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Washington • It was a warm August night last year when Ryan Williams, a well-connected Republican operative, went to a book party in Washington - and met a ghost.
The occasion, an overstuffed affair honoring arch-conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, was thrown by Breitbart News Network at its Capitol Hill headquarters. Donald Trump had just seized the GOP nomination, and Breitbart political editor Matt Boyle was kvelling to the crowd about the thrill of sharing a space with Coulter at the center of Trump's nationalist movement.
In the midst of this excitement, a friend of Williams introduced him to a startlingly young, chestnut-haired woman.
Her name was Julia Hahn.
"I couldn't believe it," Williams recalled recently. "I told her I didn't even know if she really existed."
Over the previous year, Hahn's name had topped some of the most sharp-edged anti-immigrant and anti-establishment stories in conservative media. In keeping with Breitbart's growing mission as a scourge against any moderate strain in Republican politics, she had aimed her most pointed and brutal attacks at House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., whom she had accused of being a "globalist" Hillary Clinton sympathizer.
In a typically provocative piece, Hahn last fall retold the grisly tale of a California woman who was raped and murdered by an "illegal alien" - and then pitted that in contrast to the uproar over Trump's boasts about groping women on the "Access Hollywood" tapes. Ryan had denounced Trump's lewd talk, Hahn noted, but "there is no public record that (he) has ever spoken out about (Marilyn) Pharis's sexual assault."
The kind of knife-wielding, in other words, that can earn a writer a Twitter following in the high six figures and a regular punditry gig on Fox News. But Hahn's increasingly watched byline was all the more extraordinary for her utter anonymity. Not only did she never appear on TV, she had no public social-media presence whatsoever. Photos of her were hard to come by - and conspiracy theories about her true identity were beginning to circulate. (Hahn declined to comment for this article).
"I half-suspected she was really just Boyle writing under a different name," Williams said. "But there she was. I was surprised by how nice and mild-mannered she was, given how loud and intense her stories were."
And now, at 25, Hahn has taken her scorched-earth view of the world to the White House, where she was recently appointed a special assistant to the president - the right-hand woman to Trump's right-hand man, Stephen K. Bannon, her former boss at Breitbart, whose brand of conservatism and nationalism attracts its fair share of white supremacists.
A White House spokeswoman scoffed at media interest in the former Breitbart star, characterizing her as a mere "administrative staffer." "There are a lot of 25-year-olds in the White House," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "Are you going to be writing about all of them?"
But with her new job, the myth of Julia Hahn has only grown. If things go south between the speaker and president, will Trump follow the template Hahn and her boss Bannon have already laid out to attack him?
And who is this Julia Hahn anyway?
"She's the most wonderful, brilliant, kind, principled human being I've ever met," Coulter said in an email. "I want her to be president as soon as she's old enough."
It's fair to say that nothing about Hahn's time at Harvard-Westlake, a top prep school in Los Angeles, nor at the University of Chicago, one of higher ed's great temples of liberalism, hinted at a future friendship with firebrands like Coulter, let alone a job with a president who pushed conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birthplace, who wanted to ban Muslims from entering the country, who called climate change a Chinese hoax, and who launched his campaign by saying he would build a wall to keep out Mexican rapists.
While her fellow Trump White House prodigy, 31-year-old Stephen Miller, spent his own prosperous Southern California youth gleefully trolling his left-leaning classmates at Santa Monica High School, Hahn seems to have blended in with her native terrain. At her high school - which has also graduated Candice Bergen, Jake Gyllenhaal and the children of Steven Spielberg - she was known for getting along with most people.
Friends who partied with her at the Coachella music festival, or decorated gingerbread houses with her at her family's Beverly Hills home, recall a brainy and ambitious young woman who was unfailingly kind. She organized a fundraiser to bring foreign orphans to the United States. She shined in mock trial, once passionately arguing a case about Guantanamo Bay - she personally believed, a friend recalled, that a detainee is morally entitled to a trial, but she gamely argued that case law didn't support it.
This was typical of the way she engaged with the world: taking interest in political issues but not strictly analyzing them from a political viewpoint. She had great admiration for Justice Antonin Scalia's style, wit and adherence to his principles, a friend said, even if she disagreed on many of the principles themselves.
"I would have described Julia as smart, driven, insightful, but most of all compassionate," said Joshua Oreman, a friend of hers from the mock trial team. "What on earth happened?"
In her junior year at the University of Chicago, Hahn had three male roommates, two of whom were fellow philosophy majors and one of whom was her then-boyfriend, Miguel Andrade. Bryce Poerter, who lived with Hahn for two years, said the housemates frequented a nightclub in a mostly black South Side neighborhood to listen to blues. Andrade wrote poetry on a typewriter; Hahn collected vinyl records and worked, for a time, at a nearby shooting range. The foursome watched presidential debates together, but were more likely to argue about the virtues of various philosophers - she was a Freud devotee while her boyfriend was more of a Jacques Lacan man.
