White House shake-up, Hicks departure, Kushner security downgrade - What's Your Point?

This week's panel:   Bob Price – Associate Editor Breitbart Texas, Nyanza Moore - progressive commentator and Houston attorney, Tony Diaz- Chicano educator and activist, Bill King - businessman, columnist and former Kemah Mayor, and Jessica Colon - Republican strategist, join Greg Groogan to discuss the current shake-up in the White House.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Rattled by two weeks of muddled messages, departures and spitting matches between the president and his own top officials, Donald Trump is facing a shrinking circle of trusted advisers and a staff that's grim about any prospect of a reset.

Even by the standards of Trump's often chaotic administration, the announcement of Hope Hicks' imminent exit spread new levels of anxiety across the West Wing and cracked open disputes that had been building since the White House's botched handling of domestic violence allegations against a senior aide late last month.

One of Trump's most loyal and longest-serving aides, Hicks often served as human buffer between the unpredictable president and the business of government. One official on Thursday compared the instability caused by her departure to that of a chief of staff leaving the administration - though that prospect, too, remained a possibility given the questions that have arisen about John Kelly's competence.

Hicks' departure comes as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation appears to be circling the Oval Office, with prosecutors questioning Trump associates about both his business dealings before he became president and his actions in office, according to people with knowledge of the interviews. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, has also been weakened after being stripped of his high-level security clearance amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.

The biggest unknown is how the mercurial Trump will respond to Hicks' departure and Kushner's more limited access, according to some of the 16 White House officials, congressional aides and outside advisers interviewed by The Associated Press, most of whom insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private conversations and meetings. Besides Kushner and his wife, presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, most remaining White House staffers were not part of Trump's close-knit 2016 campaign. One person who speaks to Trump regularly said the president has become increasingly wistful about the camaraderie of that campaign.

Rarely has a modern president confronted so many crises and controversies across so many fronts at the same time. After 13 months in office, there's little expectation among many White House aides and outside allies that Trump can quickly find his footing or attract new, top-flight talent to the West Wing. And some Republican lawmakers, who are eying a difficult political landscape in November's midterm elections, have begun to let private frustrations ooze out in public.

"There is no standard operating practice with this administration," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. "Every day is a new adventure for us."

Thune's comments described the White House's peculiar rollout Thursday of controversial new aluminum and steel tariffs. White House aides spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning scrambling to steer the president away from an announcement on an unfinished policy, with even Kelly in the dark about Trump's plans. Aides believed they had succeeded in getting Trump to back down and hoped to keep television cameras away from an event with industry executives so the president couldn't make a surprise announcement. But Trump summoned reporters into the Cabinet Room anyway and declared that the U.S. would levy penalties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports.

Some of Trump's populist supporters cheered the move. The stock market, which Trump looks to for validation for his economic policies, plunged.

Some officials are bracing for more departures. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the White House was preparing to replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster as early as next month.

White House Sarah Huckabee Sanders told "Fox & Friends" on Friday that "Gen. McMaster isn't going anywhere."

As for talk of a White House in upheaval, Sanders pointed out the tax cuts passed late last year: "If they want to call it chaos, fine, but we call it success and productivity and we're going to keep plugging along."

For those remaining on the job, the turbulence has been relentless. Just two weeks ago, Kelly, the general brought in to bring order, was himself on the ropes for his handling of the domestic violence allegations against a close aide, Rob Porter. Trump was said to be deeply irritated by the negative press coverage of Kelly's leadership during the controversy and considering firing him. But first, the president planned to give his chief of staff a chance to defend himself before reporters in the briefing room and gauge the reaction, according to two people with knowledge of the episode. The briefing, however, was canceled after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Kelly's standing has stabilized somewhat as media attention to the Porter issue has waned.

One Kelly backer said the chief of staff's standing remains tenuous, in part because of his clashes with Kushner over policy, personnel and White House structure. The tensions were exacerbated by Kelly's decision to downgrade Kushner's security clearance because the senior adviser had not been permanently approved for the highest level of access.

Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who also serves as a senior White House adviser, have been frustrated by Kelly's attempt to restrict their access to the president, and they perceive his new crackdown on clearances as a direct shot at them, according to White House aides and outside advisers. Kelly, in turn, has grown frustrated with what he views as the couple's freelancing. He blames them for changing Trump's mind at the last minute and questions what exactly they do all day, according to one White House official and an outside ally.

The ethics questions dogging Kushner relate to both his personal financial interests and his dealings in office with foreign officials. Intelligence officials expressed concern that Kushner's business dealings were a topic of discussion in conversations he was having with foreign officials about foreign policy issues of interest to the U.S. government, a former intelligence official said. Separately, The New York Times reported that two companies made loans worth more than half a billion dollars to Kushner's family real estate firm after executives met with Kushner at the White House.

Allies of Kushner and Ivanka Trump insist they have no plans to leave the White House in the near future. As for Kelly, he appeared to hint at his tough spot during an event Thursday at the Department of Homeland Security, where he served as secretary before departing for the White House.

"The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security," he said at the agency's 15th anniversary celebration in Washington. "But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess."

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defending himself weeks after the fact, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday insisted he had done "nothing to even consider resigning over" in his handling of domestic abuse allegations against a former top aide by the staffer's two ex-wives.

Kelly did allow that the White House team did not "cover ourselves in glory" in its response to allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter. Porter resigned last month over reports that he had abused two ex-wives. The episode at one point seemed to put Kelly's job in jeopardy and raised questions about who at the White House had access to top-secret information.

Weeks later, with the Porter matter largely in the rearview mirror, Kelly still was clearly intent on clarifying his role in how the matter was handled.

Offering his own version of events, Kelly told reporters he first learned of the allegations against Porter on Feb. 6, after inquiries from journalists. Kelly said those first queries focused on an allegation of "emotional abuse" from one woman. He said he then spoke to Porter, who resigned. Hours later, Kelly said, he learned there was also an accusation of physical abuse. At that point, Kelly said, he made sure that Porter was out.

Originally, the White House put out statements defending Porter, including one from Kelly. Kelly said he provided a statement of support for Porter after he heard only the first accusation.

"At that point in time, I thought the statement was accurate as it represented my relationship," Kelly said.

The White House did not announce Porter was leaving until a press briefing the following afternoon.

"We didn't cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that," Kelly said. "It was confusing."

Kelly described himself as shocked by the alleged abuse, saying he had viewed Porter as the "ultimate gentleman."

Questions persist about the timeline. According to two White House officials, Kelly was made aware by White House counsel Don McGahn last fall of at least the broad outlines of the issues with delays in approving Porter for permanent security clearance.

Kelly came under fire for his handling of the situation, during which the White House offered conflicting explanations. Initially, many top aides rallied around Porter and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director who was dating Porter and helped draft the original statements defending him. Hicks announced Wednesday that she will be leaving the administration.

Porter had failed to get a permanent security clearance and the episode raised concerns about his access to classified information and about how long senior staffers had known about the allegations.

Kelly said he had started looking into who had clearances and any delays in granting permanent clearances last fall. But he said he was not made aware of any specific allegations against Porter.

In the wake of the scandal over Porter, Kelly ordered that White House officials with interim clearances pending since before June 1, 2017, be cut off if they hadn't received permanent clearances by last Friday.

That move resulted in the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, being stripped of his high-level security clearance amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.


(AP) — White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of President Donald Trump's most trusted and longest-serving aides, abruptly announced her resignation, leaving a void around a president who values loyalty and affirmation.

The departure of Hicks, who worked as a one-woman communications shop during his campaign, came as a surprise Wednesday to most in the White House — and cast a pall over the West Wing at a trying time for the president. It leaves Trump increasingly without support of the familiar aides who surrounded him during his campaign, and marks the latest in a string of high-level departures in the administration's second year.

