Trump met with Pope Francis Wednesday
Sean Spicer, who is Catholic, was not invited
The most visible moment for White House press secretary Sean Spicer on President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip this week was a moment of invisibility.
Spicer fumed to colleagues after being excluded from the President’s meeting with Pope Francis, an administration official told CNN on Thursday. He was eagerly anticipating meeting the Pope, but discovered at the last minute that he was not on the shortlist of White House officials selected to join the President for the private audience.
Spicer assumed he would be on the list, the official said, adding that meeting the Pope was one of the bucket list items Spicer, a Catholic, wanted to check off during his tenure as press secretary.
The presidential snub raised fresh questions Thursday about Spicer’s standing as the chief White House spokesman.
The meeting here at Vatican City placed the ever-shifting pecking order of a tumultuous White House on full display.
Standing alongside the President as he met the Pope inside the Sala del Tronetto here were his wife, Melania, dramatically veiled in lace. To her right, eldest daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared, each senior Trump advisers and near-constant presences in Trump’s close circle. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster – Trump’s highest-ranking foreign policy aides – stood flanking Francis.
Those were the expected faces. But there were others there, too – less familiar yet nonetheless critical to the West Wing ecosystem. Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications adviser; Keith Schiller, his former bodyguard; and Dan Scavino, his social media master, all stood solemnly as Trump greeted the Pontiff.
On a foreign trip told primarily in images, the staff dynamics of Trump’s White House have been on full view, from the lavish welcome in Saudi Arabia to the exclusive audience Wednesday with Pope Francis.
Also absent from the Vatican visit: Kellyanne Conway, the senior counselor who remained behind in Washington; Reince Priebus, the chief-of-staff who dropped off Trump’s trip after the first stop; and Steve Bannon, the fire-throwing chief strategist who, as the boss of Breitbart, oversaw articles harshly critical of the Pope.
The photographs at the Vatican on Wednesday underscored a point that often goes unspoken in the Trump White House: old friends and family reign above all. Staff is just that – staff.
Ultimately, the formalities of West Wing titles mean less than family ties or longevity in Trump world. Spicer, for example, is an assistant to the President – the top-ranking title for White House aides – and Catholic, but was informed before the meeting there wasn’t room for him on the roster.
Spicer did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about Spicer not being included in the group that met the Pope, a source close to the White House said: “Wow. That’s all he wanted,” adding it should “very much” be seen as a slight.
Schiller, meanwhile, is a deputy assistant to the President – a lower rank than Spicer – but he is an aide with few equals, a body man who rarely is away from the President, whether he’s on the golf course or the Sistine Chapel.
And Ivanka Trump and Jared Kusher – who are both Jewish but nonetheless attended the Vatican session with the President – have rarely been away from the President’s side as he navigates the tricky international politics of the Middle East and Europe.
“It was a very small delegation that joined the President,” a White House official told CNN.
Two additional senior White House officials said the Vatican was very “strict” on the number of people who would be allowed to join the talks.
But previous administration officials who helped orchestrate meetings between US presidents and the Pope said that high-level Catholic staffers who expressed interest in attending the papal sessions were regularly accommodated. During his two equivalent sessions at the Vatican with Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict, President Barack Obama was joined by his press secretaries, Jay Carney and Robert Gibbs, along with senior-level national security and West Wing aides.
Trump has demonstrated a vastly different management style in his West Wing, one that favors loyalty and blood ties over title or rank. Schiller, for example, holds the title of director of Oval Office operations – a gatekeeper role that, in past administrations, has rarely extended past the Oval Office itself.
Staff intrigue has been a regular undercurrent of the Trump White House, both from outside the doors and behind the scenes. But rarely has the internal dynamic been on such obvious display than as Trump hops from nation to nation on his first international foray.
Much of Trump’s senior-most aides traveled with him on his first jaunt abroad, packing the staff cabins on Air Force One for the 14-hour flight from Washington to Riyadh. For most, it was the longest stretch of time spent limited to each other’s company.
Upon arrival, even lower-level staffers were treated to a royal welcome from King Salman and his royal court, a concerted effort by the Saudi government to flatter Trump and the decision-makers in his administration.