The late colossus of American investigative journalism I.F. Stone once said of his hometown’s newspaper The Washington Post that “It’s a great paper. You never know on what page you’ll find the front-page story”. The same might have been said of last week’s issue of the New York Times, after it buried Maggie Haberman’s latest article entitled “Hope Hicks to Leave Post as White House Communications Director” on page three. This was probably befitting of Ms. Hicks, the 29-year-old PR aide to the president, whose singular achievement in the White House has been her uncanny ability to dodge the media spotlight in spite of her role. As White House Communications Director since August of last year, Hicks has accomplished little other than communicating to President Trump an à la carte version of the daily news cycle. This is in stark contrast to her nominal predecessors Sean Spicer, who perhaps communicated too much, and Anthony Scaramucci, who barely had time to communicate anything at all.
A former model turned PR woman, Hicks entered into the Trump Organisation through Ivanka Trump, originally a client of hers whilst she was employed by public relations firm Hiltzik Strategies. Beginning full-time work for the Trump Organisation in late 2014, Hicks was chosen by Trump to be his press secretary on the campaign trail for the following year. After Trump secured the presidency, Hicks became White House Director of Strategic Communications — a newly created position which, in reality, did not change her function in the slightest. Neither did her promotion to Director of Communications. Avoiding the White House press brief and declining to sit for interviews, Hicks, as Michael Wolff explains in Fire and Fury, ‘understood that her most important media function was not to be in the media’ – a lesson lost on the likes of Steve Bannon, but not Mike Pence, incidentally, whose catchall opener to his speeches ‘Greetings from our forty-fifth president’ casts him as one of the most hollow, albeit secure, Vice-Presidents in American history.
To underestimate Hicks, her position and her resignation — which came one day after she admitted to the House Intelligence Committee that she ‘told white lies’ on behalf of the President which, naturally, had nothing to do with the Russian investigation — would be a mistake. Whatever you think of Michael Wolff’s portrait of the Trump White House — its most patent flaws being Wolff’s proclivity towards Bannon and his tendency to yield to celebrity-style gossip — the sections that deal with Hicks appear to be accurate. Maggie Haberman, for example, author of the aforementioned Times article, was brought into the White House numerous times through Hicks for interviews with Trump. NBC News anchor Lestor Holt said recently that Hicks was always the first point of contact when trying to organise a meeting with the President. When GQ magazine attempted to secure an interview with Hicks, she reportedly quipped, ‘No, but you can interview the president and ask about me’. Hicks, characteristically mute, has neither confirmed nor denied the claims made in Fire and Fury. Nor has Bannon. Elaborating on her elusive role as Trump’s most senior aide-de-camp during the campaign as well as in the White House, Wolff writes:
To the senior staff, she seemed not only too young and too inexperienced—she was famous among campaign reporters for her hard-to-manoeuvre-in short skirts—but a way-too-overeager yes woman, always in fear of making a mistake, ever tremulously second-guessing herself and looking for Trump’s approval.
And then comes the important part:
But the president kept rescuing her — ‘Where’s Hope?’ — from any oblivion others tried to assign her to. Baffling to almost everyone, Hicks remained his closest and most trusted aide, with, perhaps, the single most important job in this White House — interpreting the media for him in the most positive way it could be interpreted, and buffering him from the media that could not be positively spun.
For the most media-fixated president in American history, it is impossible to understate the influence commanded by Hicks in this capacity by personally handpicking the articles that would land on Trump’s desk, and the reporters that would have access to him. According to Wolff, it was Hicks who first relayed to the President the Washington Post article concerning Jeff Sessions meetings with then Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. When Trump replied ‘So what?’, Hicks had to explain that when Sessions was being questioned months earlier by Senator Al Franken during a congressional hearing, Sessions had stated unequivocally that he had had “no communications with the Russians”. Trump and Hicks both ostensibly agreed that it was a far-fetched attempt to smear the Attorney General. On the same day, Hicks brought Trump a New York Times article which suggested that prior to the transition, the Obama White House had made an effort to preserve the intelligence regarding Trump’s campaign ties to Russia, and to make it easier to leak such intelligence through a wide network. Becoming incantatory upon hearing this, Trump took to Twitter that same evening to deliver an all-encompassing riposte in a series of tweets:
Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional. This whole narrative is a way of saving face for the Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win.
And for the Times piece:
They lost the election and now they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!
Hicks’ effect on the President has certainly been to reinforce and insulate his belief that the media really is out to get him. This has blurred the line between good news and bad news, which has become more or less indistinguishable and unimportant. What matters is news that can be immediately moulded to fit the President’s internal narrative. Understanding this perfectly, Hicks has maintained Trump’s trust and approval by supplying him with information – more often than not, ‘fake news’ — that fits this narrative. According to Wolff, Hicks ‘honed her instincts’ for the kind of information that could be easily digested by Trump. When Kellyanne Conway informed Hicks that Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and naturally a high-ranking member of the ‘fake news’ cabal, was rumoured to be soon ousted from the magazine, Hicks bolted towards the Oval Office to inform the president. Initially one of Trumps favourite shows, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s MSNBC Morning Joe soured for Trump following a public row. Despite claiming he didn’t watch the show anymore, Hicks would recount the details of each show to a grumbling Trump every morning.