Already, Hahn had a knack for shocking people with her writing. Josh Fry, a student in her small thesis-writing group, remembers eyeballing her early draft. Her erudite tract had turned quite lively as she mulled how our society's notions of selfhood might feed into problematic attitudes about sex.
Fry thought the topic, which included a discussion on bondage and sadomasochism, seemed "a little out of left field," he said, for this "quiet and reserved" classmate. Hahn's thesis ended up focusing on Freud, Michel Foucault and the left-wing intellectual Leo Bersani, whose work includes the book "Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays." In a video of a 2013 conference on "Consciousness and Society," Hahn can be seen paying tribute to Bersani, the keynote speaker. She is baby-faced in a button-down shirt and pearl earrings as she confidently analyzes Foucault's critique of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Her fondness for Bersani had come with a few "serious drawbacks," she coyly told the room full of academics. "In the dating scene, you'll end up with a lot of unwanted follow-up calls and offers of a second date when you casually mention over dinner that you're currently reading a philosopher who encourages you to shatter your current form of experience by going out and having anal sex."
After graduating in 2013, Hahn told friends she wanted a job in media, according to the New Yorker, and that she wasn't picky about where.
She landed a gig with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. According to three people who worked with her there, it sparked her political evolution: She came into the job holding many liberal views, including on immigration - but she moved quickly to the right as she rose to executive producer of the show.
"Laura will do that to people," said a former Ingraham employee. "She can be very convincing."
The job threw Hahn in with a feisty crowd of political outsiders. She struck up a rapport with Miller, a top aide for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions at the time and now an architect of Trump's nativist policies. She left to work for Dave Brat, the insurgent congressman from Virginia who toppled former majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary, and from there joined Breitbart, whose editor in chief, Alex Marlow, graduated from Harvard-Westlake five years before she did.
But it was Bannon who became a real mentor for Hahn. She called him, in a Breitbart article, "one of the most supportive, kind, inspiring and selfless bosses a reporter could ask for." (Bannon also declined to comment for this article.)
She quickly took to his aggressive style, at least in her work. One of her first targets was Sen. Marco Rubio, whom she accused of being anti-cop and pro-illegal immigration. For weeks she wrote stories declaring that this Republican golden boy from Florida was a liberal in sheep's clothing. And anyone who supported him might land in her crosshairs. ("We mostly just ignored her," said Rubio's former presidential campaign spokesman, Alex Conant.)
After Charles C.W. Cooke of the National Review tweeted some positive thoughts on a Rubio debate performance, Hahn reached out with questions for an article she was writing: How could he support Rubio, she asked in an email obtained by The Washington Post, given his "multitudinous misrepresentations about the contents of his Gang of Eight bill" and his support to "substantially" increase immigration?
And then she turned on Cooke personally.
"Why should someone," she asked Cooke, who was born in England, "who can't vote in U.S. elections be pushing any candidate for the presidency on Americans?"
But Hahn's pugnacious writing style never seemed to bleed into her personal interactions. One friend recalled sending her a furious email after Hahn blasted her congressman boss. The next time she ran into Hahn, the writer greeted her with a warm smile, as if nothing ever happened.
"I think she's good at compartmentalizing," the friend said.
Which makes it easy for people to see whatever they want to see. When Hahn joined the White House, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard told The Post that she would "make Bannon look moderate" by comparison. Yet her former liberal friends are desperately seeking a silver lining.
"I feel better having her in the room than not," said Poeter, her old college roommate. "The Julia I knew was not a demagogue."
So how, exactly, does an apolitical philosophy major from the Westside of L.A. end up working as a fire-breathing populist beside the most controversial figure in the most controversial White House of a generation?
Lynne Honickman, an 80-year-old passionate Democrat from Philadelphia, doesn't think it's so out of character. She's Julia Hahn's grandmother.
"She really is the type to listen to other arguments, to learn from the people around her," Honickman said. "I think she took advantage of something she saw and is doing the best she knows how."
Her granddaughter, Honickman said, is a "joyous" young woman who is willing to push herself beyond her comfort zone.
"She's super smart," said her former college classmate Fry. "She knows nitpicking and building up straw men just to knock them down are not strong argument forms," he said. "Maybe she actually believes the cause is so important it's worth (it)."
What is the cause? Her mentor, Bannon, has for years spoken darkly of the clashes of civilizations he sees overtaking the world - between Christians and Muslims, between native-born Americans and immigrants, between the elites and the working man. Or as Foucault might have put it - and as Hahn quoted in her videotaped presentation - "my point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous. ... If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do."
But does Hahn believe that? Even her grandmother can't be sure.
"What she feels in this particular moment," Honickman said, "could be different three days from now."