White House weighing shrinking communications team

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The White House is considering shrinking its communications team in the coming weeks, two officials with knowledge of the expected changes tell CNN, with one objective being reducing the number of leaks and the overall goal being restructuring the entire press shop.

Discussions of staff reduction have ramped up after it leaked that a staffer made an off-color joke about Sen. John McCain, who has brain cancer, during a daily communications meeting.

Staffers are not expected to be fired outright, but pushed out slowly or shifted to other departments in the administration outside of the West Wing, the officials said. It will also likely affect junior aides without clearly defined responsibilities. The reason staffers aren’t expected to be fired directly is because, although the White House has taken several steps to combat leaks including canceling the daily communications meeting, senior officials aren’t confident about who it is exactly that is doing the leaking, one official noted.

Multiple officials inside the West Wing see the leaks of information as impossible to prevent. Dozens of senior White House officials speak to reporters on a daily basis, including, at times, President Donald Trump himself.

Officials conceded to CNN they have not identified which staffer it was that leaked Kelly Sadler’s comment regarding McCain to the press, and acknowledged the leaks aren’t expected to be stopped completely by staff reductions. The planning is in the preliminary stages, and is expected to take place over the coming weeks. The White House declined to comment.

The furious response from the President and senior administration officials to the leak of Sadler’s remark has again created a sense of paranoia within the communications team in recent days, with some officials fearing that they could be fired at a moment’s notice.

The division over Sadler’s remark has highlighted a long-running feud between the White House press team and the communications team — with officials often going out of their way to draw a distinct line between the two. The press team is smaller, and is led by press secretary Sarah Sanders. It includes the three deputy press secretaries, two assistant press secretaries and a handful of press wranglers. The communications team, on the other hand, is much larger. Since Hope Hicks’ departure, it has been led by Mercedes Schlapp, and consists of nearly two dozen staffers.

The cancellation of the daily communications meeting — where Sadler remarked last week that McCain was “dying anyway” — comes after chief of staff John Kelly also reduced the number of senior staff meetings he holds. Though they used to be held in his office three times a week, they now only occur once a week.

Kelly, who was hired to replace Reince Priebus last July, has long complained about the press operation and favors reducing the number of staffers with ill-defined roles.

Kelly recently told NPR he wished he had been at the White House “since Day One” to help with staffing.

“I think in some cases in terms of staffing or serving the President that first six months was pretty chaotic and there were people — some people hired that maybe shouldn’t have hired some people that were — it was just, I wish I’d been here from the beginning because I could have brought the organization from, you know, from Day One. … Now it’s not that things were a disaster for that six months, but I believe they could have been better,” Kelly said.