It was a remarkable moment even for a White House that has drawn repeated comparisons to a reality television show.
Melania Trump, who as first lady has kept a relatively low profile, issued a stunning rebuke of one of Donald Trump’s top national security officials this week, calling publicly for her firing.
The aide in question, Mira Ricardel, had served since April as the deputy to John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser. Tension had been brewing between Ricardel and the first lady’s staff for weeks, following a series of disputes during Melania Trump’s visit to Africa last month.
The feud spilled into full view in dramatic fashion on Tuesday, when Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, told reporters: “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
The statement swiftly set off a media firestorm, coming at a time when the Trump administration was reportedly bracing for a major shake-up in the aftermath of a bruising showing for the president and his party in last week’s midterm elections.
But it also marked a pivotal moment for Melania Trump, who despite largely shying away from the public eye showed a rare willingness to test her influence from the offices of the East Wing.
Although Nancy Reagan infamously orchestrated the removal of her husband Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Don Regan, few political observers could recall a similar instance in which a first lady so openly interposed herself in the West Wing’s affairs.
“It is unprecedented for a first lady to issue a statement demanding that her husband fire someone. That is jaw-dropping,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, a book that explores presidential spouses.
“I think it’s also odd because, when you wield true power as a first lady, you don’t need to be so transparent. It’s called pillow talk and your influence is behind closed doors.”
The fissures began during Melania Trump’s maiden foreign trip as first lady last month, which entailed stops in Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt. Her staff swiftly clashed with Ricardel, who threatened to withhold national security council resources for the trip, according to sources familiar with the matter. Ricardel was reportedly frustrated over the lack of seating for her or NSC staff on Melania Trump’s government plane – causing mutual consternation even after the first lady returned to the US.
But Ricardel, a combative force within the Trump administration, had few allies. She also butted heads with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and the defense secretary, Jim Mattis. Some within the White House believed Ricardel was responsible for leaking unflattering stories about the Trump administration. Only Bolton, who was traveling with Vice-President Mike Pence during Ricardel’s dismissal, had remained in her corner.
Ricardel formally left the White House on Wednesday, one day after Melania Trump’s statement sent shockwaves across Washington.
The first lady has been a source of fascination since Trump’s inauguration, initially choosing to stay in New York while the couple’s son, Barron, finished his school year.
Melania Trump’s presence was so scarce in the early months of Trump’s presidency that the media dubbed his daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, as the “de facto first lady”.
Even since settling into the White House, Melania Trump has eschewed the spotlight. She has seldom given an interview, made limited public appearances on her own and, unlike former first lady Michelle Obama, has yet to sit down with daytime or late-night talkshows to offer a glimpse of her family’s private life.
“She’s private to the point of being reclusive,” said Andersen Brower.
Melania Trump’s signature issue as first lady has arguably been “Be Best”, a campaign intended to raise awareness around bullying and to promote wellbeing for young people. But the project has often been derided for what some say is its inherent hypocrisy – given her husband’s penchant for bullying and belittling political opponents and others.
At times, Melania Trump has embraced, if not stoked, the controversy that so often besets the current administration.
In June, the first lady garnered headlines for wearing a jacket that read “I really don’t care, do U?” while visiting children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border under her husband’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Melania Trump had previously distanced herself from her husband’s policy, and on at least a few occasions has publicly disagreed with the president’s approach.
Her push to remove Ricardel appeared to be another attempt to force the president’s hand, even though Melania Trump never personally met the NSC aide.
Lost in the narrative was the significance of Ricardel’s role in shaping Trump’s foreign policy agenda – reinforcing just how abnormal it was for a first lady to intervene.
“It’s not hyperbolic to say it is one of the most pivotal and indispensable positions within the national security bureaucracy,” said Ned Price, who served on Barack Obama’s national security council staff.
“That person is charged with first developing and then shepherding the president’s foreign policy and national security agenda and responsibilities, from the senior working level all the way up to the Oval Office.
“To oust someone in this way, it is a sign of dysfunction, it’s a sign of chaos, it’s a sign of the soap opera quality to this White House,” he added. “But there are going to be real ramifications for our national security process given the pivotal role this person would have played.”
In a rare interview with ABC News last month, Melania Trump confessed to distrusting some of those who worked for her husband.
“It’s harder to govern,” she said, while noting she has at times issued a warning to Trump: “You always need to watch your back.”
This article provided by NewsEdge.