Let’s begin with the Trump administration’s new media superstar, communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Despite having no experience in politics or press relations, Scaramucci was hired because President Trump saw him on cable TV, and he is indeed a perfect creature of that medium: not well-informed, but absolutely confident in everything he says. Scaramucci has some other critical qualities, especially his over-the-top love for Trump, but what makes him unique is his propensity for moments of absolutely shocking candor, of a kind we don’t normally expect from professional spinners.
So now, in a White House that Trump once described as “a fine-tuned machine,” the chief of staff and the communications director are in open war with one another.
According to multiple reports, Reince Priebus was adamantly opposed to Scaramucci’s hiring, but in his first appearance at the White House, Scaramucci explained the conflict away by saying they’re like brothers who sometimes fight. Then yesterday, Politico published Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form from his recent position at the Export-Import Bank, and Scaramucci believed Priebus was behind the “leak,” leading him to tweet (the tweet has since been deleted):
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 only problem is that the forms are publicly available to anyone who requests them (that’s the thing about “disclosure”), yet Scaramucci seemed to accuse Priebus of committing a felony and said he was siccing the FBI on him.
Then this morning, Scaramucci did an extraordinary half-hour interview on CNN, in which he barely attempted to contain his scorn for Priebus, who is technically his boss. When asked about White House leaks, he said, “The fish stinks from the head down, but I can tell you two fish that don’t stink, okay? That’s me and the president.” Who else would be at the “head” besides the person whose job it is to run the White House? Scaramucci went on:
“If you want to talk about the chief of staff, we have had odds, we have had differences. When I said we were brothers from the podium, that’s because we’re rough on each other. Some brothers are like Cain and Abel, other brothers can fight with each other and get along. I don’t know if this is repairable or not, that will be up to the president. But he’s the chief of staff, he’s responsible for understanding and uncovering and helping me do that inside the White House, which is why I put that tweet out last night…If Reince wants to explain that he’s not the leaker, let him do that.”
Holy cow. I’ve been around for a while, and I can’t ever remember one senior White House official publicly throwing that kind of shade at another senior White House official. Scaramucci must be pretty confident in his position, even though he has only been there for a few days.
There’s a risk for him, which is that as we know, Trump doesn’t like anyone stealing too much of his spotlight. That might suggest that Scaramucci’s ultimate fate lies with the editors of Time magazine; if they put him on their cover, he’s in big trouble. But that may be an overly simplistic reading of the dynamic between Trump and his aides. It isn’t just that Trump doesn’t want to share the attention (though that’s true); what he really dislikes is someone getting a lot of attention for having an agenda that’s separate from the aggrandizement of Donald J. Trump. It appears that Scaramucci understands that, which is why he never gets through an interview without talking about what an extraordinary individual Trump is (in that CNN interview, in between dissing Priebus, he found time to say that Trump is “the smartest person that I’ve ever worked for”).
This question came up with Stephen K. Bannon, who has recently retreated from public view in an apparent attempt to save his job. But the reason Trump got so displeased with Bannon was that he was being characterized as a kind of Rasputin, wielding power behind the scenes and using Trump for his own ends. That makes Trump seem smaller, and it also happens to be true — Bannon has a well-thought-out ethno-nationalist vision that he developed long before signing on with the Trump campaign. He realized that Trump could be a vehicle to realize that vision and so is intensely invested in the Trump presidency, but in the end he’s not a pure Trump loyalist.
The same could be said of Jeff Sessions, who cares deeply about turning back the clock on civil rights, voting rights and drug policy. That’s why Sessions hasn’t resigned yet — even though he’s being publicly humiliated by the president on a daily basis, he’ll stay as long as he can because he has important work to do in building a bridge to the 1950s. The fact that he hasn’t said “I’m sorry if I ever made things difficult for you, Mr. President; here’s my resignation” is the best proof Trump could have that his criticisms of Sessions are correct.
The Sessions story is another indication of what an incredible mess this administration is. While the communications director is seemingly accusing the chief of staff of committing a felony, the president is giving interviews and tweeting about what a terrible job his attorney general is doing. Meanwhile, the administration hasn’t gotten around to even naming nominees for 358 of the 574 most senior positions in the executive branch.
Or look at how Trump went about announcing a dramatic policy shift at the Defense Department, in which transgender service personnel will be banned from the military. He first sent a tweet saying:
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……
… which was followed by a nine-minute pause. Pentagon officials had no idea what was coming, and BuzzFeed reports:
At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action…Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter.
The announcement caught everyone off guard. Even the president’s own spokeswoman seemed to have no idea how it might be implemented.
While this was happening, the secretary of defense was on vacation, and it’s unclear if he approved this policy change. Interestingly enough, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has reportedly been frustrated with Trump and the White House, is also “taking a little time off,” according to a spokesperson. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t taken a vacation since Trump was inaugurated, and my job is somewhat less critical to the fate of the nation than the secretary of state or the secretary of defense.
I’m sure this all makes the Trump administration an exciting place to work — from one day to the next you never know who’s at war with whom, who’s getting fired, what sweeping policy changes will be made, or what the president will tweet next. Most of Trump’s agenda is stalled, half the key jobs are vacant, senior officials can’t wait to get out of town, and everybody’s leaking to the press about what a mess it all is. This is one fine-tuned machine all right.