He’s got his literal family—though his son-in-law is reeling from the controversy over his security clearance, there have been enough off moments in public to feed speculation about the state of his relationship with the first lady, and Donald Trump Jr. said in India last week that given all the president is dealing with, he feels “it’s almost trite to call him just to say hello.”
With Hope Hicks leaving the White House, longtime body man Keith Schiller long gone, there is no metaphorical family, no core group of aides who’ve been through the ringer together, come out beaten but bound forever, trusting each other, trusting the president and having him trust them.
Every president gets lonely. It’s a lonely job. But the president who spent his life desperately seeking attention and getting all of it anyone could ever want might be the loneliest one ever.
He’s about to get lonelier.
Hicks, one of the diminishing group of “originals” who’s been with him from the very beginning, isn’t just the fifth White House communications director to go in the last year—compare that to five communications directors in all eight years of Barack Obama’s White House—she’s the latest in a long and never-ending race of people elbowing each other in the face as they head to the door. Hicks’s announcement on Wednesday didn’t even make her the only high-profile aide to leave this week. Josh Raffel, who’d expanded his portfolio from battling for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the press to a wider strategic role in a strapped West Wing, made known he was leaving on Tuesday.
Through it all, people who know him say, Trump rages, often alone in the residence on the top floor of the White House. It’s easy to forget in another day of new, hourly news cycles, but Trump started his Wednesday by calling his attorney general “DISGRACEFUL!” and getting a rare brushback from Jeff Sessions, the man who used to be his only friend in Washington, insisting that he wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t much concerned with what the president had to say to him.
He tweets at his TV. He wonders why his chief of staff, John Kelly, keeps him from calling his friends. A circle of old advisers stays in touch, making phone calls to offer advice and a little companionship.
Several people in that informal circle responded to the news of Hicks’ departure by quietly seeding the thinking that Kelly’s about to get dumped himself. Kushner’s been stripped of his access to Top Secret intelligence, which many people worry he was using to improperly access the nation’s crown jewels, but his big concern this week has been a paranoid hunt for who’s leaking secrets about him.
People in and around this White House are well past being worried that no one good is going to want to take Hicks’ job or any of the others. And if you ask people who’ve worked in other White Houses, they’ll tell you that working at 1600 Pennsylvania is draining and overwhelming on the good days.
Trump’s White House isn’t like any other White House, though, and there haven’t been a lot of good days. Everyone who’s there is living with the pressure of the investigations, the secrecy, the backstabbing, knowing that anyone could leak anything at any moment. Then they’re living with the reality of the investigations, which they puff up and pass off in public, but that are always there, lurking in every conversation.
For what? A conservative estimate for Hicks’s legal bills from her nine hours of testimony to Congress on Tuesday puts it at tens of thousands. Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, could get a walk-on at the Emmys, but he still hasn’t landed a job. Kelly, who reportedly helped nudge Hicks out, tells people he knows he hasn’t done enough to bring people in. He still hasn’t named a deputy chief of staff. He hasn’t laid out any of the departures as part of a plan or a clear strategy, as when George W. Bush brought in Tony Snow and Kevin Sullivan to reboot his communications team in his second term in a conscious effort to recruit fresh but known faces. This is fire first, figure out what to do next—well, maybe sometime, maybe never. Chaos over calculation.
A grim joke went around a few Obama staffers in their final days in the West Wing—at some point, there was going to be a fistfight in the Oval Office once Trump took over. It’s a small room, always high pressure. Those personalities, this president, no one knowing each other … someone was going to take a swing. At least a shove.