WASHINGTON -- With whispers of a purge of West Wing staff members swirling, the White House pushed back Friday and insisted that reports of tumult and imminent departures are overblown.
Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself the subject of rumors that his days are numbered, assured a group of staff members that their jobs were safe, at least for now.
"The chief of staff actually spoke to a number of staff this morning reassuring them that there were no immediate personnel changes at this time and that people shouldn't be concerned," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But days after President Donald Trump's secretary of state was ousted, many people close to the president have told multiple news outlets that they think more upheaval is coming soon.
Trump has been moving toward replacing national security adviser H.R. McMaster but has not settled on the exact timing or a successor, four people with knowledge of White House deliberations told The Associated Press. Kelly has also worn on the president, confidants of the president said. And Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, under fire for ethics violations, appears to be grasping to keep his job.
With speculation about McMaster's future particularly intense, Sanders gave multiple reassurances about the national security adviser -- first in a tweet Thursday and then from the briefing room podium Friday. She said Trump had indicated that no changes were coming.
"I spoke directly to the president last night," Sanders said. "He asked me to pass that message along to Gen. McMaster. I know the two of them have been in meetings today."
McMaster, for his part, said Sanders had "set it straight" but struck a slightly different tone.
"Everybody has got to leave the White House at some point," he told a reporter from ABC News outside the West Wing. "I'm doing my job."
Sanders said Kelly had reassured senior members of the White House staff Friday morning that "there were no immediate personnel changes at this time" and had urged officials to arrive at work focused on the policy goals ahead.
She said senior staff members passed that message on to others working in the West Wing in an attempt to diminish concerns about the record level of churn in the White House.
"Our focus is not on a lot of the news stories that you guys would like us to be focused on," she said.
But Trump is privately weighing still more changes, expressing frustration with some aides and sifting through possible replacements, the people with knowledge of Trump's thinking said. Reports of tumult in the administration were at such a feverish pitch that the president on Thursday reflected on the latest staff departures during an Oval Office conversation with Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence.
With a laugh, Trump said: "Who's next?"
It's a question that has the whole White House on edge.
Kelly has told confidants that he believes he can weather the current storm. But he has grown increasingly frustrated with the constant turmoil in the West Wing, believing at times that Trump intentionally fuels the chaos to keep his staff on its toes and his name in headlines, according to a person familiar with the chief of staff's thinking. The person wasn't authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also remains at odds with the president, who has repeatedly -- and publicly -- demeaned his tenure at the head of the Justice Department, leaving it an open question how much longer he will remain in charge.
The account of the tensions in the White House is based on conversations with more than a dozen officials inside the White House and familiar with West Wing deliberations, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters.
Trump's administration has set records for turnover among senior administration aides. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn and communications director Hope Hicks are leaving in coming weeks. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was ousted earlier this week, as was Trump personal assistant John McEntee, who was escorted off White House grounds -- then quickly handed a job on Trump's re-election campaign.
In private conversations in recent weeks, Trump has reflected on his desire to reshape the administration and has told confidants that he wants to rid himself of staff members who he believes hold him back.
Trump chafes at McMaster's demeanor, complaining that his aide lectures him, according to three current and former administration officials. Officials said personal tensions have led McMaster to be sidelined in some internal discussions, including a recent meeting on Venezuela sanctions, with Kelly taking on a more active role in foreign policy decisions.
The president and McMaster have disagreed on a number of issues -- including the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S. approach to North Korea -- and the national security adviser has clashed with Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to the officials.
Information for this article was contributed by Jonathan Lemire, Catherine Lucey, Jill Colvin, Zeke Miller and Ken Thomas of The Associated Press; and by Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
A Section on 03/17/2018
Print Headline: White House downplays tumult