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Opinion The White House bickering endangers national security

Departing White House deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, right, is leaving her job after a clash with first lady Melania Trump.
Departing White House deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, right, is leaving her job after a clash with first lady Melania Trump. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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This week’s spat between the “Office of the First Lady” and the National Security Council took the Trump team’s endless infighting to a new and dangerous level. The public shaming of deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel by her own White House colleagues shows that bickering has now trumped national security in this administration.

After a presidential campaign marked by open conflict between Donald Trump and the GOP foreign policy establishment, the new president needed national security professionals who hadn’t signed letters decrying his candidacy to join up and help govern the country. Ricardel answered the call and served loyally for two years — before being publicly humiliated this week by Melania Trump’s aides and then unceremoniously tossed out of the White House.

It’s stunning and unprecedented for East Wing staffers to issue a public statement calling for the firing of a senior National Security Council official, without the approval of senior White House officials, to settle a personal grudge. What’s worse, anonymous White House staffers orchestrated a smear campaign that depicted Ricardel as a scheming, leaking, angry woman who picked a fight with the president’s wife.

The truth is a lot less salacious but a lot more troubling. Ricardel is just the latest in a long list of officials dismissed by the endless jostling for control of a White House mired in factionalism and fratricide. It’s no mere coincidence the first lady’s office released its statement when national security adviser John Bolton was in Singapore, where it was the middle of the night.

“This is an all-out assault against Bolton by forces within the White House who are threatened by his ability to control the process, whether that’s on policy or travel arrangements or just influencing the president’s thinking,” an administration official told me. “Mira did make some mistakes, but they are using this for a larger purpose than her.”

The back story is important. It’s true that Ricardel chafed over the use of NSC resources to support Melania Trump’s Africa trip after being denied seats on the first lady’s plane. Ricardel eventually did what Melania Trump’s aides wanted, which would have ended the dispute there if that were really the issue.

It’s not plausible that Melania Trump (whom Ricardel has never even met) led the charge for Ricardel’s ouster. Her aides ran to tattle to Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who has been battling Bolton and Ricardel for control and influence. Ricardel had effectively taken over the national security policy process and was actually making it function better. She increased the pace of work, reduced bureaucracy and got stuff done. She was good at her job — perhaps too good.

Bolton and Ricardel’s accumulation of power came at the expense of other White House factions, and both are sharp-elbowed bureaucratic infighters. But are we really to believe that Ricardel had to be fired for yelling in meetings? If raising your voice in the White House were a firing offense, the building would be empty.

It’s also true that Ricardel has a long-standing feud with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But that’s not entirely Ricardel’s fault. Her job during the transition was to find national security professionals to serve President Trump’s agenda. Mattis was trying to install Democrats in top Pentagon positions. Part of Ricardel’s job was to prevent that from happening.

Ricardel is a seasoned professional; she knew the risks when she left a cushy corporate job and broke with her Republican establishment friends to work for Trump. Still, she didn’t deserve this shoddy treatment. The White House is saying she will be given another job in this administration. No one could blame her if she didn’t want one.

Vice President Pence was asked to comment on Ricardel’s situation in Singapore, and his answer was telling.

“I have great respect for her and for her role,” he said. “I’m grateful for everyone who has participated in helping to put [the administration’s] policies together, and we look forward to continuing to work with our great national security team.”

Pence is schlepping around Southeast Asia attending summits for which Trump didn’t bother to show up, with the help of many foreign policy professionals he made sure had seats on his plane. It’s important diplomacy, not a junket to Africa on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Office of the First Lady said in its statement that Ricardel doesn’t “deserve the honor” of serving in this White House anymore. In reality, the president and the country need people such as Ricardel, who are skilled and willing to work to keep the ship of U.S. foreign policy from veering too far off course.

Ricardel is not alone. This White House has disrespected and purged many other top foreign policy professionals for no good reason. With a lot more staff turnover ahead, no one should wonder why Trump may have trouble getting the best people. That’s not only bad for the president; it’s also harming our national security.

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