The race to become the next White House Communications Director has degenerated into a round of backstabbing and factionalism that has taken aback even the most jaded of White House aides and allies.
One White House official described the contest to replace departing Trump adviser Hope Hicks as being well into its “smear campaign stage.” Another senior administration official dubbed it as a “battle royale.” And a Republican official close to the White House bemoaned yet another heavy shot of “palace intrigue and backstabbing” in an administration uniquely notorious for both.
It all started when news broke late last month that Hicks—one of President Donald Trump’s longest serving and most trusted aides—would soon depart the West Wing after the first year of the presidency. Very quickly, a shortlist of potential successors began to form led by two frontrunners: Mercedes Schlapp, the Trump White House’s director of strategic communications, and Tony Sayegh, the Treasury department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Both are former staples on Fox News, President Trump’s favorite channel, and were friendly toward one another during their time at the network.
No sooner did their names surface than the leaking began.
Last week, the Washington Examiner published a story on how “tensions” were soaring over the “search for Hope Hicks successor.” The piece was the first to outline the emerging Team Mercy and Team Tony camps, and included one notably eye-popping nugget. According to Examiner sources, Sayegh has a penchant to “delegate too much,” and is a “terrible bully.” The paper reported that one anonymous “senior administration official said such behavior has been particularly noticeable in Sayegh’s interactions with female staff.”
Tellingly, the Examiner had another source saying the allegation was “definitely somebody knifing him” and paraphrased the source as indicating that such “claims could damage his chances regardless of their authenticity.”
The Daily Beast spoke to ten senior Trump administration officials recently about Sayegh and none could pinpoint, corroborate, or provide specific examples of the alleged problems he has with women. Two women who’ve worked with him during the Trump era independently referred to the charge as “bullshit.” Another who works closely with him bluntly assessed: “100 percent not true and a complete cheap shot.”
The Examiner article was seen in the Trump administration as an opening salvo in an increasingly hostile power struggle—one that is exacerbating internal tensions and fueling suspicion within the administration as to who was “knifing” and smearing whom.
Sayegh, for his part, knows exactly where he’s pointing the finger. Two Trump administration sources told The Daily Beast that he has, in private conversation with allies, blamed Schlapp by name for the allegations that appeared in the Examiner and believes she is attempting to “ratfuck” him, as one official characterized it.
Schlapp, according to those who have spoken to her, has emphatically denied this.
Some administration officials, former and current, remain incredulous. Seb Gorka, a controversial former White House official and ex-aide to ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon, tweeted last week that “I think we know who that is,” in response to a claim by GOP operative Arthur Schwartz that the sexism allegations were “obviously planted by someone competing for the job.”
The tension is so rampant that it has caught the attention of Trump’s inner circle. Two White House sources told The Daily Beast that Hicks herself in a staff meeting last week reminded officials to refrain generally from backstabbing, leaking to the press, or spreading innuendo or rumors about any colleagues. (Trump aides subsequently noted the irony of leaking details of this part of the meeting to The Daily Beast.)
Outside the administration, Trump allies have noticed the constant intrigue and chaos, too.
“It should always be the number-one goal of anyone working in the administration to keep their focus on the president’s agenda, and that’s how the entire team succeeds,” Vice President Mike Pence’s former press secretary Marc Lotter told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “Anything that distracts from that is distracting from the president’s agenda...If people are talking about themselves or each other, that does not serve [President Trump] well.”
Until recently, Schlapp was widely viewed as the favorite to help fill the Hicks-sized power vacuum. Last month, before Hicks resigned, CNN reported that Schlapp had “increasingly helmed day-to-day tasks in the communications department and become a go-to for officials outside the communications department looking for messaging guidance”—right around the time Hicks was grappling with Rob Porter and Trump-Russia fallout.
Sayegh’s has been in a comparably strong position due to the amount of credit he has received for his work with White House senior staff on messaging strategy during the ultimately successful tax-bill push. According to White House officials, Hicks, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the president’s senior adviser and daughter Ivanka Trump have all praised Sayegh’s work in recent days—but have not staked out a clear position on who they favor to take the helm after Hicks leaves.
The position has remained stubbornly open and could be for some time. Sources close to Trump say that he isn’t fully sold on either Schlapp or Sayegh, and is also considering poaching from outside the administration, possibly from cable news.
On Wednesday evening, The Atlantic reported that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has been in talks with Trump for a “potential compromise,” in which Conway would take control of the comms operation on an “interim basis,” according to the magazine, before a “permanent replacement was found.” Conway has repeatedly stressed to people for weeks that she does not want the comms job and instead wants to take a senior role in policy.
Those close to the president don’t expect him to make his final decision until Hicks’s absence actually starts being felt. Allies of both Schlapp and Sayegh have expressed concern that if Trump hasn’t tapped either one of them by this point, it could be potentially fatal for their chances.
“If you were to ask me today who was most likely to get the White House communications director job between Tony and Mercy, I would say Tony,” one source close to the Trump White House said. “But if you were to ask me who is most likely to get the job between Tony, Mercy, and [current] ‘Fox News Personality X,’ I would go with Fox News Personality X.’”
In fact, President Trump had been looking to at least one such former “Fox News Personality X” type. As CNN first reported, the president had discussed the position with Bill Shine, former co-president of Fox News who was forced to depart the conservative cable-news giant following criticism for how he handled various sexual harassment accusations at Fox. Trump considered Shine for a senior role last year, as well.
But Shine has taken his name out of consideration, The Daily Beast confirmed. One person close to the former Roger Ailes lieutenant said he did not “relish submitting himself” to another round of negative media attention, relating to his handling of Fox News scandals.
For now, Shine is leaving the infighting and round of negative coverage up to everyone else.