It has long been apparent that the Trump White House is a place where aides must constantly look over their shoulders, but staff members are beginning to speak openly about the lack of trust within their ranks, something they previously played down.
In March, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rejected a claim by former communications director Anthony Scaramucci that “the morale's terrible.”
“I definitely would not agree,” she told reporters at a media briefing. “I think we're in a great place.”
On Monday, Sanders's deputy, Raj Shah, dropped the “great place” pretense and said: “If you aren’t able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you, that creates a very difficult work environment. I think anybody who works anywhere can recognize that.”
Appearing on Fox News Channel later in the day, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said that “using the media to shiv each other” is something “that's gone on in this White House,” although she said that such backstabbing happens less than it used to.
The trigger for these reflections was last week's leak of a remark that press aide Kelly Sadler made about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during a staff meeting. Addressing McCain's opposition to President Trump's nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, Sadler said the senator's position does not matter because he is “dying anyway.” McCain is battling brain cancer.
The episode has not stopped unauthorized disclosures to the media, even as Trump tweeted Monday that “leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!” Some of the latest leaks have been about the practice of leaking — and how White House attempts to end it can contribute to a sense of paranoia.
Citing four unnamed White House officials, CNN's Kaitlan Collins reported Tuesday on the ban imposed this year on personal cellphones in the West Wing:
The ban isn't based on an honor system. Sweeps are carried out to track down personal devices that have made it past the lobby and into the building. According to sources who are familiar with the sweeps, men dressed in suits and carrying large handheld devices have been seen roaming the halls of the West Wing, moving from room to room, scouring the place for devices that aren't government-issued. If one is detected, one of the men will ask those in the room if someone forgot to put their phone away.
In the early days of the ban, staffers would forget, or didn't realize that the ban included Apple watches. But if no one says they have a phone, the men begin searching the room.
Some workplaces do trust falls; the White House does phone sweeps.
Axios's Jonathan Swan interviewed frequent leakers and reported Sunday on the selfish motives that often drive disclosures.
“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one White House official said. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there's an accurate record of what's really going on in the White House.”
In any administration, the White House is a tough place to work. But Trump's sounds like a trust-free zone, which makes challenging jobs even harder.