Vatican City (CNN)–At the most highly anticipated meeting on President Donald Trump’s first foreign odyssey, the ever-shifting pecking order of a tumultuous White House was on full display.
Not seen was one of Trump’s most visible hands: Sean Spicer, the embattled press secretary and Catholic who was eagerly anticipating the meeting with Pope Francis.
(Yeah, it’s a real book!)
Instead, standing alongside the President as he met the Pope inside the Sala del Tronetto here were his wife, Melania, dramatically veiled in lace. To her right, eldest daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared, each senior Trump advisers and near-constant presences in Trump’s close circle. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster — Trump’s highest-ranking foreign policy aides — stood flanking Francis.
Those were the expected faces. But there were others there, too — less familiar yet nonetheless critical to the West Wing ecosystem. Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications adviser; Keith Schiller, his former bodyguard; and Dan Scavino, his social media master, all stood solemnly as Trump greeted the Pontiff.
The photographs at the Vatican on Wednesday underscored a point that often goes unspoken in the Trump White House: old friends and family reign above all. Staff is just that — staff.
Ultimately, the formalities of West Wing titles mean less than family ties or longevity in Trump world. Spicer, for example, is an assistant to the President — the top-ranking title for White House aides — and Catholic, but was informed before the meeting there wasn’t room for him on the roster.
Spicer did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about Spicer not being included in the group that met the Pope, a source close to the White House said: “Wow. That’s all he wanted,” adding it should “very much” be seen as a slight.
Schiller, meanwhile, is a deputy assistant to the President — a lower rank than Spicer — but he is an aide with few equals, a body man who rarely is away from the President, whether he’s on the golf course or the Sistine Chapel.
“It was a very small delegation that joined the President,” a White House official told CNN.
Two additional senior White House officials said the Vatican was very “strict” on the number of people who would be allowed to join the talks.
But previous administration officials who helped orchestrate meetings between US presidents and the Pope said that high-level Catholic staffers who expressed interest in attending the papal sessions were regularly accommodated.
It’s all become something of a popularity contest inside the West Wing, playing out this week on the international stage. The week-long trip has only fueled speculation about a staff shakeup when the President returns to Washington. For some, the overseas journey could be their last in Trump’s entourage, or not.
With this president, the only certainty is uncertainty.