A West Wing aide’s morbid remark about gravely ill Sen. John McCain has not yielded widespread White House soul-searching. Instead, it has led to a push to fire those responsible for leaking that story and others that have bedeviled President Donald Trump’s administration.
Nearly a week after Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain’s opinion on Trump’s CIA nominee during a closed-door meeting by saying “he’s dying anyway,” a torrent of criticism has rained down on the White House. The administration has repeatedly declined to publicly apologize, but the fallout has shaken the West Wing, where the focus remains on who leaked to the media.
Trump is demanding that whoever let the story go public be fired, according to a White House official and an outside Trump adviser. Neither was authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Leaks have long been a problem for Trump’s White House, but this one has drawn particular scrutiny within the building because of the staying power of the damaging story. Several senior officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, have called closed-door meetings to warn junior staffers that a shake-up could be in the offing. The mood has grown increasingly tense.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to work for the president and to be part of his administration. And anybody who betrays that I think is a total and complete coward and they should be fired,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders this week. “We’ve fired people over leaking before.”
Rumors have been circulating over who is responsible for the leak, and chatter about aides looking for the exits has picked up, though previous declarations of crackdowns did not yield shake-ups or end the leaks. Trump has claimed the reports of leaking are exaggerated, but he also suggested in a provocative tweet this week that those who do so are “traitors.” National security adviser John Bolton said that some leakers were “national security risks” and that Kelly was organizing an effort to cut them down.
“The president has to have advisers around him who can have open, candid discussions and then not read about him the next day in the newspapers or watch them on television,” Bolton told Fox News Radio.
Conway said Thursday that she knew the identity of some of the leakers but did not say what repercussions might be forthcoming.
She told Fox News that there is “99.8 percent of the information some of us know in this place that never gets leaked.”
Leaks are nothing new to any White House, but they have been far more pervasive in the Trump administration. In the president’s eyes, the number of unflattering leaks has been evidence that a “deep state” of career officials scattered throughout the government is conspiring against him. But Trump — who has been known to leak himself — has had a love-hate relationship with the practice long before he came to Washington.
“When I worked for Mr. Trump, I worked under the maxim that he liked leaks. I never cleared them ahead of time, but I would tell him later so he’d have deniability,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign official. “Sometimes he loved them, sometimes he screamed about them. But he never told me to stop. He loves the media, loves being talked about, he loves how a leak gets his name in the news.”
Campaign infighting and West Wing rivalries have led to nasty leaks about fellow staffers, while other revelations to the press appeared to be motivated by attempts to influence — or undermine — the president.
Sanders called a heated communications staff meeting last week to discuss the Sadler incident, during which Sadler received the support of several staffers, including Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of strategic communication. Schlapp has been a candidate to become communications director, a post that has been open since the resignation of Hope Hicks, a departure that some White House staffers believe has further eroded morale.
Schlapp’s husband, Matt, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, says a senior staff must have honest conversations without worrying that the information is going to be made public.
Leaks, he said, “can be used as a weapon to take out people you don’t like, rivals on the staff. And at the end, it really destroys the ability of the president to push hard on his agenda because everything is distracted.”
Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, said the current tone has been set by Trump, both on leaks and the lack of apologies.
“If the president created an inclusive environment where everyone was sure they’d be heard, there would be few leaks. But if the president creates an environment where the staff will infight and wrestle, the staff will leak,” Fleischer said. “And if the White House apologized now, they’d immediately be asked about every other time they haven’t apologized.”
A number of White House aides believe it was a mistake not to publicly apologize to McCain and believe doing so would have cut into the shelf-life of a story that, despite Stormy Daniels and the Russia investigation, has managed to carve out a consistent share of cable news coverage. But they privately acknowledge that it would have unleashed the president’s wrath.
Trump has long prided himself on never apologizing, believing it shows weakness, and has often displayed enmity for McCain. During the election campaign, he declared that McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years, was not a war hero, and he has publicly and privately blamed the Arizona senator, who is battling cancer, for submarining the Republican health care bill last year.
Trump’s White House has followed that lead, avoiding apologies while defending some of Trump’s most incendiary remarks like his comments about Mexican immigrants.
One time a White House staffer did acknowledge a mistake was in February, when deputy press secretary Raj Shah admitted that “we all could have done better” when discussing the White House’s handling of Rob Porter, the staff secretary who was accused of abusing two ex-wives.
Trump, who watched the briefing that day from his private dining room just off the Oval Office, was incensed by the remark and later chewed out Shah for making it, according to two White House officials.