Search for Hicks replacement turns into West Wing food fight
President Donald Trump on Thursday evening poked his head into the James S. Brady Briefing Room to personally deliver to reporters a head’s up about a “major” announcement on North Korea.
It marked his first in-person visit to the den of journalists he usually just watches on television, and it came days after his communications director, Hope Hicks, announced her resignation.
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It was not, however, a sign that the press-obsessed, “I alone can fix it” president is replacing Hicks with himself, as many reporters joked. In fact, the search to take over that job has become something an internal free-for-all, with aides campaigning for the job, Trump soliciting advice directly from Hicks about who should take over when she’s gone, and chief of staff John Kelly trying to broaden the search to include some outside candidates.
The top candidates emerging from inside the White House, multiple officials said, are director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration who has become a Kelly ally in his battle against Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Tony Sayegh, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department.
Both Schlapp and Sayegh, those officials said, have expressed interest in the job.
Sayegh, who is close to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and temporarily worked out of Hicks’ office during last fall’s tax reform fight, has continued wandering over to the West Wing since then for meetings and casual hellos, maintaining a regular presence there.
Schlapp, meanwhile, has gained Kelly’s trust and is seen as the fallback choice because she has already put together her own “external affairs” team. But the chief of staff is still also trying to review outside choices.
There is also a broad internal base of support for press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to take on the job, adding overall messaging strategy and the management of a 40-person team to her current portfolio, which includes regular televised briefings. Sanders has expressed some hesitation about taking on both roles, but allies say she is considering it.
Meanwhile, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton is being pushed to take on a bigger communications role in the West Wing alongside whoever emerges as the pick to lead the department.
The White House is currently struggling with a mass exodus of top aides, some of whose positions are not expected to be filled after they leave, and some of which have become the top priority — like the search for top economic adviser Gary Cohn’s replacement.
The search for Hicks’ replacement, according to three people familiar with the process, falls somewhere in the middle. Hicks’ announcement that she planned to leave the administration didn’t move markets like Cohn’s. And the White House survived for months with no one serving in the post after former communications director Michael Dubke resigned last May.