Top aide headed for exit after clash with Melania Trump's office

First lady issues public rebuke of Mira Ricardel

By CNN'S PAMELA BROWN AND SARAH WESTWOOD CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

First lady Melania Trump delivers remarks during the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit at the Health Resources and Service Administration on Aug. 20, 2018, in Rockville, Maryland.

(CNN) - A feud with the first lady's office cost a senior national security adviser her job in the White House after she sparred with East Wing staff and other key members of the Trump administration.

The dispute spilled into public view in extraordinary fashion on Tuesday when the first lady's office released a statement calling for deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel's ouster as reports surfaced that President Donald Trump would fire the official.

"It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that (Ricardel) no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," the first lady's communications director Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Tuesday.

The White House announced Wednesday that Ricardel would be leaving her role as deputy national security adviser and would take a different role in the administration.

The statement Tuesday from Melania Trump's office amounted to a stunning public rebuke by a first lady of a senior official serving in her husband's administration. It came after reports surfaced earlier Tuesday indicating Ricardel would be pushed out of her post after less than seven months on the job.

Neither Ricardel nor spokespeople for the National Security Council responded to CNN requests for comment.

Reflecting the fast-moving nature of the events, soon after a Wall Street Journal report surfaced Tuesday afternoon alleging Ricardel was fired and escorted off the White House grounds, a senior White House official denied the story to reporters.

The official said Ricardel was still in her office Tuesday afternoon.

Her departure leaves national security adviser John Bolton without one of his key allies in the White House, a deputy who has also shared his penchant for bureaucratic infighting.

It was those sharp elbows that sources said led to the first lady's stinging statement, with Ricardel most recently feuding with members of the first lady's staff over her trip to Africa. One person familiar with the matter said Ricardel quarreled with the first lady's staff over seating on the plane and use of National Security Council resources.

A White House official accused Ricardel of being dishonest about the feud and subsequently leaking stories to try to cover her behavior.

And before her spat with the East Wing, Ricardel butted heads repeatedly with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a rivalry that was well-known within the Trump administration. Her disputes with Mattis preceded her time as deputy national security adviser, going back to the presidential transition when Ricardel sought to block Mattis from hiring certain people who had been critical of Trump or were viewed as insufficiently loyal to Trump.

Tensions had also been rising between Ricardel and chief of staff John Kelly and his deputy Zach Fuentes in recent weeks, according to people familiar with the matter. Kelly and Fuentes believe Ricardel was leaking negative stories about them to the press, the people said.

The dispute made it difficult for Ricardel to land in a top post in the Trump administration, though she was ultimately tapped for the position of undersecretary of commerce for export administration. Ricardel then joined the National Security Council as Bolton's deputy in April after he was named national security adviser.

Ricardel has been key to Bolton's efforts to restructure the National Security Council and to help Bolton secure his place as an influential adviser to the President on all foreign policy matters.

The drama surrounding Ricardel's ouster surfaced while Bolton was half a world away in Singapore, where he is attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.

West Wing caught off guard

West Wing officials were caught off guard on Tuesday by the statement from the first lady's spokeswoman targeting Ricardel, two sources familiar with the matter said.

White House officials were generally aware of the tensions between Ricardel and the first lady's office stemming from the Africa trip, but were stunned to see the first lady take such a public stance against a senior staffer through her spokeswoman. Sources said officials in the White House press shop were particularly annoyed that they didn't get a heads-up from the East Wing.

West Wing and NSC officials are more upset at the way the East Wing handled the matter than the substance of the effort to push Ricardel out.

One person said neither Trump, Kelly nor press secretary Sarah Sanders knew the statement was coming.

Ricardel made few friends since she came on board in April, clashing with officials across the administration. Two administration sources said she was generally not well liked, though others pushed back, saying she was a respected member of the team and one of the highest ranking women in the West Wing.

Even one NSC official who said they liked Ricardel said she "liked to pick fights with a lot of different folks" and suspected her latest feud with the first lady's office was "the last straw."

Another official was more forgiving: "She'd run through a brick wall for you but her personality isn't for everyone."

This story has been updated.

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