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All the President’s Courtiers

Hope Hicks was never an answer to Trump's capriciousness—she was always only a symptom of it.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

While Donald Trump’s White House has been going through a period of tumultuous staffing choices, some reporters are arguing that the most significant change is not at the level of cabinet secretaries but rather the loss of his communications director, Hope Hicks, who officially ended her tenure on Thursday. In a normal administration, the changing of a communications director would hardly constitute earthshaking news, but Hicks played an unusually weighty role in Trump’s inner circle. As CBS News reports, “Staffers are approaching the post-Hicks era with trepidation, unsure what to expect in what they describe as a lawless White House, featuring a president who thrives on chaos and resents authority, process, and order. Hicks even used her standing to shield others from the wrath of Mr. Trump’s explosive outbursts, sources inside the White House say.”

One White House source told CBS: “She’s the glue to the entire place. She helps keep the White House from fracturing. I don’t think people realize what’s about to happen once she leaves.” The New York Times offered a similar analysis, noting, “There is a palpable worry among those in the West Wing about who the president will now confide in—and how many other people might be able to occasionally pull him back—now that Ms. Hicks is gone.”

On the face of it, it seems strange that the 29-year-old Hicks, with no background in politics or any discernible ideology, should be so important. There are reasons to be suspicious of the exalted language used to describe Hicks’s importance. It’s possible, for example, that one reason reporters talk about her in such laudatory terms is not due to any provable impact she’s had, but rather because she was a valued sourcea likely theory given how much Trump-era journalism depends on Trump’s inner circle.

The cult of Hicks also flourishes because she’s such a blank slate. Unlike almost all of those around Trump, she has no political agenda, either in terms of pushing a particular ideology or for self-aggrandizement. “She has no political aspirations,” a source told New York Magazine. “She doesn’t particularly like politics. She’s loyal to Mr. Trump.” Indeed, the very vacuity that Trump prizes also allows outsiders to project on her the role of being the reasonable moderating force in the administration. Hicks is often photographed but almost never interviewed on the record, which only adds to her mystique.

Yet if examined cooly, Hicks is less of an adviser and moderating force than a courtier and enabler. Her selflessness earned Trump’s trust, but at what cost? She could only try to insulate Trump from those she saw as bad actors, but she could not get the president to change.

In a very sympathetic profile of Hicks in New York, Olivia Nuzzi argues that Hicks was undone by the fact that foes who didn’t like the way she protected the president were able to undermine her via a gossip campaign. These enemies of Hicks were the very destabilizing advisers she tried to shield Trump from.

Hicks, Nuzzi reports, had come close to resigning twice before but kept thinking she could separate Trump from his bad influences:

But as time went on, it became clear that the sickness was a feature, that anyone who entered the building became a little sick themselves. And no matter how dead any of the eccentrics or maniacs or divas appeared to be, how far away from the president their status as fired or resigned or never-hired-in-the-first-place should have logically rendered them, nobody was ever truly gone. The people who were problems on the campaign or on the inside continued to be problems. The president’s taste for the other and the new was so established that the most driven among them knew that all they had to do was wait for an opening, or shrewdly create one—a weakened staffer, a particularly demoralizing news cycle—and they could worm their way back in. The madness engulfing the White House, in other words, was not just a matter of staff infighting or factional ideological rivalries, as it was often portrayed in the press, but also, in part, the result of manipulation from the fringes of Trumpworld.

The problem with this account, which seems semi-authorized by Hicks herself, is that it blames “the fringes of Trumpworld” rather than Trump himself. If chaos surrounds the president, it’s because he likes that chaos. He never truly cuts ties with figures like Corey Lewandowski or Roger Stone; instead, he continues to give them access. As The Washington Post reported on Sunday, Trump spent Friday, “dining on the gilded patio of his Mar-a-Lago estate with eccentric boxing promoter Don King, who said he vented to the president about the Stormy Daniels saga.”

The problem is not that Trump used to listen to the moderate Hicks and now listens to the unhinged voices. The issue is that Trump has from the start run his affairs like a capricious monarch who likes to have a discordant range of conflicting advice.

Trump himself is the predicament, not any individual adviser. The same arbitrariness that leads Trump to seek the counsel of the extremist conspiracy-theorist Stone also led the president to use Hicks, someone who has no experience or background in government, as a security blanket. Hicks was never the solution to Trump’s volatility, but a symptom of the his fickleness.

If Hope Hicks failed to moderate Trump, it’s not because she was overwhelmed by the fringes but because she was just one courtier among many. Trump likes to have a range of lickspittle around him. Hicks might have been among the more moderate wing of Trump’s attendants, but she never had the power to stop the president from seeking advice from his more deranged cronies.