Not long after White House communications aid Kelly Sadler made a comment in a meeting that Senator John McCain’s opinion didn’t matter because “he is dying anyway”, a small group of staffers met in the Oval Office at a meeting called by the President. In attendance was Sadler, Mercedes Schlapp (strategic communications director), Raj Shah (deputy press secretary), and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
As Axios reported, the President, obsessed with the leaks that have dogged his administration, addressed Sadler. Her answer was straight out of a reality TV show.
The president told Sadler she wouldn’t be fired for her remark. He added, separately in the conversation, that he’s no fan of McCain. Then Trump, who had grown obsessed with the leaking problem, told Sadler he wanted to know who the leakers were. Sadler then stunned the room: To be completely honest, she said, she thought one of the worst leakers was Schlapp, her boss.
Schlapp pushed back aggressively and defended herself in the room. And in follow up conversations after the meeting, some of Schlapp’s colleagues also came to her defense. (In a prior meeting, she had said, “You can put this on the record: I stand with Kelly Sadler”). Sadler went on to name other people she also suspected of being leakers.
Sadler’s allegation against Schlapp, like other statements in meetings to deal with leaks, was promptly leaked to Axios.
The Daily Beast reports that after the tense scene, the meeting was soon adjourned but the drama continued.
Two sources recounted that Schlapp remained heated, saying that in separate conversations detailing what happened in the Oval, she referred to Sadler as “a bitch.”
Schlapp vehemently denied saying the word and insinuated that any suggestion she had done so was, itself, a malicious leak designed to undermine her. “I have never used that word to describe anyone on the White House staff,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “This smear by anonymous sources is not fit for print by any reputable news outlet. The leakers should be more concerned about promoting the president’s agenda than trying to take down fellow members of the team.”
The drama isn’t just drama – it is indicative of deeper problems within the communications shop. Never a cohesive unit able to put forth solid messaging, the Trump White House communications team has further split into factions and has become deeply paranoid over rumors of looming firings. The staff is beset with low morale and chaos as they cannot stem the leaks. Leakers are not only prolific but willing to frame their colleagues.
As Axios’s Jonathon Swan points out, naming names – as Sadler did – is a power move.
Trump administration officials have told me that “X is a leaker” has in this White House become synonymous with “I don’t like X.” Everyone knows the leaker accusation has become the most powerful weapon you can wield against somebody you don’t like, especially to Trump.
- No one ever says “X leaked Y, and here’s the evidence.” It’s just “X is a leaker.”
- If White House officials had a shred of evidence their colleagues were leakers then the colleagues would be perp walked off the premises immediately. Now, saying it in front of Trump is taking it to the next level.
All this drama results in the White House looking like The Apprentice, the show Donald Trump is famous for, complete with backstabbing and name calling, The Daily Beast observes.
“The only thing that would have made this scene better is if Omarosa were somehow involved in it,” a former West Wing official said, obviously referencing Trump’s hit TV show The Apprentice, of which Omarosa Manigault was a recurring villain, years before she became an actual Trump administration official.
Firings are still coming, sources say, and they will target communications staff. Kelly Sadler kept her job after her McCain comment but even apart from her bold and possibly fatal move against Schlapp, Kelly has recently messed up.
In what staffers refer to as the “BCC f*ck-up”, Kelly forgot to bcc the emails of a large list of recipients of White House talking points, resulting in a long list of emails being visible to anyone reading the email. It was a minor mistake on Sadler’s part that makes the press office appear unprofessional at a time when they are already struggling. According to White House sources, Sadler’s name was recently brought up in a discussion between Schlapp and Sarah Sanders, press secretary regarding targets for termination.
For President Trump, not long removed from The Apprentice, the question is, should Kelly Sadler be rewarded or punished for her crude remark about John McCain and for her maneuvering within the White House communications shop?
Why It Matters
The buck stops at the Resolute Desk. The culture at the White House comes directly from the Oval Office. As a Republican strategist close to the White House told Politico, “Trump has bred a totally dysfunctional and disloyal atmosphere. He is the reason why the White House operates this way. If he’s unhappy with it, then he should look in the mirror.”
When energy is being put into stopping unhappy people from leaking, that energy is not being directed towards governing. The country deserves better than the White House being turned into a reality show.