Not long after news broke that White House communications aide Kelly Sadler had made a flippant comment about Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) impending death from brain cancer, President Donald Trump gathered a small group of staffers in the Oval Office.
The conversation included Sadler herself, chief of staff John Kelly, director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp, and principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah, and the topic was, at least partially, the “leakers” terrorizing the Trump administration from within. Trump let it be known that he was displeased before asking Sadler whom she thought were prominent leakers in the ranks.
As first reported by Axios, Sadler shocked those in attendance by pointing to, among others, Schlapp.
What happened next, however, was equally dramatic and potentially far more critical for the future of an already frail White House communications staff. Schlapp recoiled in indignation, aghast that anyone would suggest she would betray the president—least of all a more junior aide whom she had given increasing responsibilities within the administration.
Trump sat behind the Resolute Desk, watching the drama unfold in real time. The meeting adjourned shortly after the tense—even for the Trump White House—exchange. But the drama didn’t end there. Two sources recounted that Schlapp remained heated, saying that in separate conversations detailing what happened in the Oval, she referred to Sadler as “a bitch.”
Schlapp vehemently denied saying the word and insinuated that any suggestion she had done so was, itself, a malicious leak designed to undermine her. “I have never used that word to describe anyone on the White House staff,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “This smear by anonymous sources is not fit for print by any reputable news outlet. The leakers should be more concerned about promoting the president’s agenda than trying to take down fellow members of the team.”
Whether or not an epithet was used, for some inside the administration, is of secondary concern. Far more important was the chaos that the episode illuminated about the state of the president’s communications staff. After weeks of trying to patch together a coherent operation, the framework appears to be falling utterly apart. Leaks, chief among them the one involving Sadler’s McCain comments, have decimated morale. But factionalism was the real poison, with aides growing more and more convinced that enemies within are spreading gossip and innuendo to enhance their own standing.
The end result is a Trump White House that more closely resembles scenes from the kind of reality TV that Donald Trump used to host before he became leader of the free world.
“The only thing that would have made this scene better is if Omarosa were somehow involved in it,” a former West Wing official said, obviously referencing Trump’s hit TV show The Apprentice, of which Omarosa Manigault was a recurring villain, years before she became an actual Trump administration official.
Shah said in a brief statement, “In my conversations with Mercy and others, she did not use that word.” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, conveyed something similar. Other White House officials, when asked about the incident, pointed The Daily Beast to past press briefings where spokespersons have said that it is an internal staff matter that will be handled, and discussed, internally.
But sources close to the president suggested that firings would come sometime soon and that they would be targeting members of the communications team. Late last week, Schlapp and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders met to discuss potential personnel changes as a means of stemming the flow of White House leaks. And according to two administration sources, Sadler’s name was among those raised as a possible target for dismissal.
Sadler had appeared to have weathered the storm following her controversial comments on McCain. But some officials who spoke to The Daily Beast described her calling out Schlapp as a potentially fatal mistake.
It wasn’t her only slip-up, either. Early last week, Sadler sent a series of White House talking points to a large email list of academics and think tank scholars. But she forgot to “bcc” the recipients, as is standard, instead including a list of all their email addresses at the top of the message, a copy of which was reviewed by The Daily Beast.
It was a small hiccup but still another blemish for a press shop eager to appear less amateurish. Following Daily Beast inquiries, two White House sources independently referred to it as the “BCC fuck-up.”
Ultimately, it will be left to the president to decide Sadler’s fate, along with the future of his communications operation. Those close to Trump said he was not turned off by the McCain comment. If anything, it may have helped her, at least momentarily.
“This [White House] has no shortage of infighting and backstabbing,” one White House official said. “But what Kelly did, that takes [a] gigantic pair of balls.”