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What The Hope Hicks Resignation Could Mean For Trump

Hope Hicks isn’t just any White House communications director. Until her abrupt announcement Wednesday that she would be leaving the White House, Hicks has been part of what we dubbed the “Friends and Family” wing of the Trump administration — a group of people, including first daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who entered the White House with a longstanding relationship with the president but little connection to GOP politics.

So what does her resignation mean, particularly given her special status in the Trump orbit? We don’t really know, in part because these circumstances surrounding many of these departures are notoriously opaque. In this case, there are multiple storylines about why Hicks is leaving. Given the complicated situation this key White House figure is in, it’s worth using the rubric my colleagues Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Andrea Jones-Rooy came up with in their recent piece, “5 Questions To Ask Every Time Someone Leaves The Trump Administration.” As the story pointed out, some types of turnover are good and will likely help Trump implement his agenda; some types of turnover simply sow chaos — and figuring out which is which can be tricky.

1. How long was this person on the job?

Before the 2016 campaign, Hicks did public relations work for the Trump Organization, focusing on Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. She then became one of his earliest campaign staffers and managed to avoid getting fired or pushed out like so many others. She was rewarded with a job in the White House Press Office that came with a lot of access to the president. She became the interim communications director in August before being promoted permanently into the job in September.

A year is not a short time to serve in the White House, which saddles staffers with an around-the-clock workload in any administration. A year seems extra impressive under Trump, who has faced more chaos and upheaval than usual. But it’s odd that Hicks left the communications director post after less than seven months, if only because Trump probably should have been begging her to stay. The president has struggled to fill the position, and three different people held it in the seven months before Hicks assumed the role. (Remember Anthony Scaramucci? He was Hicks’ predecessor … for about a week.) Barack Obama had five communications directors during his entire eight-year presidency. From Quartz:

2. Was the departure planned?

Hicks had reportedly been considering leaving for months. Count me as skeptical of that claim given the answer to the next question.

3. Is there a clear reason for the departure?

In theory, it’s not outlandish that Hicks was ready to move on. She has worked for Trump for nearly three years in roles that have likely been highly intense, difficult (would you want to be Trump’s spokeswoman?) and legally complicated. But the timing of Hicks’s departure also hints at some less workaday reasons for her leaving.

The day before the announcement of her departure, Hicks spent nine hours on Capitol Hill testifying about various Trump-Russia issues, an appearance in which she admitted to telling white lies on behalf of the president.

Then there’s her involvement in the controversy around ousted Trump Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who stepped down last month after allegations emerged that he had hit two of his ex-wives. Hicks reportedly at first helped craft the public messaging around Porter, but recused herself from the process after it emerged that she and Porter had been dating.

Her departure also comes as Kushner reportedly lost access to some classified information and briefings in what appears to be a decision by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to curb the influence of the president’s son-in-law. Hicks is close with Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Is Kelly gaining power in the West Wing at the expense of those Trump is closest to personally?

One reason for Hicks’s departure is easier to rule out: It is not likely based on differences with Trump about policy or governing style because it’s not clear Hicks had much of a role in setting the administration’s stance on, say, immigration. So this is different from a figure like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leaving, since Kelly is involved in crafting Trump’s policy on nearly every issue and has long been rumored to have a tense relationship with the president. It would be a bigger deal, in terms of telling us about Trump’s policy agenda, if, say, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were departing.

4. How senior is the person who’s leaving?

Figuring out who exactly has what power in the Trump administration is complicated. That said, Hicks has been serving as one of the highest-level White House staffers (an assistant to the president), and she had direct access to Trump. And her longstanding relationship with the president and his family put her in the inner circle. Hicks is not the standard aide — a longtime Washington Republican who was always going to leave the Trump administration but might serve a future GOP president. Hicks is a Trump person more than a Republican, so it’s somewhat surprising that she is departing while Trump remains in office.

The biggest question that Hicks’s departure raises might be what it means for other members of the “Friends and Family” wing — if Hicks is expendable, maybe Kushner is too?

5. How easily can this person be replaced?

Maybe Trump or Kelly has someone ready to slide into this slot. I don’t know. (There are already rumors of a replacement: Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of strategic communications.) But the nature of the job would make that complicated. Communications directors usually want to manage how politicians talk to reporters, along with their speeches and their social media presence. Do you think Trump is running his tweets or his remarks by Hicks — or anyone else? I doubt it. I’m sure some ambitious Republican will take the job. But I’m not sure if that person will easily meld with Trump the way that Hicks did.

Here’s the thing: I suspect this news is more interesting than important. Hicks is a compelling character in Trumpworld: the ex-model-turned-White House communications director; the 29-year-old with a top job in the West Wing; a person sometimes described as akin to a daughter to the president. But it’s not clear that her departure tells us anything about the Russia investigation (though they could be related), Trump’s policies or even White House operations.

People leave the Trump White House all the time! Hicks has not been indicted. She is not writing policy. Trump is likely to keep tweeting, making controversial comments and governing in a fairly traditionally Republican way. He just has to, well, hope someone else will become his communications director even though that person will never really direct his communications.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.