The leak of a White House press aide’s flippant comments about John McCain’s terminal cancer has uncorked long-simmering tensions in the communications and press offices, with staffers anticipating potential personnel changes to come as soon as Friday.
The furor over White House aide Kelly Sadler’s remarks set off jockeying within the West Wing and among former administration officials and close advisers to the White House to lay blame on others. Among officials, there’s a sense that a few staffers will pay the price, even if there’s no evidence they were involved in the Sadler leak.
In this White House, one former administration official said, media stories can become so intense and frequent that they “hit a critical mass,” turn into an echo chamber, and something must be done to stop the negative headlines and the president’s displeasure.
People could be canned, in other words, to set an example for others.
mood is bad. They are serious and somebody will pay the price,” said the former administration official. “While there have always been a lot of internal leaks, in this particular case, it was easy to isolate where it was coming from because it happened in a communications meeting.”
White House officials have placed far greater emphasis on the leaks themselves than the substance of Sadler’s remarks, which outraged the McCain family and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Trump himself has called those who leaked the comments to the press “traitors and cowards” on Twitter and vowed to suss out their identities.
The White House is considering restructuring the press and communications offices, but plans remain fluid. “While there are ongoing discussions regarding personnel changes, there are no announcements at this time,” said deputy press secretary Raj Shah.
President Donald Trump was incensed about the publication of the McCain comments, made at an internal meeting by Sadler, who said in front of colleagues that the Arizona senator’s criticism of Trump’s CIA pick Gina Haspel ahead of her confirmation didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.”
The remarks set off a week’s worth of stories about a White House in which no one ever apologizes – and bred fresh rumors about potential shifts in the teams. Both have been rife with fiefdoms and warring factions since the inauguration, when a number of alums of the Republican National Committee started working with insurgent Trump campaign officials.
The infighting has only become more intense since the departure of communications director Hope Hicks, who helped to smooth over the internal divides, said one former Trump transition official.
Before the Sadler comment, which one of her fellow staffers leaked to the press, “people in the communications and press shop still had hope that the situation was salvageable,” said another former White House official. “Now the feeling is that the only way to save the shop is for everyone to get fired.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conaway told Fox News earlier this week to expect personnel changes.
The White House has been doing an internal review to try to determine which individuals leaked Sadler’s comment about McCain dying, but that’s proven difficult to pinpoint among press and communications aides, whose jobs involve interacting with the media every day in some capacity.
But not all Republicans believe that shifting a handful of staffers out of the White House press and communications shop will solve the deeper problem.
“If you’re mad at the boss, then you don’t care if settling the score distracts from his message. That’s the culture Trump has bred. It will never change,” said one Republican strategist with close ties to White House staff. “Trump has bred a totally dysfunctional and disloyal atmosphere. He is the reason way the White house operates this way. If he’s unhappy with it, then he should look in the mirror.”
Chris Cadelago contributed to this report.