It turns out there is more than one Trump who can employ a few well-chosen words as a poison dart.
With a bombshell public statement this week, it was first lady Melania Trump who revealed her ability to carry out a political hit. Her extraordinary call for the removal of a top administration official forced the president to banish a top aide, exacerbated tensions within the White House and provided fresh insight into the first marriage.
Above all, the moment showed that the enigmatic first lady is increasingly prepared to flex her muscles. While it was President Donald Trump who repeatedly promised to shake up his Cabinet and staff, it was his wife who forced one of the first moves after the midterm elections. And while first ladies have long held unique positions of influence in the White House, Mrs. Trump’s very public power play was an unusual move befitting an unconventional White House.
“There have been similar activities on a less publicized scale, but it came out after the fact. We’ve never seen a first lady have her office make a public statement like that,” said Katherine Jellison, chair of the history department at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies. “It will be interesting to see if this is the new Melania.”
Jellison and others said the best comparison would be Nancy Reagan’s conflict with White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan. But while that clash eventually became well known, Mrs. Reagan never issued a public statement.
Mrs. Trump, who appeared with her husband Friday at a White House ceremony to honor Medal of Freedom honorees, did not address the controversy directly.
The target of Mrs. Trump’s ire was Deputy National Security Adviser Mira Ricardel, who was said to have clashed with East Wing staff over logistics for the first lady’s trip to Africa last month.
A White House official said Mrs. Trump’s staff spent weeks working through “proper channels” to seek Ricardel’s ouster but that the situation came to a head earlier this week after reporters learned of the friction between Ricardel and the East Wing and began asking questions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
On Tuesday, the East Wing issued a terse and head-snapping statement about Ricardel: “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
A day later, Ricardel was gone from the White House.
The statement from Mrs. Trump’s office caught some senior White House officials by surprise. A White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly said there was a widespread feeling that the highly public spat reflected poorly on the West and East wings, reinforcing the idea that the administration is volatile and making the first lady look vengeful.
Both President Trump’s spokeswoman and National Security Adviser John Bolton issued glowing statements about Ricardel. The White House insisted she would move into a new administration role, though it was not clear what that position would be. Privately, insiders acknowledged that there was no way for Ricardel to stay in the West Wing once the first lady made her feelings known.
As the week closed, it appeared clear that the situation had heightened already fraught tensions between the two wings of the White House, with senior officials from Chief of Staff John Kelly and Bolton on down unhappy with how Ricardel, a Trump loyalist, was treated.
Mrs. Trump is considered an influential adviser to her husband. In an ABC News interview last month, she said there are people in the White House whom she and the president cannot trust. She declined to name anyone but said she had let the president know who they are.
“Well,” she added, “some people, they don’t work there anymore.”
Asked if some untrustworthy people still worked in the White House, Mrs. Trump replied, “Yes.”
The first lady has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is an entirely voluntary role. She opted to stay in New York for the first months of the administration so that the couple’s son Barron could conclude the school year and she has kept up a limited public schedule since arriving in Washington.
She has also taken pains to set herself apart from the rest of the White House and her husband. She launched an education campaign focused on bullying, despite the fact that the president is famed for verbal combat. She took an ambitious trip to Africa, not long after her husband was pilloried for labeling African nations as “s—hole countries.”
Clearly unafraid to make a deft pushback at times, the first lady’s office last summer put out a statement praising NBA superstar LeBron James’ charitable efforts after the president fired off a tweet questioning the basketball player’s intelligence. And when The New York Times reported that Trump was irate that his wife’s TV aboard Air Force One was tuned to CNN, her office issued a statement saying Mrs. Trump watches “any channel she wants.”
As for the matter of fighting cyberbullying when her husband gets rapped for his cyber habits, the first lady told an online safety conference on Thursday that “It is not news or surprising to me that critics and the media have chosen to ridicule me for speaking out on this issue, and that’s OK.”
Before her husband reversed himself and put a halt to family separations at the border, Mrs. Trump’s office put out a statement saying the first lady “hates” to see families separated and expressing hope that “both sides of the aisle” can reform the nation’s immigration laws.
Mrs. Trump then drew attention for heading to Texas to visit migrant children at the southern border in a jacket emblazoned with the words “I don’t really care. Do U?” She later told ABC News that she wore the jacket “for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me. And I want to show them that I don’t care.”
The first lady this week also made it clear she doesn’t need outside help carving out her role in the White House, after her predecessor Michelle Obama said that Mrs. Trump had never called her for advice or help in the job.
“Mrs. Trump is a strong and independent woman who has been navigating her role as first lady in her own way,” spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham wrote via email. “When she needs advice on any issue, she seeks it from her professional team within the White House.”