In this White House, no one knows when the ax will fall or who will be swinging it.
A new day of firing and fury culminating in a staggering power play by first lady Melania Trump deepened already historic dysfunction in the administration on Tuesday, leaving top officials blindsided and confused.
Even compared with the senior staff knifings, bureaucratic turmoil and raging chaos that passes for normality in President Donald Trump’s White House, her sudden move against a top foreign policy official was a bombshell.
In a public statement that came out of nowhere, the first lady’s office warned that deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, with whom she reportedly clashed over a recent Africa trip, “no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
Her dramatic intervention sparked speculation that the first lady was at odds with her husband, was overstepping her role and that the East Wing was going rogue. Melania Trump had already said in an ABC interview last month that she didn’t trust some White House staffers. Now, she was doing something about it.
One person told CNN that, incredibly, Trump, chief of staff John Kelly and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had no idea the statement was coming.
A source told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that Trump – who often finds it difficult to fire people in person despite his schtick on NBC’s “The Apprentice” – had decided that Ricardel has to go, though she was being given time to clear her desk.
But as is often the case in this poorly run White House, there was uncertainty at first over Ricardel’s actual fate. It was not clear on Wednesday morning whether she had been officially dismissed, whether she would show up for work as usual or if she might be found a spot elsewhere in the administration. Later Wednesday, 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.”
It’s not unusual for unease to stalk the White House after a midterm election loss, as staffers exhausted by the first half of the President’s mandate give way to fresher troops. And Tuesday was not the first time a first lady has leaned on her husband over a staffer she finds irksome.
But this President’s mercurial temperament and the nest of vipers that is his West Wing has inflicted more nerve-rattling pressure on his staff than is normal even in the White House, where crises are always just around the corner.
The current turbulence and sense of presidential norms being shattered by an emotional and erratic president feels different and more consequential than the wild staff intrigues of early in the presidency. It’s beginning to raise real questions about what is in store for the nation over the second half of Trump’s term.
Several Cabinet members – including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – are being targeted by whispering campaigns, leaks and speculation about their fates as trial balloons float about possible replacements.
Kelly, who has survived several rounds of scuttlebutt about his often supposedly imminent departure, is said to be heading for the exit again. And leaked reports that Trump sees Ryan Zinke as vulnerable to Democratic oversight have weakened the Interior secretary’s position.
Trump is meanwhile digging in on his constitutionally questionable appointment of Matthew Whitaker, a critic of Robert Mueller, to oversee the special counsel probe as acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions was fired.
Sanders had been expected to leave, along with her deputy Raj Shah, but their status remains uncertain.
More than the usual staff turmoil
Trump uses pandemonium as an instrument of personal power, leaving everyone off balance and unsure of what will happen next, while he sits in the center of the storm ready to make his next move.
Sowing disruption in Washington, while confounding the political establishment and perceptions of how a White House should be run, allows the President to keep faith with his political base.
So palace intrigue has been part of the administration from the start, along with media narratives that Trump is running his White House like a reality show and is constantly firing off distractions for reporters to chase.
It seems certain that Trump will emerge from this highly charged moment with fewer constraints if senior staffers who have tried to keep him within the bounds of presidential custom and the law depart.
He may have more latitude to follow an unpredictable course in which he sometimes seems to brush up against governing conventions and constitutional guardrails he often doesn’t seem to even know are there.
This could be an increasing problem when the administration faces a sudden burst of investigations from the new Democratic House, a reality for which lax oversight by Republicans has left it deeply underprepared.
And there is a good chance that Trump becomes even more distracted by the Mueller investigation with speculation heating up about possible new indictments and the contents of the special counsel’s long awaited final report.
On Tuesday, with his White House in uproar, he was sitting down with his lawyers to answer written questions posed by Mueller – a potential critical moment for his presidency.
Amazingly, the President is yet to face a major international crisis that he did not precipitate — like a close military call with a major adversary or a financial crash, that will require focused, unambiguous leadership and a crack team operating with unity and purpose. That seems an unlikely prospect in this White House.
There must also be questions, given the ever more fractious nature of life in his administration, whether top-level staffers on the GOP bench who might be persuaded to serve are going to have second thoughts.
After all, officials like Nielsen and Kelly have put their own reputations on the line, defending the President’s controversial policies on immigration, only for him to turn on them in the end.
Right now, the only White House staffers who might consider themselves safe are his kin: his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
But the danger of running a West Wing on the nepotistic model of Trump’s business has been made clear recently with the crisis over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The assassination, which caused global outrage, is being widely blamed on Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince on whom Kushner – going around the State Department – anchored Middle East policy.
Melania Trump shows her power
Tuesday’s swoop by the first lady was remarkable. In a show of force apparently brewing for days, she made Ricardel’s position untenable.
In a dash of added intrigue, Melania Trump twisted the knife with national security adviser John Bolton, who has forged his own deserved reputation as a ruthless bureaucratic assassin, out of the action – nearly 10,000 miles away in Singapore.
It was not the first time a senior West Wing staffer paid the price for falling out with a first lady.
Gossip often bubbled over ill will between Nancy Reagan and ex-White House chief of staff Don Regan. George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir about clashes with Hillary Clinton when he served in her husband’s White House. And there was often talk of tension between Michelle Obama and her husband’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs.
But it’s hard to find a precedent for the public, categorical, felling of Ricardel by Melania Trump, a strike that exemplified the first lady’s willingness to throw around her political weight.
Still, Marc Short, Trump’s former congressional liaison, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that while her move was unprecedented, it was not likely to start a new trend.
“I think you will find out over time that this is probably an exception and that the first lady probably had reasons,” he said.
Some White House sources painted a picture of Ricardel as tough to work with and said she had picked a lot of fights since coming aboard in April.
“She’d run through a brick wall for you but her personality isn’t for everyone,” said another official.
Still, Ricardel has not yet had the chance to tell her own story. And the tone of any White House is set from the top – and there is no doubt that there are few tougher places to work in America.
CNN’s Kate Bennett, Pamela Brown, Jeremy Diamond, Jeff Zeleny and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.