Trump's New Hire to Tout Boss's Wins 'More Aggressively'
After six months of upheaval, firings, legislative flameouts and mounting investigations, President Trump reshuffled his White House staff Friday, naming Wall Street hedge fund financier Anthony Scaramucci to become his communications director, while accepting the resignation of Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Scaramucci, rather than the president, announced that the new public spokesperson for the United States is now Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s deputy, the third woman to hold that job in White House history.
Scaramucci will report to the president and Sanders will report to the new communications chief, who will begin work in the West Wing Aug. 15.
Trump said little publicly on Friday about his goals in shaking up a team that has been rocky from the start. The president presides over a West Wing staff of uneven aptitude, motivated by competing goals and organized in a manner that exacerbates internal tensions.
Far from a “well-oiled machine,” as the president once described his White House operations, the West Wing continues to encompass fiefdoms scrambled by Trump’s demands for loyalty, constant affirmation, and volcanic temper.
In naming Scaramucci, who has yet to complete the sale of his investment firm, SkyBridge Capital, Trump dismissed advice from Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Spicer and others. They had tried for months to recruit experienced political and crisis communications experts with ties to Congress and the GOP political world. They were unsuccessful, and the president instead turned to a business friend who repeatedly expressed his love for Trump Friday, and his determination to explain the president’s successes “more aggressively.”
Trump has made no mystery of his belief that he is unfairly covered by the news media, is discounted even by Republicans in Congress, and hounded by federal and congressional sleuths who are probing his family members, finances and business dealings as part of the ongoing Russia investigations.
Spicer, who lost the president’s confidence after becoming a ratings sensation and a late-night comedy punching bag because of gaffes and his grim countenance at the White House podium, resigned rather than report to Scaramucci. Spicer plans to depart the White House in late August.
Why did the president make the changes?
Trump believes he has communications problems that can be remedied with the services of TV-savvy loyalists and an army of ferocious defenders. With his job approval numbers under 40 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, the president knows he will be judged, in part, on the outcome of the ongoing Russia investigations, by next year’s midterm elections, and the GOP legislative and policy agenda blocked by his own party in the Senate, and by detractors in the courts.
Scaramucci, viewed by Trump as a peer more than a subordinate, has called the Russia investigations “a hoax,” and told reporters Friday, “I think we’re doing an amazing job.”
Before he comes aboard full-time, Scaramucci, who holds an advisory, interim post with the federal Export-Import Bank, will see whether health care legislation moves ahead or becomes a prominent defeat for GOP lawmakers and the president.
This week, Trump told the New York Times in an interview that he was eager to move on after four months of dealing with the Obamacare repeal-and-replace drama that has surprised him with its complexity.
“I want to either get it done or not get it done,” the president said after lunching with the deeply divided Senate GOP caucus. “If we don’t get it done, we are going to watch Obamacare go down the tubes, and we’ll blame the Democrats. And at some point, they are going to come and say, `You’ve got to help us.’”
Trump’s political analysis has been disputed by many Republicans, especially those who believe their party is being branded as cold-hearted and unsympathetic to the health care struggles faced by millions of working-class Americans.
Scaramucci praised Trump as a naturally gifted politician who he believes is correct in his assessments more times than he is wrong.
“I predict that the president will get a win in health care,” he said. “I've seen him in operation over the last 20-plus years. The president has really good karma, OK? And the world turns back to him. He's genuinely a wonderful human being and I think as members of Congress get to know him better and get comfortable with him, they're going to let him lead them to the right things for the American people."
Will the changes Trump made fix the problems he’s identified?
Political scientists and presidential historians who have studied modern presidents argue that White House communications troubles are more often the byproducts of major fault lines, which aren’t repaired without changes more significant than hiring new spokespeople and TV surrogates.
“I don’t think the problem is the staff,” said presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, who has written extensively about White House communications and presidential transitions, and continues to conduct research in the West Wing. “The problems are political and policy problems,” she said.
Trump, at 71, with scant political or government experience, believes his playbook for success is the election he won against the odds. He is increasingly preoccupied with the Russia investigations, and his attention easily wanders from the legislative and policy challenges of governing -- the terrain over which he has clout -- to the special counsel’s probe, over which his impact is mostly negative when he tries to muscle in.
By trying to be the decider, the strategist, the salesman, the communicator, the health care magician, the top negotiator, and the legal expert, Trump weakens his heft and confuses his narrative.
How does the new communications director see his West Wing role?
Scaramucci, a glib, fast-talking and telegenic personality who said again and again that he “loves” the president, offered few insights about changes he will make.
Will journalists see the return to regular on-camera briefings? Maybe. More presidential news conferences? Possibly. More factual, truthful and transparent information?
“I hope you can feel that from me just from my body language, that's the kind of person I am. I'm going to do the best I can,” Scaramucci said.
The president’s new adviser said almost nothing about the presidency as opposed to Trump, or the country at large, and instead focused his attention on his kinship with the president and with the working-class political base of supporters who put Trump in the White House.
Scaramucci, who has a Harvard law degree, was coy about how he plans to interact with the president’s outside legal team, which currently consists of conservative Jay Sekulow and criminal law specialist John Dowd. Trump recently hired Washington criminal defense attorney Ty Cobb to become a White House special counsel, primarily to deal with the Russia investigations from inside the West Wing.
“I’m close personal friends with Jay Sekulow. I have a relationship with John Dowd. And I'm going to talk with [White House Counsel] Don McGahn and other people just to make sure that we're on message, and we're handling ourselves in the most appropriate way possible. That's the best I can say about that,” he told RealClearPolitics.
Scaramucci said he had not yet met Cobb, who does not begin at the White House until the end of July.
Will there be additional White House staff changes?
Almost certainly; it’s one of the easiest bets to make with Donald Trump.
Scaramucci praised Priebus Friday, but conceded there are tensions between them. He is close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and for that reason is less enamored of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who has clashed with Kushner in recent months.
Although previous presidents who were similarly under siege were persuaded to enlarge and diversify their teams of advisers, and to replace loyalists and campaign types with seasoned Washington hands, Trump thinks differently. He respects businessmen, wealthy New Yorkers, men with military experience, and his family.
And he demands their uncritical support without always giving it in return.
“Loyalty to Trump is the most important thing, and when he feels under stress, he assumes it’s caused by those who are not in the loyalty circle,” said Kumar, whose White House Transition Project has examined the president’s staff and spaghetti-tangled organizational chart. “So in a sense he’s making the circle smaller.”
Hunkering down and assuming that more insistent, aggressive communications will produce more pleasing results might work in a family real estate business, but not with the presidency of the United States.
Even the history of modern scandals in the West Wing illustrates that when presidents called the plays themselves while surrounded by “yes” men, the results were costly.
In any national emergency or major event, crisis communications in government demands more experienced input, not less; establishing more coordination, not less; and wielding more discipline along with disclosure, not less.
That was the lesson of the Ebola scare during President Obama’s second term. And it was the lesson of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which President George W. Bush absorbed too late.
“Trump is trying to use his business analysis to navigate all of the political institutions he has to deal with,” Kumar added. “When he was in business, he could make all the decisions himself. But that’s just not the reality of our political system.”
That’s why some observers listened closely to Scaramucci and wondered what the president had accomplished, other than the feel-good reassurance of hearing his perspectives applauded with adulation.
“Here's the commitment that I'm making to you and to the American people and to the president,” Trump’s new hire told reporters. “I'm here to serve him and I'm here to serve the people inside the West Wing.”