This piece has been updated.
Sean Spicer resigned as White House press secretary in a huff. As the New York Times reported, the much-derided spokesman for President Trump “vehemently disagreed with his appointment of Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier, as his new communications director,” saying “that Mr. Scaramucci’s hiring would add to the confusion and uncertainty already engulfing the White House.”
In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Spicer said he’d told the president this: “I think it is in the best interests of this administration and your presidency that I give these two individuals the opportunity to operate without me in the way so that they have a fresh start, that I’m not lurking over them.”
In less than a week, the world is getting an up-close view of what put Spicer in such a vehement mood.
On Tuesday, Scaramucci confirmed to Politico that he was prepared to fire a communications staffer — Michael Short, who later resigned — and then complained about how the media figured that out before the deed could be done. On Wednesday morning, Scaramucci went on CNN and spoke at great length about this otherwise unspectacular personnel action, riffing about how he wanted to help this person with his career. For real. When asked whether the president had demanded the action, Scaramucci replied in comic fashion, “I’m straightly, straightly not answering your question.”
Now on to Wednesday evening. At around dinner time, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza tweeted news of dinner at the White House: “Scoop: Trump is dining tonight w/Sean Hannnity [sic], Bill Shine (former Fox News executive), & Anthony Scaramucci, per to 2 knowledgeable sources.”
Later on, Scaramucci tweeted something strange: “In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.” The Twitter handle @Reince45 belongs to Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, an ally of Spicer and a man who had opposed Scaramucci’s accession to high-level White House posts.
Except there was a problem: There was no leak. Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert merely procured the document via public request. It noted that Scaramucci had continued profiting from his ownership stake in SkyBridge Capital, according to the disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics.
Yet for Scaramucci, a guy who came into his job as White House communications director determined to stop the leaks, every disclosure is a leak. It’s the hammer-nail problem. Lizza reported, per a phone call with Scaramucci that has now been detailed in this New Yorker piece:
After Scaramucci deleted the offending tweet, he rejected any notion that he wanted an FBI investigation of a colleague:
Again, all of this went down after the dinner hour, raising an important question: Why not just stop “working” for a few hours?
Scaramucci on Thursday morning spent about a half-hour on CNN’s “New Day” with co-host Chris Cuomo hashing the whole thing out, claiming that he’s a “crystal-clear transparent person.” For an administration that had already minted a number of insane cable-news moments, this was exceptional. And it came with some coaching from the president himself. In his chat with Cuomo, Scaramucci said that Trump had told him that Cuomo had better be “nice” — or he wouldn’t let Scaramucci go on the show again.
However: Before Scaramucci began his therapy session with Cuomo, he did something else remarkable. At the time that Scaramucci called into CNN remotely on the telephone, Lizza was on air discussing these same issues with the “New Day” team. So Scaramucci decided to speak directly to Lizza, about the phone call they’d had the night before. “When I was speaking to you last night, Ryan, I said it was unpatriotic that you weren’t telling me who the leakers were. I was on a plane landing in New York. I have to go visit my mom. And so you may have caught it the wrong way. I was teasing you and it was sarcastic. It was one Italian to another. It wasn’t me trying to get you to say — if you could give me a sense of who they are because I have a responsibility to the president of the United States. When you said you didn’t, I totally respect your journalism and your integrity.”
That was the just-kidding defense for a communications director — a man whose job requires sophistication in dealing with the media — who just admitted on national television that he called a journalist’s refusal to disclose sources “unpatriotic.” And, in the process, he admitted that he was sufficiently naive to have called the journalist about sources in the first place. The brilliant Sean Spicer never, ever would have done this.
Then Scaramucci failed to shut his mouth in a stemwinder of an interview with Cuomo. The highlight came when Scaramucci told Cuomo that he hadn’t looked into what prompted Trump to decry leaks. “I didn’t study like that like Quincy. I wasn’t a coroner studying that, remember the Jack Klugman show?” Cuomo lashed back: “He was a medical examiner, not a coroner. But continue.”
- Scaramucci said, “If Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that.”
- He at one point tried to micromanage Cuomo, saying, “A couple more minutes without Russia and then ask a few more questions, but we can go to Russia at the end of the segment.” Cuomo: “We both know I’m going to ask what I think is important, and we both know I have trouble taking direction.”
- He said in regard to Russia sanctions that perhaps Trump would sign a bill working its way through Congress, or perhaps he’d veto it and negotiate a deal for a tougher set of sanctions.
- He said he had talked for 15 minutes with the president on Thursday morning. “I’m far from in trouble. I have his full support,” said “the Mooch.”
- He lamented distractions from the president’s agenda.
Yet as Scaramucci spoke with Cuomo, he was furthering the president’s very clear agenda, which is to dominate programming on cable news by whatever means necessary. Even after the Scaramucci-Cuomo conversation ended, CNN continued to hash out the particulars. Lizza said that in their own phone call, Scaramucci “was very worked up and wanted to know who leaked that to me, so the call was in the context of his war on leaks.”
Commentator A.B. Stoddard said that all this is a “total distraction designed, I think, to get us to stop talking about the disarray and disruption of the transgender [military] ban and what he’s doing to [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.” No: Neither Scaramucci nor anyone else in the administration could design a ham sandwich, let alone a distractive Beltway news flash.
Joshua Green, a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter, said, “It is important to step back and let viewers know how bizarre and unusual what just transpired is. The White House communications director live on CNN revealing conversations with reporters, calling reporters unpatriotic.”