The White House announced the removal of a top national security official on Wednesday, a day after first lady Melania Trump issued an extraordinary call for her ouster.
“Mira Ricardel will continue to support the President as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the Administration,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement about the White House’s deputy national security adviser. Sanders did not say what that new role would be.
Ricardel’s job change — a compromise solution intended to quell a highly awkward standoff — ended some 24 hours of intense speculation about her job status. But it also raised larger questions about dysfunctionality within the White House and the influence of President Donald Trump’s wife over sensitive policy and personnel matters.
It also continued the dramatic turnover at a National Security Council which in less than two years has seen its top leadership remade several times. Ricardel was the NSC’s third deputy national security adviser, in addition to two since-departed officials with the title of deputy national security adviser for strategy, and had been on the job only since May.
Even after Melania Trump, through her official spokeswoman, denounced her in a public statement, Ricardel reported to work on Wednesday. But White House aides said the first lady’s statement had sealed her fate and that the only outstanding question after it was issued was whether to fire her outright or find her a soft landing elsewhere in the administration.
The president’s wife was hardly the only powerful internal enemy Ricardel has made, however. As POLITICO has reported, Ricardel has also run afoul of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who blocked her from landing a Pentagon job last year, as well as other Trump officials.
“There weren’t a lot of people fighting for her,” one administration official said.
Ricardel, who served at the State Department and Defense Department in two prior Republican administrations, is a former Boeing executive who advised the Trump campaign and post-election transition. She was hired by national security adviser John Bolton shortly after Trump appointed him in April. (Bolton is the third person to hold that post in less than two years — the same number Barack Obama had during his eight-year presidency. George W. Bush had just two national security advisers over two terms.)
In her statement Wednesday, Sanders added that the president “is grateful for Ms. Ricardel’s continued service to the American people and her steadfast pursuit of his national security priorities.”
The first lady’s anger stemmed from a dust-up between Ricardel and the East Wing over an October trip to Africa, when Ricardel allegedly threatened to undermine the trip after learning she didn’t have a seat on the plane. Melania Trump’s staff also came to suspect that Ricardel was responsible for unflattering stories about the first lady, people familiar with the matter said.
Melania Trump and her team had been privately pushing for Ricardel’s ouster for weeks before deciding to go public on Tuesday. But Bolton defended his top aide and refused to fire her, according to two administration officials. The decision came while Bolton, Ricardel’s strongest defender, was in Singapore for a key international summit.
On Tuesday afternoon, the president’s wife issued a statement through her official spokeswoman that said, “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.” Melania Trump had personally approved the statement, aides said.
West Wing aides were alerted to the upcoming statement just moments before it was sent to reporters, according to the administration officials.
The Tuesday statement reflected exasperation on the part of Melania Trump and her staff, who had told Trump’s top West Wing aides that they were unhappy with Ricardel, who held what has traditionally been one of the government’s most sensitive jobs, coordinating advice on national security issues from multiple departments and agencies. The two administration officials said chief of staff John Kelly had repeatedly pushed Bolton to fire Ricardel.
Kelly and Bolton have clashed behind the scenes before. The chief of staff erupted in anger and obscenities last month when Bolton criticized Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Kelly’s closest ally in the administration.
As head of the Defense Department’s transition team after the 2016 election, Ricardel clashed with Mattis over personnel issues. She also butted heads with officials at the Department of Homeland Security, according to an administration official.
“It’s pretty well known that she’s hard to work with,” said the official. “It’s been just a rocky relationship. She’s confrontational.”
The first lady indicated in an interview during her October trip to Africa that she had expressed concerns in the past about certain White House staffers to her husband, though not all of them had been removed from their jobs.
Asked by ABC News’ Tom Llamas whether she had relayed to Trump which staffers she didn’t trust, the first lady responded that she “gave him my honest advice.” Asked what Trump did with her advice, she responded that “some people, they don’t work there anymore.”
Meanwhile, aides to the first lady said privately earlier Wednesday they had done all they could to oust Ricardel. The decision was now in the hands of the president and his top advisers, the aides said, adding that they didn’t intend to say anything more on the subject publicly.
“She is strong and independent and when she feels something needs to be said, she says it,” one White House official said of the first lady. “Mrs. Trump always does what she feels is right with no regard to what people will think of her — this should be celebrated, not considered any kind of slight towards her husband.”
Melania Trump’s small, tight-knit group of a dozen East Wing staffers operates largely independently from the West Wing. The first lady values that independence, according to people close to her, and she chafes at any perceived efforts to control her.
Amid a national uproar in June over a Trump administration policy — personally defended by her husband — that separated children from parents crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the president’s wife issued another statement that seemed to broadcast frustration with the White House.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
In a statement after Ricardel’s hiring earlier this year, Bolton lavished praise on his new deputy.
“Mira Ricardel has a track record of successfully managing teams and diverse organizations, as well as addressing complex issues,” Bolton said.
“I selected her as Deputy National Security Advisor because her expertise is broad-based and includes national security matters related to our alliances, defense posture, technology security, foreign security assistance, and arms control. Her policy-making and interagency experience will make her a great addition to the National Security Council,” he added.