Hicks, 29, had a seemingly untouchable role in the West Wing, often viewed more as a surrogate daughter than a staffer. Perhaps most importantly, she served as Trump's glamorous shield and validator, always ready to provide "Mr. Trump" with a smiling dose of positive reinforcement, and controlling reporters' access. She was the fourth person to occupy the position since the president was sworn in, as the Trump White House has set modern records for staff turnover.

In a statement, Trump praised Hicks for her work over the last three years, saying he "will miss having her by my side." Hicks informed Trump of her decision Wednesday, a White House official said.

Hicks, who occupied the desk closest to the Oval Office in the West Wing, has been a central participant in or witness to nearly every milestone and controversy of the Trump campaign and White House. She began her White House tenure as director of strategic communications — a title that only partly captured her more expansive role as the president's gatekeeper to the press.

The news comes a day after Hicks was interviewed for nine hours by the House panel investigating Russia interference in the 2016 election and contact between Trump's campaign and Russia.

Hicks acknowledged to the House intelligence panel Tuesday that she has occasionally told "white lies" for Trump, according to a person familiar with the testimony.

But she said she had not lied about anything relevant to the Russia investigation. She has also been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller's team about her role in crafting a statement about Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 meeting with Russians, as Mueller's expansive probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential misdeeds committed by those in the president's orbit moves ever closer to the Oval Office.

Hicks' departure leaves a vacuum in the White House communications team, and in the president's collection of trusted aides. The announcement came a day after news broke of the impending departure of deputy communications director Josh Raffel, and just a few days after senior adviser Jared Kushner saw his security clearance downgraded — limiting his access to classified information.

"I can't imagine anyone here leaving a bigger hole in the White House than Hope on her departure," said White House lawyer Ty Cobb.

White House officials and outside advisers suggested Hicks' departure would strengthen chief of staff John Kelly's control over what has been an oftentimes chaotic West Wing.

In a statement, Kelly said Hicks had become "a trusted adviser and counselor," but behind the scenes the pair had occasionally clashed over her more informal role. Kelly had begrudgingly supported making Hicks communications director after the short-lived tenure of Anthony Scaramucci, in an effort to integrate her role into the rest of the White House's communications strategy.

Hicks said in a statement, "There are no words to adequately express my gratitude to President Trump." She added she wished Trump and his administration the "very best."

Before Wednesday's announcement, Hicks had not been happy for some time, according to two people with knowledge of her thinking who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. One person said Hicks had been increasingly feeling the stress of the position, especially in the wake of revelations about her relationship with former staff secretary Rob Porter. Since then, Hicks has been hounded by paparazzi, who have at times staked out her apartment building.

Hicks was an improbable campaign press secretary and senior White House official. A former Ralph Lauren fashion model and public relations pro who worked for Trump's daughter Ivanka, Hicks had no political background when Trump asked her to serve on his campaign.

She was an unconventional press secretary, rarely mixing it up with reporters, almost never giving on-the-record interviews and, despite Trump's fondness for cable, staying off TV. She spoke at a rally exactly once in December 2016, after Trump beseeched her "to say a couple of words."

She said nine: "Hi. Merry Christmas everyone, and thank you, Donald Trump."

Within the White House, she was seen as a stabilizing force on Trump, who at times would grow unhappy when she was not around. As the West Wing was riven by rivalries in the early months of the administration, she allied herself with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in opposition, at times, to the nationalist forces led by then-chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Hicks, who has long tried to avoid media attention, was thrust into the spotlight recently when it was revealed she had been dating Porter. He left the administration after accusations that he had abused his two ex-wives became public.

Hicks helped craft the White House's initial supportive response — an effort some saw as inappropriate.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Hicks would remain at the White House "for several weeks" and denied that Hicks' decision to leave had anything to do with her lengthy testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

"Don't try to read more into it than exists," Sanders said. "This is something that she's been thinking about for a while."