The sweepstakes to replace Sarah Huckabee Sanders is already in full swing just one day after the White House press secretary announced plans to step down.
President Donald Trump has started having conversations with Sanders and others about who should be his next press secretary, according to one person familiar with the matter. And the president is expected to start talking to potential candidates in the coming days, the person added. Meanwhile, White House aides and Trump’s outside advisers have immediately started discussing candidates and handicapping their chances of getting the job.
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At the top of the shortlist of candidates is Stephanie Grisham, First Lady Melania Trump’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, according to multiple White House officials and people close to Trump. Grisham has been working at the White House for the entirety of Trump’s time in office, and before that worked on his campaign and transition team. She is well-liked by the president and other senior White House aides.
Even before Sanders announced her departure, which will come at the end of the month, there had been quiet discussions about bringing her back to the West Wing, officials said. Grisham started in the White House as a deputy to then-press secretary Sean Spicer before Melania Trump brought her to the East Wing. Over the last two years, Trump has frequently joked with Grisham about stealing her back, a White House official said.
Trump praised Grisham during an interview with Fox News on Friday morning without tipping his hand about who he might choose. “Stephanie is terrific. We have a lot of great people. We have a lot of people to choose from,” he said.
Sanders told reporters Thursday that she did not formally recommend a successor to the president when she told him she was resigning, arguing the decision should be left up to the president. But since announcing her departure, Sanders has privately weighed in on individual candidates at Trump’s request, according to a White House official, ticking off their strengths and weaknesses and emphasizing that he needs to pick somebody who is solidly on “Team Trump,” a shorthand often used by his aides to signify loyalty.
Another potential contender for the job is Tony Sayegh, former assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department. Sayegh just left the agency on Wednesday after serving for over two years as a close aide to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He had planned to return to his native New York for a yet-to-be-determined job in the private sector.
His name has been mentioned inside the White House and among Trump’s outside allies, given the role he played in selling the Republicans’ tax overhaul legislation, as well as his close relationships with Trump’s children and former top White House aide Hope Hicks.
Other names that White House officials and outside advisers are floating include the White House’s principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley and former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. White House officials stressed that other candidates could emerge in the coming days.
Hours after Trump announced Sanders’ departure from the White House, several top administration officials congregated at the Trump International Hotel for Sayegh’s Treasury send-off. Sanders attended, as well as Ivanka Trump, Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Gidley.
At one point, Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to the White House and one-time contender for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, touted Sayegh’s work in the administration during a toast honoring him. During his remarks, Moore said that tax reform never would have passed without the messaging help of Sayegh, Kudlow and Ivanka Trump, according to two attendees.
During the party, several top officials buzzed about who would be the next White House press secretary, and a handful of people encouraged Sayegh to consider it. While Trump knows Sayegh, aides said he has a stronger relationship with Grisham. As a result, Grisham is seen as the most likely internal candidate, who would bring her familiarity with the White House to the job and offer continuity to other aides after Sanders departs.
Some in the White House downplayed Gidley’s chances of getting the job, though they said he could step in as acting press secretary while a permanent pick is chosen.
Nauert, for her part, withdrew from consideration to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisting that the process had been “grueling” for her family. Nauert had previously employed a nanny who didn’t have the correct work authorization, a factor that complicated her nomination.
It’s unclear if Nauert, a former Fox News host, would want to step back into the spotlight, and some close to her said she likely wouldn’t take the job. But White House aides said Trump likes her and has mentioned her frequently as a candidate for key jobs. She is also seen by other administration officials as a highly effective surrogate on television, a big selling point.
Some close to the White House said Sanders’ departure could prompt a broader reshuffling of the press office, though it’s unclear what that might look like.
Whoever is chosen is likely to continue eschewing the norms of past White House press secretaries, as Sanders did. At Trump’s direction, Sanders did few formal, televised briefings, instead appearing regularly on Fox News and talking to reporters in her office or on the White House driveway. She became a trusted senior adviser to the president, helping to fill the void left when Trump’s favored staffers — first and foremost Hope Hicks — departed.
White House aides said the next press secretary is likely to play a similar role for the president, adding that they don’t expect the person to hold frequent briefings unless the president shifts his thinking on the issue.