Trump loses key loyalist Hicks as Russia probe, midterms loom

In Photo: In this February 27, 2018 photo, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, one of President Trump's closest aides and advisers, arrives to meet behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee, at the Capitol in Washington. Hicks, one of President Donald Trump's most loyal aides, is resigning. In a statement, the president praises Hicks for her work over the last three years. He says he “will miss having her by my side.” The news comes a day after Hicks was interviewed for nine hours by the panel investigating Russia interference in the 2016 election and contact between Trump's campaign and Russia.

Hope Hicks’s departure from the White House punctuates the attrition in President Donald J. Trump’s inner circle, the close aides and confidantes that buoyed him in his first year in office but who are hitting the exits as his presidency encounters its worst turbulence.

Trump’s communications director, the fourth person in that position since his inauguration, announced on Wednesday that she would resign. She follows several other top aides who’ve left since the start of the year. But Hicks’s exit is more personal—she has been described as having a near father-daughter relationship with the president.

Compounding matters, more than 30 aides saw their interim top secret clearances reduced to secret last week after a review by Chief of Staff John Kelly, essentially sidelining them and forcing their most sensitive work to be parceled out to colleagues. Among them are Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

The resulting reshuffle of policy portfolios will make it even harder for the White House to carry out its agenda. At the same time, Trump will have far fewer of the allies who helped sweep him to victory in 2016 at his side as the investigation into Russian election tampering escalates and midterm congressional elections approach in November.

It’s difficult to overstate Hicks’s influence with Trump. She has been tethered to his side from the nascent days of his campaign, and while her official duties include managing the president’s often tumultuous relationship with the press, fellow aides described her as a consigliere, attuned to his whims and moods.

Strengthening Kelly

Some Trump allies outside the White House see Kelly’s hand in her departure, regarding it as a move that will allow him to assert greater control over West Wing staff and access to the president.

Other aides said her exit could bring more chaos to the White House because she has sometimes reined in Trump’s worst impulses, occasionally even criticizing him when she thought he was in the wrong. His few remaining loyalists who’ve been with him since early in the campaign include Dan Scavino, his former caddy-turned-social media manager, and senior adviser Stephen Miller.

Some advisers argued that Trump benefits from being surrounded by people who know how to govern and want to advance a conservative agenda—and Hicks had no background in government or politics.

She wielded significant power in the West Wing by virtue of her daily proximity to the president and her standing as one of the few aides Trump trusts completely. She is described as tapped into the president’s thoughts and feelings, and has witnessed his unfiltered emotions, including occasional angry outbursts. She knows his shortcomings and his quirks.

Picked battles

But Hicks also knew when to pick her battles, at times siding with Trump against other staff, arguing that he knew best. For example, she supported hiring financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director in July, despite arguments that it wouldn’t be wise to hire such an unseasoned figure for the role. He left after 11 days.

Publicly, Hicks was aggressively loyal to Trump and fiercely defensive, occasionally lashing out with irritation about damaging claims reporters presented to her for fact-checking.

Several people speculated that a White House communications adviser, Mercedes Schlapp, is a likely candidate to replace Hicks. She already does much of the work of a traditional communications director, such a long-term strategic planning, and is considered to be liked and admired by Kelly.

‘White lies’

Hicks announced her resignation a day after testifying behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the FBI’s probe of Russia’s 2016 campaign interference. Hicks was said to have told the panel that her work occasionally required her to tell “white lies,” but later clarified that did not apply to substantive matters.

The resignation also came weeks after the sudden departure of former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who left the White House after reports that two ex-wives had accused him of domestic violence in background interviews with the FBI. The news sparked outrage not just over the allegations but also because Porter, who controlled the flow of paper to and from the president, had been operating without a permanent security clearance.

Hicks had been romantically involved with Porter, but people close to her said that played no role in her own resignation.

The Porter episode drew attention to the White House’s security clearance process and ultimately led Kelly to institute a new policy curtailing interim clearances like those of Porter, Kushner and others. The new directives have curtailed access to top secret material and meetings for the more than 30 people affected, including Kushner.

Policy consequences

This could have significant consequences for a White House that has at times struggled to get hold of the range of complex policy issues it faces. While none of the affected officials have been asked to leave the administration, their portfolios on top secret matters now need to be distributed to other staff, people familiar with the matter said.

Kushner, for instance, has lost access to certain files, including those containing intelligence on foreign leaders and diplomats that can be used to gain an advantage in negotiations, one of the people said. The White House said Kushner’s work, which has included developing a new Mideast peace plan, wouldn’t be affected.

Attrition is the natural course of any White House, where hours can be grueling, pay pales in comparison to the private sector, and media scrutiny can be relentless. But Trump is alienating other allies, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Early Wednesday, the president blasted Sessions as “disgraceful” for suggesting that an inspector general, rather than the department itself, investigate the president’s claims of surveillance abuse under the previous administration. It was the latest evidence that the relationship between Trump and Sessions had soured over the president’s frustration with the ongoing Russia investigation.

And the president’s family members, installed as senior advisers, have also been hobbled. Kushner, in addition to grappling with his security clearance downgrade, faces new questions about his overseas contacts and business relationships, as well as a report that foreign governments had discussed ways to manipulate him.

Kushner’s White House spokesman, Josh Raffel, announced his plans to leave the administration a day before Hicks, and Reed Cordish, a top staffer on Kushner projects, said earlier this month that he planned to leave.


Image Credits: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

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