Current White House staff, former West Wing press aides, and veteran political communications hands are shocked at how poorly Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure as President Donald Trump’s top communications aide is going.
And it’s only been a week.
In that short time, the self-branded “Mooch” has caused the ouster of press secretary Sean Spicer, publicly and directly contradicted Trump’s legal team, vowed a brutal staff purge, leaked news that he was firing a White House spokesman before he even told said spokesman (only to turn around and bizarrely denounce his own leak, pretending that he didn’t do it), outed the president on live-TV as his source, potentially worsened relations between the FBI and the Trump White House, accused Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of a felony, and accidentally went full on-the-record with The New Yorker for an interview in which he dubbed Priebus a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and accused Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon of “trying to suck [his] own cock.”
Just. Seven. Days.
Steve Schmidt, who was brought into Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign to bring order to a foundering operation, said the situation at the White House dwarfed theirs in terms of chaos and gravity. The Trump administration, said Schmidt, is “a toxic miasma of dishonesty and incompetence that is going to do more harm to the country.” He compared it to Melrose Place.
“Heather Locklear wasn’t in the original cast but what would Melrose Place be without Locklear?” said Schmidt. “And I think we might say the same about The Mooch before it is over. It is an unbelievable spectacle.”
Scaramucci was brought into the White House to, ostensibly, right the ship. It’s not an unfamiliar step for a young administration to take. After a rocky few months of his presidency, Bill Clinton turned to David Gergen, a longtime Washington, D.C., hand privy to the levers of power that dominate the capital.
Unlike now, Gergen’s hiring came with the blessing of the chief of staff, Mack McLarty, and was an effort to inject professionalism and ideological moderation into the operation.
“We were there to reverse everything Reagan had done and they were bringing in the Reagan guy? You’ve got to be kidding,” recalled Paul Begala, Clinton’s longtime confidant. But “Mack was looking for allies and for grown-ups,” Begala added. “We had some bumps starting out, but obviously nothing like this.”
Indeed, beyond the comparable timing of their hirings, Scaramucci appears to be the anti-Gergen—amplifying the president’s basal instincts and with no insider experience to add.
“Giving my limited experience with both of them, I can’t argue with that interpretation,” said James Carville, Bill Clinton’s longtime adviser. “What I want to know is how do you walk into a meeting after that [New Yorker] interview? How are you nice to your colleagues in the morning? How does this actually work?”
Asked if he ever accused Gergen of self-fellatio during the Clinton era, Carville chuckled at the thought. “I don’t think so,” he replied.
“What a Clown, Man...”
What’s most remarkable about Scaramucci’s visceral attacks on his colleagues is that they often come on a day when the White House is trying to promote major agenda items. On Thursday morning, Apple supplier Foxconn announced that it would be opening a new factory in Wisconsin, a square fit with the administration’s self-styled “MAGAnomics” and one that the White House press office tried to promote early in the day.
But by Thursday afternoon, that issue had dropped almost entirely off the media radar, due in part to Scaramucci’s salacious and tabloid-ready rants.
“They have a decent story to tell on these economic things, which is what Trump’s campaign was about and what Anthony's background is. But instead we’re talking about his feelings about Reince and Steve Bannon and his North Korea-esque praise of Donald Trump,” Tim Miller, a veteran Republican operative and communications director for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Maybe they don’t want to talk about health care and jobs. Maybe they just want to be talked about. And in that sense [Scaramucci] is doing a good job. Everyone wants to take selfies with him.”
Scaramucci says that everything he has done in his brief tenure at the White House has been in the service of the president. That, in fact, was the basis for his vulgar gripe against Bannon, who he accused of trying to build his own brand.
But as he rounds out his first week in the job, Scaramucci does appear to be doing a bit of brand-building himself, whether intentionally or not. He’s poised to be as much of a household name as outgoing White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
“I can’t think of any presidential staffer who has done more to distract from his boss’s message,” Tommy Vietor, who served as a spokesman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, observed. “He’s been about as effective at stopping leak as a boat captain firing a machine gun at his ship’s deck.”
“Lots of people confused on-the-record and off-the-record, but usually it’s a kid during his first day on the job... not the comms director,” Vietor added. “What a clown, man.”
Scaramucci has since called his New Yorker interview a “mistake,” and Axios reported Thursday that he “was under the impression the conversation wouldn't be made public.” In a statement to Axios, The New Yorker said Scaramucci had requested that just one small portion remain off the record, and that portion was not published.
Republican sources told The Daily Beast this week that Scaramucci has a weak grasp on basic public-relations practices and journalism terminology, including forgetting to request that sensitive conversations be kept off the record. For some in the Trump administration, The New Yorker debacle raises the specter that a political neophyte has been placed in one of the office’s most consequential posts.
“It’s almost worse if you believe his explanation,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “Either he was shitting on colleagues on-the-record, or he doesn’t understand what on-the-record means.”
One senior White House official, when asked about the now-infamous interview quotes, would only reply: “amateur amateur amateur.”
Officials spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to vent about The Mooch. Scaramucci did not respond to a request for comment on his week-one retrospective.
“I don’t think it helps build a winning team to spend a lot of time shooting at yourself,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a top outside Trump adviser, told The Daily Beast, regarding Scaramucci’s time in the West Wing. “My hope was that [Anthony] would focus on [taking on] Trump’s opponents not Trump’s staff.”
It’s not as if the job Scaramucci is filling isn’t weighty. Bill Burton, who was a deputy press secretary during the Obama administration’s early years, recalled how spooked he and others were of making simple mistakes inside the White House.
“I had the first Twitter account at the White House,” Burton recalled. “Go back and look at my first year of tweets. It’s press releases. It is so boring.”
The Daily Beast fact-checked this claim and it is true.
There was a reason for the caution. The words uttered from the administration’s press operation often have global import. Burton recalled the first time he briefed reporters while on Air Force One—the meticulous guidance he was given beforehand by the president’s economic and foreign-policy teams, and the precise wording he used to answer pointed questions. By the time the plane landed, the headline was blaring: “U.S. Warns China on Currency.”
“When they said U.S.,” Burton recalled with awe, “they meant Bill Burton from Buffalo, New York!”
Watching Scaramucci cavalierly handle briefings and spool gossip about his colleagues to press is a bit jarring.
“For as salty as language can get in politics, even off the record and behind the scene, it never got like that for us,” he explained. “And we had Rahm.”
—Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich