A White House aide picked a fight with Melania Trump; the first lady won
WASHINGTON — A transoceanic personnel crisis that engulfed the National Security Council this week is partly rooted in a bureaucratic dispute over the seating arrangements aboard first lady Melania Trump’s plane to Africa last month during her maiden solo trip abroad.
As the East Wing prepared the flight manifest for the marquee trip, deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel became angry that seats on the first lady’s government jet were assigned to a larger-than-usual security entourage and a small press corps with none for Ricardel or another security council staffer, according to current US officials and others familiar with the trip and its aftermath.
Policy experts from the security council and State Department were advised to fly separately and to meet the first lady’s party on the ground, a practice the State Department had often used, but Ricardel objected strenuously, those people said. She threatened to revoke security council resources associated with the trip, meaning no policy staff would advise the first lady during her visits to Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Egypt.
Bad blood between Ricardel and Melania Trump and her staff continued for weeks after the trip, with the first lady privately arguing that the security council’s number two official was a corrosive influence in the White House and should be dismissed. But national security adviser John Bolton rebuffed the first lady and protected his deputy, prompting the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, to issue an extraordinary statement Tuesday effectively calling for Ricardel’s firing.
After an uncomfortable day of limbo, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced Wednesday that Ricardel was leaving the White House.
‘‘Mira Ricardel will continue to support the President as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the Administration,’’ she said in a statement.
The first lady’s decision to publicly advocate for the ouster of a senior member of her husband’s staff shows a new willingness on her part to weigh in on White House operations.
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said Melania Trump’s move was a dramatic show of power. ‘‘If anyone had questions about her willingness to exert her influence, they got their answer,’’ she said.
Ricardel’s dismissal also serves as a rebuke of Bolton, who refused for weeks to fire his hand-picked deputy and worked to protect her.
Soon after the first lady’s office issued its statement Tuesday, surprised senior White House aides walked to Ricardel’s office to see whether she was still there. She was, albeit confused.
Bolton, who was awakened in Asia in the middle of the night and told of the dustup, was soon on the phone, telling Ricardel to remain at her post, administration officials said.
The White House was trying to find a soft landing place for Ricardel, but agencies including the Commerce Department, where she worked in the first year of the Trump administration, are hesitant to take her on because of her reputation, senior administration officials said.
Melania Trump and Ricardel have never met, according to people familiar with each of them. But the first lady viewed the conservative operative, who was among the most senior women in the West Wing, as a toxic influence in the White House.
A senior White House official said the first lady believed Ricardel was spreading false rumors about her office, including a misleading story that aides had arranged a $10,000 hotel stay in Egypt.