White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday performed what has become a regular act: trying to convince the media and the public that another high-profile departure is totally normal and devoid of drama.
“For several weeks Ty Cobb has been discussing his retirement, and last week he let Chief of Staff [John F.] Kelly know he would retire at the end of this month,” Sanders said in a statement, referring to the White House lawyer who has led the administration's dealings with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and coordinated with Trump's outside attorneys.
Despite Sanders's attempt at nonchalance, it appears that Cobb did not decide on his own to step down but, rather, was pushed.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the new point person on Trump's private legal team, told The Washington Post that the president did not force out Cobb but that Jay Sekulow, another Trump lawyer, “had the most to do with it.”
“Jay felt that he needed someone that was more aggressive,” Giuliani said. “That's not a criticism of Ty, but it's just about how we're going to do this.”
Giuliani's account indicates that Cobb's exit is not simply a “retirement,” as Sanders described it, but the result of a strategic dispute that Cobb lost to Sekulow. Giuliani joined Trump's legal team after John Dowd quit following disagreements with the president. And the lawyer who will replace Cobb, Emmet Flood, previously declined a role in the White House because he clashed with one of Trump's personal attorneys, Marc Kasowitz, who has since left the team.
The frequent shake-ups of Trump's legal team contribute to the appearance of a chaotic presidency. Sanders, aiming to counter such an appearance, has repeatedly insisted that the record-setting turnover in the administration is nothing unusual.
“This is an intense place, as is every White House,” she said during a March media briefing. “And it's not abnormal that you would have people come and go.”
Even on the day in February when Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary amid domestic abuse accusations from two ex-wives, Sanders downplayed the turmoil, telling reporters, “Look, I think that was a personal decision that Rob made, and one that he was not pressured to do but one that he made on his own.”
The White House's story evolved in the ensuing days.
“As soon as we found out about this on Tuesday, by Wednesday Rob Porter was gone,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said on Fox News.
The White House seemed to decide that, under the circumstances, it was better to project urgency than serenity.
But serenity remains Sanders's default mode, as she showed again on Wednesday. She might have had an easier time selling the “retirement” line if Giuliani hadn't revealed that Sekulow wanted someone “more aggressive” than Cobb.