White House race to replace Hope Hicks has two lead contenders
Two contenders have emerged as the most likely candidates to succeed Hope Hicks as White House communications director after the confidante to President Trump leaves her post at the end of the month.
When Hicks first announced her departure, many assumed that White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp would step into her role.
Schlapp could still get the job, but sources say momentum is growing within the White House and on Capitol Hill for Tony Sayegh, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department.
White House sources say that Schlapp would already have the job if she were the pick, and that this suggests Sayegh now has the inside track after his work on rolling out the GOP tax bill.
One reason some think Sayegh could have an edge is his relationship with Hicks. The two worked closely together when Sayegh worked at the White House on rolling out the tax-cut bill.
Hicks let Sayegh post up in her office when he was detailed to the White House. He has since returned to Treasury but still spends about a quarter of his time on White House duty.
Sayegh also gained the confidence of Trump’s family members and senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in that time.
“The tax-reform rollout was one of our smoothest and he built up a lot of goodwill for his handling of it,” an administration official said. “Our candidates are running on tax reform and the benefits of the tax cuts bill will be our message for the midterms, so it’s hard to think of a better fit.”
Schlapp is still a top candidate.
The Cuban-American is a veteran of former President George W. Bush’s campaigns and a former Fox News contributor. She would bring polish to the top White House role.
“She’s a strategic thinker who understands Washington media and coming from Fox News, knows New York media,” said a former transition official. “That’s what you need for this job because those are the two main filters the president looks at everything through.”
Schlapp is deeply plugged into the conservative scene in Washington and is married to Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the yearly gathering of grass-roots conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Together, they have been a power couple on the airwaves in support of Trump.
“Mercy is smart, articulate, hard working, committed and an incredible team player,” said Ken Mehlman, who worked with her at the Bush White House. “She’s someone you want in the room developing the plan because it will be better and someone you want outside explaining it because she’s so articulate.”
Matt Schlapp has said that his wife would take the job if it’s offered to her.
“She’s going to be very open to anything the president wants her to do,” Schlapp said last month on MSNBC.
There is no urgency at the White House to replace Hicks, with officials acknowledging that her special standing in Trump World as a confidante of the president is never likely to be replicated by her successor.
There is still the possibility that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes on the role in addition to her current duties as press secretary.
Public angling to replace Hicks recently turned nasty and spilled into the pages of the press.
White House officials furiously passed around a Washington Examiner report from last week in which an anonymous official close to the process blasted Sayegh, saying there would be a mass exodus if he got the job and accusing him of being a bullying manager.
The story did not cite specific examples of improper behavior by Sayegh, and it angered allies of the Treasury official. Treasury officials interviewed by The Hill say Sayegh is a beloved figure there and insist that the allegations in the story are 100 percent false.
In a White House known for anonymous backstabbing, the Examiner story was viewed as a particularly vindictive leak and has provoked some bitter feelings.
A source close to Schlapp insisted that leak did not come from her and is not her style.
The White House has considered high-profile replacements for Hicks aside from Schlapp and Sayegh. Most recently, the administration considered bringing in former Fox News executive Bill Shine to act as communications director.
But Shine is no longer being considered, sources say. The former Fox News co-president was pushed out of his position at the cable giant last year when he was swept up in the controversy over allegations of harassment against former chairman Roger Ailes.
Insiders say Shine likely needs a bridge job before taking on a high-profile gig at the White House.
That has opened the door for Sayegh, who has support rolling in from high places.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is supportive of Sayegh, sources tell The Hill, and he has backers from key quarters on Capitol Hill.
“His instincts, experience and aptitude will undoubtedly be welcomed in the communications department,” said Sergio Gor, the deputy chief of staff for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “One of the most successful news cycles this White House helped navigate was during the tax-reform debate. Tony was instrumental in leading during that time.”
Hicks has been one of Trump’s most trusted aides since the start of the campaign and the White House will have to make do with a more traditional communications director to fill her spot.
The White House would like to find some consistency atop the communications team, as the press shop has been plagued by upheaval and turnover in Trump’s first year in office.
“The president would be well served by either Tony or Mercedes,” the former official said.
The communications director position was originally held by Mike Dubke, who never gained the confidence of the president and was promptly shipped out.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the role briefly, but he resigned after the job was given to hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, whose chaotic 10-day reign was marked by power struggles, obscene tirades and leaks to the press.
Scaramucci’s firing by chief of staff John Kelly paved the way for Hicks, who was with Trump from the start of the campaign and has been a jack-of-all-trades within the administration.
As the search continues, press secretary Sanders may temporarily take on more responsibilities, with an assist from Schlapp and National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton.