It’s been one helluva week in the White House, and, like a shot of adrenaline, the president has found the arrival of his Mini-Me invigorating
If looks could kill. There is Anthony Scaramucci going full alpha male: chest out, shoulders back, thumbs on belt, feet planted solidly apart, eyes fixed in a deadly stare. There is Reince Priebus, less obviously macho but with a face like thunder as he glares back, a yawning chasm between them. Many historic photographs have been taken in the Oval Office but few have captured mutual loathing so indelibly.
Scaramucci’s first week at the White House was one for the ages. The new communications director declared war on Priebus, branding him “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic” in what appeared to be a brazen play for his job as chief of staff – which, late on Friday, went instead to homeland security secretary Gen John Kelly. He roared from TV studio to TV studio, offering his street fighter’s defence of Donald Trump and vowing to take out leakers. And not least importantly, he seemingly jolted the president back into his most unfettered, unscripted, offensive and authentically Trump-like self.
Indeed, just as Trump was an agent of disruption in the Republican party, so Scaramucci has run riot in the White House. “He’s in a supernova phase at the moment,” said William Cohan, an author who has known Scaramucci personally for seven years. “He’s burning so bright and hot in the feeling that waiting out his foes has paid off.”
Six months into the Trump administration, Scaramucci exploded like a new character in the second series of a TV drama designed to unsettle the cast and spice up storylines. The slick-haired wolf of Wall Street has been unleashed in Washington, a comparatively sedate government town, to bring his shtick to the political class. “The Mooch” is, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, “a self-promoter extraordinaire and master salesman who doesn’t mind pushing a bad product – and probably sees it as more fun”.
In his first encounter with the press on 21 July, Scaramucci was smooth and self-assured, blowing a kiss and claiming that he and Priebus were like brothers who rough each other up once in a while. The former hedge fund manager said his start date would be in a couple of weeks so he could be “100% totally cleansed and clean” of business conflicts, but it was soon clear that he was working at full throttle.
Scaramucci deleted past tweets that showed him expressing admiration for Hillary Clinton and contradicting Trump on everything from climate change to gun control. He was all over the Sunday political TV shows with typical brio aimed at one viewer: his boss. On CBS’s Face the Nation, for example, he said of Trump’s hopes for healthcare legislation: “I don’t know if he’s going to get what he wants next week. But he’s going to get what he wants eventually. Because this guy always gets what he wants. OK? What I know about President Trump is that … he’s got very, very good karma.”
Scaramucci rapidly began a crusade to purge the White House of staff who have been leaking like a sieve since Trump became president. “I’m going to fire everybody!” he warned. But the first leaker turned out to be the Mooch himself.
On Tuesday, the Politico website reported that assistant press secretary Michael Short had been sacked, as confirmed by Scaramucci. Short then came forward to say no one had told him. Almost an hour later, Scaramucci, sporting blue-tinted aviator sunglasses, told reporters that the “leak” about Short’s dismissal “really upsets me as a human being and as a Roman Catholic”, conveniently forgetting that he was the source. That afternoon, Short announced his resignation.
Wednesday began with more TV interviews including Trump’s favourite show, Fox and Friends. “What I don’t like about Washington is that people don’t let you know how they feel,” Scaramucci said. “They’re very nice to your face and then they take a shiv or a machete and stab you in the back. I’m a Wall Street guy, I’m more of a front stabbing person.”
That night, he went to a dinner with guests from central casting of liberal nightmares: Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Fox News host Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine. The gathering had not been listed on the official White House schedule. When word of it broke via the New Yorker magazine’s Ryan Lizza, Scaramucci called him to demand who had leaked it, then became convinced that it must be Priebus. According to Lizza’s jaw-dropping account, Scaramucci predicted that the chief of staff would be asked to resign “very shortly” and said: “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.”
