A political clobbering, bickering aides and now a public grenade launched across the White House by the first lady have placed President Donald Trump in a position he loathes: backed into a corner.
A week after standing in the East Room and declaring victory in the midterm elections, the President is isolated and growing more furious by the day. He’s openly speculating about replacing more members of his Cabinet, though so far has stopped short of executing the dismissals, leaving those aides in a career purgatory.
At an election night party at the White House, Trump left attendees guessing when he was spotted in a huddle with a potential replacement for his chief of staff, John Kelly, who himself stood awkwardly in a corner.
“Yes, he’s pissed – at damn near everyone,” a White House official said, noting the mood in the Oval Office is darker than normal this week. After nearly a month straight of campaigning before adoring crowds, the applause has gone silent and the President has retreated. The tempest has led to rampant speculation inside the building about the fates of other senior staffers, some of whom are beginning to plan their exits.
Friends of the President describe him as embittered by the election losses and troubled by the Mueller investigation. He met Monday with his lawyers to go over a series of written questions from the special counsel. Some of his longtime confidants are worried for his health, believing he’s gained weight and looks unwell.
The President’s fury at special counsel Robert Mueller burst into view again Thursday morning when he unleashed a string of angry tweets about the special counsel.
The timing for the President’s fury couldn’t be worse, considering the White House is heading into uncharted territory with Democrats assuming control of the House. Trump has told some advisers he’s itching for the fight, believing it can provide him a political foil. Meanwhile, Mueller is inching closer to issuing his report on the Russia investigation.
“He knows it’s winding up. So, it’s unsettling,” another person close to the President said.
It was a 24-word statement from the East Wing, where the first lady and her small staff work, about a presidential adviser that revealed how the dysfunction inside the White House is deeper and more tangled than previously known.
“It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” a spokeswoman for Melania Trump said Tuesday afternoon.
Yet a day after that extraordinarily public rebuke, Mira Ricardel reported to work in the suite of offices in the National Security Council. After Ricardel was not even given the dignity of being named in the statement – which referred to her only as “she” – everyone in the West Wing was saying her name on Wednesday as anxiety intensified about what this latest feud would mean for the President’s mood. Later Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement confirming Ricardel will leave her White House position, while noting that Ricardel will “transition to a new role within the Administration.”
In the last week, the President’s frayed and fraught relationships have been laid bare for all to see: He’s furious at Kelly for a Paris trip that ended in a public relations debacle. He’s blaming his political advisers for losing the winning narrative of the midterms. And he was caught off guard by his wife’s shot across the bow at one of the top advisers in the West Wing – a sign that their private conversations clearly aren’t functional.
After his wife ordered the astounding statement to be released Tuesday afternoon, Trump was furious that what had been an internal staffing matter was now thrust into public view, leaving him to look like a bossed-around husband. The President’s mood was dark and intense after what officials said was a blindsiding by aides who do not report to him.
If the sudden public interest in Ricardel, a behind-the-scenes operator, came as a surprise to the President, however, the underlying issues between her and the first lady’s office were not new.
The Ricardel affair
Two sources said the first lady’s office believed Ricardel accused members of their staff of inappropriate behavior as part of her trip to Africa last month, and asked for the White House counsel’s office to investigate. The counsel’s office declined, according to a person familiar with the matter. That’s on top of concerns that Ricardel treated the trip dismissively and interfered with seating arrangements on the first lady’s plane.
It became “very personal” to the first lady, one person familiar with the matter said, because she “ran over Melania’s staff.”
People familiar with the situation said the first lady and her aides sought to take issue with Ricardel through “appropriate channels” for weeks, including Kelly, but nothing came of their concerns.
Other officials said tensions between the first lady and Ricardel stemmed from more than just the deputy national security adviser’s handling of her Africa trip, noting friction had developed over how Ricardel treated administration staff in general.
“It’s true there was infighting between Mira and the first lady’s staff. And it’s true that the Africa trip was a big part of the tension,” one person familiar with the matter said. “But the reason the first lady asked for Mira to be fired was that the first lady believed she was a bully.”
The episode came against the backdrop of broader tensions between the National Security Council and others in the West Wing who have bristled at the way national security adviser John Bolton has run his team. One senior White House official said some had viewed Bolton as more interested in serving as a personal adviser to the President than in running the day-to-day operations of the National Security Council.
Ricardel was Bolton’s highest-ranking aide at the National Security Council, and her gruff style matches that of her boss. Both have made enemies within the administration for appearing to discard opposing opinions while advancing their own.
But when the first lady’s office delivered its broadside against his top aide, Bolton was 10,000 miles away in Singapore on a trip with Vice President Mike Pence. Working against a 12-hour time difference, aides traveling with the national security adviser made furious calls to their colleagues back in Washington in an attempt to figure out what was going on and potentially stall Ricardel’s firing. Bolton kept his head down, an official traveling with him said, and did not mention the drama publicly.