If Trump is Norma Desmond – the deluded star of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard who inhabits her own fantasy; an allusion fashioned by Bannon after an unfortunate bathrobe-related incident – Hope Hicks is undoubtedly Max von Mayerling, Desmond’s loyal servant who keeps the delusion intact. This makes her resignation, as one figure close to Hicks chose to put it, ‘like losing a limb’. White House lawyer Ty Cobb said recently ‘I can’t imagine anyone here leaving a bigger hole in the White House than Hope on her departure’. Hicks’ resignation is the latest in a series of departures from the White House, which is beginning to look like an exodus of senior officials. Dina Powell, the Deputy National Security Advisor, left in January to return to Goldman Sachs. Josh Raffel, a senior communications advisor to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and a close friend of Hicks having worked together at Hiltzik Strategies, is leaving soon. Rob Porter, a White House Staff Secretary who was reportedly dating Hicks for some time, left last month after accusations of spousal abuse from both of his ex-wives. Reed Cordish, a policy advisor close to Kushner and Ivanka, is also leaving.
These departures, including that of Hicks, coincide with fears within the White House that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is gaining ground. The resignation of Josh Raffel came only days after Jared Kushner’s security clearance level was downgraded due to his failure to disclose more than one-hundred foreign contacts on his F.B.I. background check. A Washington Post article published last week claims that U.S. intelligence officials intercepted conversations between foreign nationals from China, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Israel, which suggested they take advantage of Kushner’s business ties in order to gain leverage over the administration. Particularly serious in nature is the allegation recently levelled against Kushner, that he supported a blockade of Qatar last year after Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi turned down a request by Charles Kushner (Kushner’s father — a man who has served time in federal prison for witness tampering, tax evasion, and illegal campaign contributions) to finance an indebted building owned by Kushner Companies in New York. Mueller’s team has reportedly been questioning a number of foreign witnesses regarding Kushner’s business dealings in the past few weeks.
As for Hicks, one allegation looms large following her resignation. Hicks was in the room on Air Force One with Trump, Ivanka, Kusher and Raffel when it became clear that the New York Times had become privy to Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian nationals in Trump Tower. Aware that time was not on their side as the story would break in mere hours, Trump and his inner circle hurriedly concocted a statement which explained that Don Jr.’s meeting was simply about Russian adoption policy. In addition to those in the room, Marc Kasowitz and Mark Corallo – lawyers hired by Bannon to insulate Trump from the Russian investigation – were put on hold for an hour before not being put through at all. After the Times article was published explaining that the Trump Tower meeting had, in reality, been explicitly organised by Don Jr. to gain damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Don Jr. disclosed the email chain before the Times had the chance to publish it themselves. Kept out of the loop and in a state of abject disbelief, Kasowitz and Corallo — specifically brought on to ensure that this sort of thing could not happen —promptly quit. In what has been described by Maggie Haberman as ‘a circular firing squad’, Wolff describes Hope Hicks’ role in this surreal episode:
Over the course of next seventy-two hours or so, the senior staff found itself wholly separate from — and, once again, looking on in astonishment at — the actions of the president’s innermost circle of aides. In this, the relationship of the president and Hope Hicks, long tolerated as a quaint bond between the older man and a trustworthy young woman, began to be seen as anomalous and alarming.
Wolff then goes on to explain her true function:
Completely devoted to accommodating him, she, his media facilitator, was the ultimate facilitator of unmediated behaviour. His impulses and thoughts—unedited, unreviewed, unchallenged—not only passed through him, but, via Hicks, travelled out into the world without any other White House arbitration.
Quoting a communication staffer shortly after the flight, Wolff writes:
The problem isn’t Twitter, it’s Hope.
Only recently, Mark Corallo received a request from Special Counsel Mueller for an interview regarding Hicks’ role in allegedly attempting to cover-up the true nature of Don Jr.’s meeting in Trump Tower. Prior to the email chain being published by Don Jr. and the Times, Corallo alleges that during a conference call with Trump and Hicks, Hicks claimed that the email chain ‘will never get out’. A lawyer representing Hicks has strongly denied the claims, and Hicks refused to answer questions related to the Russian investigation during a House Intelligence Committee hearing last week, instead making the bizarre admission that she occasionally ‘told white lies’ on behalf of Trump. In addition to racking up substantial legal fees, Hicks — according to one source close to the White House — ‘is in immense personal jeopardy’. Mueller’s team is expected to request another interview with Hicks in the near future, having made a tradition of questioning freshly ejected members of the Trump White House, a list that includes senior officials such as Priebus, Spicer and Bannon.
Recalling a meeting last year of ‘the Bannonites’ in an Arlington described by Bannon as ‘the Safe House’, Wolff describes an incensed Bannon giving his small audience a tirade about the beginning of the Mueller investigation. Somewhat pre-empting the details of its escalation this year, Bannon opined:
This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissman first and he is a money laundering guy. Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner.
Becoming increasingly animated, Bannon continues:
They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five … Hope Hicks is so fucked she doesn’t even know it. They’re going to lay her out. They are going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.
With a tumultuous year ahead, it is unlikely that Trump will find a replacement to fill the role that Hicks had mastered. Discussing Hicks, Ivanka said last year, ‘My father makes people earn his trust. She’s earned his trust’. For an administration that is increasingly becoming a revolving-door for senior officials as the Russian investigation heats up, losing Hope is a sign for the worse.