. But I felt strongly, as the election got closer and I saw what was happening, that I needed to say something.”
“I’m Olivia Troye.”
She faces the camera directly. Recognizable photos of Troye at work with Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, flit across the screen.
“I was homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Pence and served as Vice President Pence’s lead staff member on the COVID–19 response. I’ve been on the COVID task force from day one.”
“The virus was very unpredictable at the beginning; there were a lot of unknowns. But, towards the middle of February, we knew it wasn’t a matter of if COVID would become a huge pandemic here in the United States. It was a matter of when.”
The following week, Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg denounced Troye in a White House press briefing. He said her performance had dropped, he had fired her and escorted her off the premises, and that he was not proud of her. Troye, on the contrary, actually resigned. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany followed Kellogg’s statement, calling Troye’s claims “fabricated smears and flat–out lies against the President.”
“But the President didn’t want to hear that,” Troye says, “because his biggest concern was that we were in an election year, and how was this going to affect what he considered to be his record of success?”
On Sept. 17, Joe Biden was approximately 6.6 points ahead of Trump in an average of nationwide 2020 general presidential election polls.
“It was shocking to see the President saying the virus was a hoax, everyone saying that everything’s okay, when we know that it’s not.”
For Troye, the President is to blame for the lethal extent of the COVID–19 pandemic.
“The truth is,” Troye says, as the camera cuts closer and closer to her face, “that he doesn’t actually care about anyone else but himself.”
Troye called me a few minutes after our set appointment time. She apologized for her momentary lateness and listened politely as I garbled some introductory sentences.
“Let me start over,” I said. “I’m a little nervous.”
Over the phone, Troye laughed.
“Think about this,” she said. “I’m always nervous, especially when I’m doing live TV, because this is not my world at all.”
We aren't doing live TV, but that is the world I know Troye from. I’ve read her name on every news outlet, from CNN to the Washington Post to Fox News to The New Yorker to HuffPost to even The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“Don’t be nervous,” she said, and then paused, but for only a moment. “It’s just me.”