In this White House, no one knows when the ax will fall or who will be swinging it.
A new day of firing and fury culminating in a staggering power play by first lady Melania Trump deepened already historic dysfunction in the administration on Tuesday, leaving top officials blindsided and confused.
Even compared with the senior staff knifings, bureaucratic turmoil and raging chaos that passes for normality in President Donald Trump’s White House, her sudden move against a top foreign policy official was a bombshell.
In a public statement that came out of nowhere, the first lady’s office warned that deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, with whom she reportedly clashed over a recent Africa trip, “no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
Her dramatic intervention sparked speculation that the first lady was at odds with her husband, was overstepping her role and that the East Wing was going rogue. Melania Trump had already said in an ABC interview last month that she didn’t trust some White House staffers. Now, she was doing something about it.
One person told CNN that, incredibly, Trump, chief of staff John Kelly and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had no idea the statement was coming.
A source told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that Trump — who often finds it difficult to fire people in person despite his schtick on NBC’s “The Apprentice” — had decided that Ricardel has to go, though she was being given time to clear her desk.
But as is often the case in this poorly run White House, there was uncertainty at first over Ricardel’s actual fate. It was not clear on Wednesday morning whether she had been officially dismissed, whether she would show up for work as usual or if she might be found a spot elsewhere in the administration. Later Wednesday, Sanders issued a statement confirming Ricardel will leave her White House position, while noting that Ricardel will “transition to a new role within the Administration.”
It’s not unusual for unease to stalk the White House after a midterm election loss, as staffers exhausted by the first half of the President’s mandate give way to fresher troops. And Tuesday was not the first time a first lady has leaned on her husband over a staffer she finds irksome.
But this President’s mercurial temperament and the nest of vipers that is his West Wing has inflicted more nerve-rattling pressure on his staff than is normal even in the White House, where crises are always just around the corner.
The current turbulence and sense of presidential norms being shattered by an emotional and erratic president feels different and more consequential than the wild staff intrigues of early in the presidency. It’s beginning to raise real questions about what is in store for the nation over the second half of Trump’s term.
Several Cabinet members — including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — are being targeted by whispering campaigns, leaks and speculation about their fates as trial balloons float about possible replacements.
Kelly, who has survived several rounds of scuttlebutt about his often supposedly imminent departure, is said to be heading for the exit again. And leaked reports that Trump sees Ryan Zinke as vulnerable to Democratic oversight have weakened the Interior secretary’s position.
Trump is meanwhile digging in on his constitutionally questionable appointment of Matthew Whitaker, a critic of Robert Mueller, to oversee the special counsel probe as acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions was fired.
Sanders had been expected to leave, along with her deputy Raj Shah, but their status remains uncertain.