Less than a week after suffering a stinging defeat on health care legislation, President Donald Trump shook up his West Wing staff on Thursday, dispatching one of his top aides to shore up an outside political group that the White House believes failed to support Trump’s agenda at a critical juncture.
The departure of deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, a key ally of Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus, caps a rough stretch for Trump, who has seen his young administration dogged by allegations of Russia ties, his travel ban executive order blocked twice in court, and the health care bill he supported go down in flames.
Top White House officials sought to cast some blame regarding the health-care failure on the outside group, America First Policies, which did not buy TV ads or target recalcitrant Republican lawmakers.
“It was abundantly clear we didn’t have air cover,” Priebus said. “No one can fix this problem better than Katie Walsh.”
Walsh’s departure to the outside group came the same day that Trump himself tweeted threateningly about going after the House Freedom Caucus in 2018. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Trump wrote.
But the more immediate question looming over the faction-ridden White House was whether Walsh was the beginning or end of changes in the West Wing.
Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior aide Jared Kushner briefed a small group of reporters about the move on Thursday afternoon and insisted it was less of a shake-up and more of a rebooting of an outside effort that they believe had stumbled.
Kushner hailed Walsh as “one of the unsung heroes of the campaign” and said, “I’m very supportive of Katie and the sacrifice she’s making” by leaving.
Bannon said Walsh’s departure would be a loss for the White House but benefit the America First Policies group. “Katie’s a vital link that pulls things together and makes things happen,” he said.
A close ally of Priebus — she served as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee — Walsh was one of a number of RNC staffers he brought with him to the White House, including press secretary Sean Spicer.
The move could have significant implications for Priebus, who is losing one of his top lieutenants. “He basically took away Reince’s political secret service. She was his eyes and ears inside,” said a source close to Trump.
White House officials insisted Walsh leaving did not signal anything about Priebus’ status. “Reince is not next,” said a top White House official.
Senior administration officials also rebutted rumors that Walsh’s fellow deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, was soon to depart. “We would literally put shackles on him” to keep him, one senior administration official said.
Asked during the press briefing on Thursday if any more staffing shakeups were expected following Walsh’s departure, Spicer replied “no.”
Walsh was one of the few top women in the West Wing, along with counselor Kellyanne Conway, and her departure leaves Trump’s White House even more male-centric than before.
While the White House gig was Walsh’s first foray at the senior levels of government, she was widely seen internally as an organized manager in an often seat-of-the-pants administration.
Walsh is the latest high-level staffer to depart the White House just over two months into Trump’s presidency. National security adviser Michael Flynn was ousted for misleading the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and communications official Boris Ephsteyn was also recently let go.
Walsh, in her early 30s, has enjoyed a rapid rise in D.C. She was named deputy finance director at the RNC in January 2013 before her 30th birthday, and was elevated to the top finance job just six months later. She helped lead the RNC’s mammoth fundraising operation through the 2014 midterm elections, and she became chief of staff under Priebus at the RNC in 2015.
As an RNC veteran, she brought her ties to the Republican establishment with her to the White House, contrasting with insurgent Republicans like policy adviser Stephen Miller and Bannon.
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