As Donald Trump’s communications operation has reached a Lord of the Flies level of infighting, the president and many of his staffers find themselves waxing nostalgic about a bygone Hope Hicks era.
Hicks’ departure nearly two months ago left a leadership vacuum in the West Wing that has yet to be filled. Even the contest to replace her was racked by characteristic internal drama and knife-fighting, as press leaks related to two leading contenders to succeed Hicks—White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp and Treasury Department public affairs chief Tony Sayegh—quickly split staffers into competing camps.
More recent leaks have fueled tensions in the White House comms department, with the leak of press aide Kelly Sadler’s cruel comment about Sen. John McCain’s health last week setting off a round of internal recriminations. Details on internal meetings on the persistent problem of press leaks were also subsequently and very quickly leaked to various news outlets.
“Not sure how sustainable this is going at this rate,” one senior White House official warned. The lack of a steady hand, the official suggested, will continue to hamstring any attempt to stem leaks and more effectively execute a cohesive communications strategy.
According to two sources who have spoken with the president about this issue in recent days, he has expressed his desire for at least one prominent “leaker” to be conclusively identified and “dealt with,” in order to make an example of him or her. Some Trump allies outside the White House are equally, if not more, livid and threatening to name and shame West Wing staffers whom they believe to be among the most egregious of Trump-subverting leakers.
Despite the recriminations, few people close to Trump or his senior staff actually believe that such a show of force will do anything to fundamentally fix the root problem.
“This is a culture problem,” one former Trump administration official assessed. “You’re not going to stop the leaking by shuffling around lower-level staff. The only way to change the culture in the White House is if you start making changes with senior-level staff.”
But while Trump has fumed about and discussed removing lower-level communications staffers, those close to the president do not expect him to make the one move that many agree is needed: hiring a Hicks successor to guide a chaotic White House communications operation.
It has been less than two months since Hicks, one of Trump’s most trusted aides and his White House communications director, departed the administration under a cloud of the Rob Porter scandal, Trump-Russia fallout, and deep frustration with what she viewed as the mean-spiritedness of Washington politics. Hicks’ stint in the Trump White House saw no shortage of infighting, tumult, or aggressive leaking. But some of her former colleagues in the White House in part blame her absence—or the absence of a likable leader—for the current state of chaos, backbiting, and potentially looming leak hunts roiling the West Wing.
Trump himself has personally reached out to Hicks in the weeks following her exit, according to a White House official, having staff deliver her a dictated message that he wished “Hopey,” as he calls her, well. It is unclear if they have spoken on the phone since Hicks ditched her White House job.
“He obviously misses her and still talks about her often,” the West Wing aide noted, comparing it to “empty nest syndrome.”
Hicks’ value to Trump often had little to do with her official title. She was a prominent source of personal support and comfort for an increasingly isolated president, and considered like close family.
“I don’t know that anyone else can really do the job the way it needs to be done because of how the president operates,” a former Trump White House official previously told The Daily Beast. “Hope always seemed like the only workable solution to that. Big loss in that respect.”
The duties typically landing on a White House communication director’s desk have since been scattered, divided between senior officials such as Schlapp, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and, often for longer-term message strategy, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, according to three sources familiar with the post-Hicks arrangement.
Though she bristles at suggestions that she might take the helm of the West Wing’s communications operation, Conway is an ubiquitous Trump defender on cable news, and has recently fired warning shots at those behind unauthorized leaks. She told Fox News on Monday evening that she had had “several discussions” with Trump about Sadler’s remarks and their emergence in the press. “It’s not so much leaking as using the media to shiv each other,” she said.
Asked if she thought personnel changes were imminent as a consequence, Conway replied, “Yes, I do.” But in the Trump White House, personnel changes are often ad hoc affairs. No shakeup has yet been announced.
In the meantime, morale in the White House press shop is in the pits, according to numerous sources in and outside of the West Wing. Officials don’t know who can be trusted. There is a pervasive sense that senior staffers have lost all control. Lower-level staff, especially, are constantly fearful of getting canned or scapegoated. Some wonder if they are being recorded. And staffers jokingly accuse each other of being “leakers” or a “spies.” Top communications aides including Sanders and Schlapp routinely decry, publicly and privately, the frequency of comms office gossip and deliberations quickly spilling over into full public view.
And this all predated Sadler-gate.
In one case, Axios published a story late last month on how Schlapp had “convened an off-site team-building and planning retreat… for the White House comms team,” and offered an inside look at the retreat. The depth of the detail, sourced to people in attendance, added to the distress and paranoia within the team, immediately prompting yet another spell of internal finger-pointing.
“[It] was like someone lobbing a grenade over the fence,” one member of the comms team told The Daily Beast.
This week, Trump himself weighed in on the seemingly relentless backstabbing racking his comms hub.
“The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!” the president tweeted on Monday.
The subject is obviously at the front of his mind.
When the hate-tweet was posted to his official Twitter account, the president was, according to a White House official, in the Oval Office preparing to board Marine One to take him to Walter Reed hospital—where he was set to visit first lady Melania Trump who was there recovering from surgery the day after Mother’s Day.