Scaramucci was also incensed that his financial disclosure form had been made public and again appeared to blame Priebus. But it was not a leak. It was released after a public records request by Politico. On Thursday morning, Scaramucci denied that he was blaming Priebus. He told CNN: “Some brothers are like Cain and Abel. Other brothers can fight with each other and get along. I don’t know if this is reparable or not, that will be up to the president.”
Scaramucci is said to bear a grudge towards Priebus for freezing him out of the administration when Trump became president in January and continuing to resist his appointment as director of communications last week. In his interview with Lizza, Scaramucci also used expletives to describe Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, who had also sought to block him. Scaramucci said he was not like Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, because “I’m not trying to suck my own cock”.
As Washington reeled from the vulgar outburst and digested his torrid first week, it seemed that the Mooch – whose backers include Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner – was loving every moment. Speaking from New York, Cohan, 57, said: “He’s like Trump himself. I don’t think Trump ever expected to win. I don’t think Anthony ever expected to be at the centre of the White House.
“He must be feeling like a pig in shit. ‘OK, I showed my loyalty in spades, I worshipped at the feet of Jivanka and it paid off. Now I’m going to show my uber loyalty to the president.’ But he’s had a rough start. He’s got to curb his enthusiasm, otherwise Trump is going to chew him up and spit him out.”
There is little sign of the enthusiasm being curbed so far. Scaramucci, 53, a construction worker’s son and Harvard Law School graduate, tweeted pictures of himself with Trump on Air Force One, beaming like a giddy tourist. He retweeted a video from Comedy Central’s the Daily Show that demonstrated in split screen the close match between Trump and Scaramucci’s hand gestures.
And the past week has demonstrated that the wealthy New Yorkers have much in common. Both speak and tweet what’s on their mind without any of the usual social safety filters. Both like to publicly shame their colleagues: Trump has been tormenting Attorney General Jeff Sessions in parallel with Scaramucci’s trashing of Priebus.
Scaramucci said on 21 July he had just been in the Oval Office with Trump “and we were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity”. It seems to have worked. The president has found the arrival of this Mini-Me invigorating, like a shot of adrenaline. Even by his own taboo-busting standards, it has been a wild week.
Speaking to the National Scout Jamboree in Glen Jean, West Virginia, Trump joked about firing his health secretary, Tom Price, who was standing nearby, branded Washington a “cesspool” and “sewer”, condemned “fake media”, gloated about his electoral college victory, promised the scouts they’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again under his administration and told a rambling anecdote that included “the hottest people in New York” at a party. The head of the Boy Scouts of America subsequently apologised for the “political rhetoric” inserted into what is traditionally a non-partisan event.
Then came a speech that was back to the “American carnage” and braggadocio of Trump’s inaugural address, throwing red meat to his supporters. In Youngstown, Ohio, he painted a lurid picture of “predators and criminal aliens” who “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.” He promised a tough law and order response: “We are liberating our towns and we are liberating our cities.”
The “let Trump be Trump” philosophy also manifested on Twitter where the president rained tweetstorms down on Sessions, Democrats, Republican healthcare rebels and the media. On Wednesday morning he stunned America by abruptly announcing a ban on transgender people in the military, claiming he had consulted his “generals” but blindsiding the Pentagon. The move seemed calculated to gratify the conservative base, although it earned widespread condemnation.
Scaramucci was thought to be going after Priebus with the president’s blessing; the White House was appreciably reticent about defending its chief of staff. The relationship between Trump and Scaramucci, by contrast, was said to be “symbiotic”, according to Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“The president probably feels the best he’s ever felt in the job of president with Scaramucci there,” he said. “For the president it’s not about the substance of policy. It’s about the manic of media, creating a message, building a brand and establishing the reality TV-ness of a presidency.”
Just before 5pm on Friday, the axe fell. Trump said it in a series of tweets: Priebus was out, replaced by homeland security secretary John Kelly. In a first week full of fights, Scaramucci had won his first key battle. Another scrap of news followed: Scaramucci’s wife, Deirdre Ball, had filed for divorce. The soap opera was in full swing.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010