As rumors of yet another staff shakeup loom over the White House, chief of staff John Kelly and senior White House officials looked to assure their employees on Friday that no firings are imminent.
Kelly urged aides during a senior staff meeting to focus on their work, rather than the rampant rumors about another staff shake-up in the West Wing, two officials said. The retired four-star general later reminded staff they are serving their country and have important work to do, the officials said, and told them no shakeup was forthcoming.
Other senior White House officials carried a similar message to their employees Friday, telling more junior staffers that reports of a big shake-up happening imminently are likely overrated.
In the wake of a week of tumult – including President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – CNN spoke to about a half-dozen sources inside and outside of the White House.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Friday that Kelly’s efforts were an attempt to keep staffers focused on their work, not the swirl of drama about staff shake-ups.
Kelly urged staffers that “we should do exactly that we do every day and that is come to work and do the very best job we can and that is exactly what we are focused on,” Sanders said.
The feeling of unease has been pervasive, though, with one White House official acknowledging “the scariest part about working here” is that no one ever knows what’s going to happen or who will be next.
Friday’s assurances have done little to quell the swirl of news around the possible departure of H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser. Multiple sources told CNN on Thursday that Trump is prepared to oust McMaster and find a new national security adviser before his planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Sanders looked to tamp down the possibility of McMaster leaving the White House, though, telling reporters that she spoke directly to Trump about the national security advisers’ standing.
“The President’s said that it was not accurate and he had no intention of changing, that they had a great working relationship and that he looked forward to continuing to work with him,” Sanders said.
Trump and McMaster were also in meetings together on Friday, the press secretary added.
Even still, the timing of a McMaster departure remains unclear. One source said McMaster’s departure could come as soon as Friday, while others said that is unlikely. And Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have not been notified of any major changes and have been told not to expect anything immediately.
It’s also possible that the President delays firing McMaster in an attempt to disprove reports in the media, one source familiar with Trump’s thinking said.
The reality, though, is that Trump is fueling much of this revolving door discussion by talking openly – and often – with friends and associates outside the West Wing. The President is absolutely fine with the outside conversation focusing on staff rumors inside the West Wing, fueling much of it himself while enjoying the speculation.
“The President controls the timing here,” another White House official told CNN, nodding to the fact that nothing is certain until Trump deems it to be.
McMaster is far from the only top Trump staffer on shaky ground, though.
Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs David Shulkin remains the most vulnerable Cabinet member, two officials believe, given the continued focus on his ethics violations and a damning inspector general’s report the faulted his spending on a 2017 official trip to Europe. Trump has grown frustrated with the drumbeat of Shulkin news, putting him in a precarious position.
The same could be said for Health and Human Services Secretary Ben Carson, whose agency has come under fire recently for opulent spending on furniture for his government office.
And even Kelly, who took the helm of the White House last year after his predecessor, Reince Priebus, was unceremoniously ousted, has been rumored to be on the outs with Trump.
Kelly looked to tamp down on those rumors after a prolonged meeting with the President this week.
A source close to Kelly said he will stay at the White House “as long as he is effective” – and Kelly believes he is still effective.
Trump told advisers Thursday that the chief of staff was “100% safe,” a White House official confirms to CNN.
Kelly has likewise told aides, “I’m in.”
CNN’s Pamela Brown and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.