One week into his tenure as President Trump’s fourth chief of staff, Mark Meadows launched an overhaul of the West Wing’s communications operations on Tuesday, installing a relentless advocate of the president on television as a new press secretary and tapping several allies for key roles as he looks to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign.
The flurry of moves made by Meadows — a Capitol Hill operator and conservative instigator during his seven years in Congress, as well as a Trump confidant — reflected how the president is counting on him to sharpen his team’s political messaging as much of the White House remains consumed by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Meadows’s decisions quickly sparked grousing among some of the president’s aides who are close to outgoing White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, a reminder that the former North Carolina lawmaker now helms a staff that has long been marked by intense rivalry and turnover.
Despite orchestrating the latest personnel shake-up, it remains unclear how much influence Meadows will ultimately have in Trump’s turbulent circle. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, is widely viewed by advisers as a shadow chief of staff, while Vice President Pence and other officials help coordinate the administration’s response to the economic and health crises.
Meadows is Trump’s fourth chief of staff in as many years — with his predecessors each entering the position hoping to leave a distinct mark but exiting far more diminished in the job. And with Trump intent on serving as his own unscripted spokesman in daily coronavirus briefings, even Meadows’s supporters acknowledged on Tuesday that he faces many challenges ahead as he tries to revamp the communications shop and establish himself in the job.
“I know he’s got the confidence of the president, but I would imagine he’s learning to swim with sharks,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview.
Still, Graham said he believed a restructuring of the White House communications operation was a smart idea, especially as Trump faces the dual challenges of both a pandemic and a reelection campaign. “The president is sort of his own press secretary right now, but you need to reinforce messages, and having a war room on the communications side would be good,” Graham said. “We’re in a war here.”
Grisham will be replaced by Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, a 31-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who carved out a high profile by clashing with cable news hosts and touting Trump’s record.
Although Meadows is not particularly close to McEnany, he knows she is well-liked by Trump and his family, and that she is willing to be a ubiquitous and unflinching presence on television as the campaign unfolds, according to a top Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly.
“He knew it was the safe way to go,” the Republican said, describing recent conversations with Meadows and his associates. “Kayleigh is liked by Jared, and Trump knows she’s never going to be anything but positive.”
Trump also recently rehired longtime communications aide and strategist Hope Hicks, who White House officials have said has functioned as the de facto communications director for weeks.
Several officials said Meadows and Grisham have been at odds since he joined the White House; Meadows is focused on proactive communications with the press and has an aggressive style, while Grisham, in her nine months in the post, never held regular press briefings of the sort that once defined the position.
Though Grisham started her West Wing tenure on a strong note — endearing herself with reporters by physically jostling with North Korean security officials to ensure press access during a visit to the demilitarized zone on the border with South Korea — her relationships with much of the press corps quickly devolved. She became a distant and combative presence, often unable or unwilling to answer basic inquiries.
Meadows identified the communications team — which had a mixed reputation even inside the White House — as one of the weakest aspects of the West Wing and made it his first target for changes, officials said.
Grisham, a former campaign staffer who previously worked with Melania Trump, will return to the East Wing as chief of staff. The first lady said on Tuesday that Grisham is “a mainstay and true leader in the administration.”
McEnany, who was brought on to the Trump campaign last year after Kushner encouraged the hire, has drawn criticism for claiming that Trump “doesn’t lie” — despite thousands of documented false or misleading claims — and for asserting on a Fox Business program in late February that the United States “will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here,” just before cases soared.
A 2012 tweet of McEnany’s also surfaced on Tuesday in which she wrote, “How I Met Your Brother – Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows.” During that same period, Trump and others in the GOP sought to cast doubt on President Barack Obama’s love of country and credentials and peddle conspiracy theories about his Hawaiian birth.
In other changes on Tuesday, Meadows brought in Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah to take over Grisham’s other West Wing title as director of strategic communications, a senior administration official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not formally announced who will replace Grisham, also said that Ben Williamson, a senior aide to Meadows, will be senior adviser for communications. Grisham’s deputy, Hogan Gidley, will retain that role, officials said.
The additions of Farah — who previously worked for Pence as spokeswoman and before that for Meadows in the House — and Williamson underscore how Meadows is trying to bring in people he knows and trusts as he navigates the White House and builds a chain of command.
Part of Meadows’s overhaul includes a hotline for members of Congress that he believes will enable the White House to maintain a better grip on emerging problems across the nation related to the pandemic — and keep Meadows engaged with former lawmakers as Trump’s link to them, officials said.
In an email reviewed by The Washington Post, members of Congress have been told that hotline, operated outside the regular legislative affairs team, will be handled by John Fleming, a top aide to Meadows and a former Republican congressman.
People close to Grisham described her as exhausted in recent weeks and resigned to changes, especially after the departure of acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who was seen inside the West Wing as an ally. She has mostly been absent from Trump’s coronavirus briefings.
Part of her absence was due to the pandemic: Grisham entered voluntary quarantine after learning she had been exposed to two or more people who later tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, during a March 7 dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. The White House announced on March 24 that she had tested negative and would return to work the following day.
A person close to the president said Grisham was in far fewer meetings than her immediate predecessor, Sarah Sanders.
Melania Trump huddled with Grisham as changes loomed to make sure that her trusted aide had the option of a face-saving landing, one person close to Grisham said, adding that Grisham had weighed her options over the past week. This person, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Meanwhile, Meadows has been busy soliciting advice and feedback from various White House staffers, both junior and senior, about how to improve the communications team and impress the president, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
A senior administration official said Meadows, who as a lawmaker was a fixture in articles about Congress and a frequent go-to quote, is also focused on making sure that the White House expands its rapid-response team and “actually responds to reporter inquiries” rather than keeping them at a distance.
“You don’t have forever to get this fixed,” this official said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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