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Inside the room: White House flare-up over McCain leak

John McCain on Capitol Hill. The White House communications shop dealt with leaks this week on Kelly Sadler's comments about John McCain.
John McCain. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At yesterday’s meeting of the White House communications team — in the wake of a leak from the prior meeting of a callous remark about John McCain’s brain cancer — a visibly upset and furious Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the group: “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting,” according to a source in the room.

Sanders' prediction came true. What follows below is a leak from that very intense meeting yesterday, according to five sources in the room. The broad outlines of this meeting were first reported by ABC News.

Why this matters: The White House communications and press team has been beset by leaks. This last one appears to have crossed a line, and several people in the room on Friday told me they now walk into meetings knowing they can’t trust their own colleagues. In big meetings, they feel inclined, now, to keep their mouths shut.

At one point, per a source in the room, White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp interjected with a word of support for Sadler:

Quote“You can put this on the record... I stand with Kelly Sadler.”

A source close to Schlapp told me that "her point was that when one staff member is publicly targeted by other members of the staff, she thinks that's inappropriate and the team should support staffers who are subjected to leaks."

Sources in the room on Friday told me senior leaders on the press team spent more time focused on the fact that Sadler's now-infamous comment had leaked, than that it was said in the first place.

In an emotional speech in the Roosevelt Room, Sanders lambasted the press and communications team for the leak:

  • Kelly Sadler’s comment was inappropriate, she said, according to a staffer in the room, but that didn’t justify leaking it to the press.
  • Sanders told the team that Thursday should have been a great day for the White House, especially with the historic photos of Trump welcoming the hostages released from North Korea.
  • But instead, that was overcome by saturation cable TV coverage about Sadler’s comment. In Thursday's meeting of the White House communications and press team, Sadler said "It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway," in reference to McCain's decision to oppose Trump's CIA nominee Gina Haspel. The Hill first reported the private remarks. Since then, everyone from McCain's family to members of Congress to former Vice President Joe Biden has condemned the remark.

A source in the room for Friday's meeting, defending Sanders, told me she made a point of immediately saying Sadler’s comment was wrong but her point was that these issues should be litigated internally and airing grievances through the press inflicts immense damage on the White House.

“No one is condoning the remark,” the source, defending Sanders, added. “The message to the staff is that leaking it to the press is not how you handle it.”

Sanders told the team that the communications staff should be particularly sensitive to the damage leaks can cause. She called the leak “selfish,” according to a source in the room.

Another source added: "Sarah cares so much about the team, the cause, this country and this President. Sarah did absolutely the right thing in condemning the remark but also condemning the selfish action."