Most viewed Bolton’s efforts to preserve Ricardel’s job as futile and just delaying the inevitable, which Bolton apparently realized after seeing the drama unfold from half a world away. But Trump had surprised staffers in the past, and there had been some speculation earlier Wednesday that Ricardel would end up in another position in the administration outside the National Security Council. The first lady does not offer the President staffing advice on a regular basis, but one former White House official said that when she does, it carries significant weight.
The episode underscored the dysfunction that continues to pervade West Wing staffing matters almost two years into the Trump presidency. It lays bare the continued factionalism pitting aides against each other, often in convoluted and unpredictable configurations. And it reflects the deep unease within the White House as Democrats prepare to launch an assault of investigations into all manner of administration business.
Staffers are still coming to grips with the new political reality while responding to a freshly enraged President. The prospects for wide-ranging investigations launched by the new Democratic-led House have concerned aides, who worry about legal bills and the potential impact on their careers.
A slow-rolling staff shake-up is far from over, with Kelly again the subject of rampant speculation, despite his proclamation earlier this year he would remain at Trump’s side until 2020. While the President has strongly considered Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff and an ally of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as a replacement for Kelly, there has been “aggressive pushback” against him, one senior official said. Some senior aides have even threatened to resign if Ayers is tapped for the job, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Another name discussed inside the White House as a potential Kelly successor is Johnny DeStefano, a senior aide to Trump who has quietly taken over a growing portfolio. DeStefano, a former top adviser to then-House Speaker John Boehner, has a solid relationship with the President and is generally well-liked among the staff.
But the President, who detests the narrative that his White House is chaotic, could ultimately decide not to ax Kelly – if only to spite the press.
“The more the press writes that John Kelly is gone, the more Trump is emboldened to keep him just to prove them wrong,” one source close to the White House said.
Trump’s foul mood, meanwhile, has rendered the White House a tumultuous workplace where outbursts are becoming more common. The decision to scrap a planned visit to an American cemetery in France because of rain over the weekend only deepened the President’s conviction that he’s being misserved by some of his staffers.
Trump was advised by deputy chief of staff Zach Fuentes, a close aide of Kelly’s, just ahead of his tense meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron that he would not be able to fly his helicopter to the Aisne-Marne cemetery, situated 50 miles from Paris. A drive, Fuentes said, would cause traffic havoc around Paris, and would also make Trump late to the event – something he detests.
Some aides told the President that he should not worry about missing the event because he had other opportunities to pay respects on the trip, including another cemetery visit scheduled for the following day, according to people familiar with the conversations. Neither they nor the President expected the massive backlash the decision prompted, which sank in over the course of the following hours. As he watched the onslaught of headlines criticizing him for skipping the trip with no backup plan, the President took his anger out on Fuentes personally.
Whiling away the empty hours at the US ambassador’s residence in Paris, Trump complained the entire trip to France was poorly conceived and executed, according to people familiar with the matter. He’d long discovered the events on Sunday would not include a grand military parade like the one he witnessed a year ago on Bastille Day, leading him to wonder what the point of the trip was.
Instead, Trump grumbled that he was kept away from the action back home, where election recounts were getting underway in key Senate and governors’ races. With nothing to do for six hours in the middle of the afternoon, Trump demanded updates on the races and details about the state officials responsible for the counting.
As they have on previous foreign swings, staffers had ensured that televisions inside the ambassador’s residence – the second empire Hôtel de Pontalba on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré – had Fox News available for the President’s viewing. And they worked to set up phone calls with officials back home in the hopes of keeping him occupied.
A brewing presidential tempest
The clouds started gathering on election night, people familiar with the matter said. Surrounded by his wealthy friends, three oldest children and select senior staffers, Trump entered a White House watch party a week ago in a cheerful mood. But as he huddled over pizza and tiny hotdogs with some of his billionaire friends, the President began to see things shift. His mood went south. And the blame began flying.
He did everything his political team asked him to do, Trump protested to his friends. He did his job while others clearly had not.
Kelly, the beleaguered chief of staff, attended early in the evening with his wife. Long viewed by the President as lacking political acumen, Kelly appeared out of his realm, according to two sources familiar with the scene. He remained in a corner sipping a drink with his deputy.
An hour before midnight, the President – visibly annoyed – announced he was done. The rooms, which had been set up with large televisions for viewing results, began to empty. As attendees began trickling out, some saw an intriguing sight.
Huddled in a corner, intense in conversation, were the President, his wife and Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, who has been speculated about as a leading contender to replace Kelly.
To those still there who saw, and others who later heard about it, it was a moment the President appeared to stage.
CNN’s Liz Stark contributed to this report.