Amid the ongoing exodus, staffers are happy to let the president act as his own top spokesman.
President Donald Trump has always been happy to act as his own chief spokesman, and amid the ongoing shakeup of the White House communications office, staffers seem increasingly happy to let him.
Only one of the top five senior press and communications staffers, Raj Shah, was in the office on Friday afternoon, hours after the president decided to emerge from his post-Singapore sequester for an impromptu 20-minute gaggle on the White House lawn.
Inside the two areas of the White House where reporters can freely roam, almost no one was available to comment as Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was ordered into jail custody while awaiting trial on fraud charges, or as House Republicans scrambled to hold together an immigration deal on the Hill.
At one point, two young staffers huddled in the office of absent deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters, with one styling the other’s hair. An hour later, a brunette examined her full head of curls in a mirror as she stood near two rows of mostly empty White House desks.
Another White House official, Kelly Love, left on Friday for a position at the Department of Energy.
Other aides, many of them veterans of the Trump campaign, have been fired, sent to agencies or nudged to look for other employment, or have simply left for more lucrative, less stressful jobs. At least two additional staffers are expected to leave in the coming weeks, according to administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.
To avoid giving the appearance that staffers are being purged en masse, and possibly attracting negative headlines, senior officials have tried to ensure people leave one by one. Officials also hope to avoid giving the appearance that anyone in particular is being targeted for leaking, though Trump’s own irritation with news stories about the inner drama of his West Wing set off the latest round of housecleaning.
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
“We’re trying to not force ourselves to fit what worked for Obama, Bush or Reagan,” presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway said at a breakfast with reporters on June 6. “Some people have left recently. We expect others will in the near future.”
But the slow parade of exiting aides has sent the already low morale in both the press and communications shops, which collectively have employed roughly three dozen staffers — and which have been without an official director since the departure of Hope Hicks in March — plummeting.
“The inside baseball of who will get purged, and when, is spiraling out of control,” said one former White House aide. “People do not even care about the broader communications strategy when it’s all about internal warfare. Who cares how you roll out a legislative plan, when you’re trying to screw over the person to the left or right of you?”
As the ranks thin, former administration aides wonder now who will do the work of midlevel staffers, which can include sending out talking points, responding to press inquiries, booking officials on TV, organizing calls for supporters, or wrangling White House reporters for events.
Some administration officials, current and former, argue that this simply returns the operation to a leaner version of itself, similar to the Trump campaign — and that worked out fine.
“We do have different positions because of these times,” Conway added at the breakfast. “We’re going to do things differently and creatively with rapid response. We also are beefing up the digital team.”
One of the few to have benefited from the restructuring is Julia Hahn, a protégé of former White House strategist Steve Bannon. Hahn has temporarily taken over the communications portfolio of recently departed aide Kelly Sadler and now sends out talking points and messages to White House allies, said one person familiar with her situation.
Sadler was removed from her position earlier this month in the wake of a controversy surrounding the leak of callous comments she made in a staff meeting dismissing Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s political relevance as he battles cancer.
Hahn was installed in this new temporary role through the nudging of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, to make sure White House allies are receiving talking points and statistics on immigration that line up with the hard-line approach he and the president have decided to take, said one Republican close to the White House.
The communications and press shops have widely been seen throughout the administration as problematic and full of infighting, dating back to the inauguration and even under different leadership.
“The communications office has been very large, with people in positions where there was a lot of repetition,” said another administration official. “It never really thinned out, and it was very convoluted, so it is probably not a bad thing to make it more streamlined.”