White House Communications Shop Is Waiting For the Big Hammer to Fall

A week ago, someone leaked a conversation that took place at a meeting of the press and communications operation in the White House. The topic was how to shepherd the nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director through the Senate after Arizona Senator John McCain said he’s oppose it. Let’s stop for a moment here and recognize McCain’s action for what it was. He was sticking a thumb in Trump’s eye. Period. This is a stereotypical case of “muh principles” because McCain voted to confirm John Brennan as CIA director and Brennan had a key role in setting up and administering the black prison, enhanced interrogation, and extraordinary rendition systems (full disclosure, I like all these programs and wish the were larger and more aggressively run). Anyway, one person in the communications shop opined that McCain’s vote didn’t matter as he was “dying anyway.” (Fact check: True.) Anyway, someone with a score to settle against Sadler leaked the comment and a Two Minutes Hate was called.

If I sound underwhelmed by this kerfuffle it is because I am. This was a private comment, so any apology due was due to those in the meeting who were offended. The fact that the conversation was leaked to try to get a colleague fired is the real scandal here.

Then the unexpected happened. There was not only no firing, there was no apology.

The White House declined on Friday to renounce or apologize for an aide whose joke at a meeting that Senator John McCain was irrelevant because he would soon die went viral, outraging relatives, friends and admirers of the ailing lawmaker.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said she would not comment on a closed-door meeting where the joke was made. And she offered no words of regret over the remark or sympathy for Mr. McCain, a Republican senator and two-time presidential candidate who is battling brain cancer at his Arizona ranch.

“I’m not going to validate a leak one way or the other out of an internal staff meeting,” Ms. Sanders said. Asked why she would not simply apologize to Mr. McCain, she said, “I’m not going to get into a back and forth because, you know, people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.”

Last Friday, Kellyanne Conway addressed the leak:

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday foreshadowed possible personnel changes after President Trump vowed to crackdown on administration aides who leak information to the press.

“I do, actually. Yes, I do,” Conway said when asked by Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum if she expected staff movements in the West Wing.

Conway said the leaks, regardless of the motive behind them, were not helping Trump achieve his policy agenda.

On Wednesday, Sanders revisited the topic:

“I think it is disgusting and some of the most shameful behavior that you could ever engage. In it’s an honor and privilege to work for the president and to be part of his administration. Anybody who betrays that, I think is a total and complete coward and they should be fired,” Sanders declared.

The press secretary did not let up, adding “we fired people over leaking before. I have personally fired people over leaking before. And we certainly would be very willing to do so again.” Sanders was pressed over the leak of an internal communications staff meeting in which White House aide Kelly Sadler made a disparaging remark about Arizona Sen. John McCain.

And now the White House communications organization is bracing for a purge.

In this White House, one former administration official said, media stories can become so intense and frequent that they “hit a critical mass,” turn into an echo chamber, and something must be done to stop the negative headlines and the president’s displeasure.

People could be canned, in other words, to set an example for others.

“The mood is bad. They are serious, and somebody will pay the price,” said the former administration official. “While there have always been a lot of internal leaks, in this particular case, it was easy to isolate where it was coming from because it happened in a communications meeting.”

Before the Sadler comment, which her fellow staffers leaked to the press, “people in the communications and press shop still had hope that the situation was salvageable,” said another former White House official. “Now the feeling is that the only way to save the shop is for everyone to get fired.”

Sanders is completely correct in the approach she is taking. Any corrective action concerning Sadler (and if she worked for me there would be none) should be private and it certainly should not involve termination. But, if people think they can carry out attacks by embarrassing the president and their boss then there is a serious issue. Odds are by now they know exactly who was behind the leak because the person that did it has been gloating about it and someone knows. They have to go. To make a statement, I’d fire their known associates on the assumption that they knew of the leak and did rat the leaker out thus putting that friendship ahead of loyalty to the organization.

“If you’re mad at the boss, then you don’t care if settling the score distracts from his message. That’s the culture Trump has bred. It will never change,” said one Republican strategist with close ties to White House staff. “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.”

I have no doubt that there is a lot of truth here. I did a series of posts on the Trump campaign organizational dynamics which seem to be the stereotypical “snake pit” environment favored by weak leaders. During the campaign, Trump set up competing power centers and set them at war with one another which allowed him to step in as peacemaker. See them here and here. I even used this memorable image my teenage son directed me to:

But that is the environment Sanders signed onto. If she can’t make her staff respect her enough to not leak hits on colleagues, she does have the power to make them fear her enough to restrain their worst impulses.