Anthony Scaramucci, the flashy financier President Donald Trump hired to overhaul the White House communications operation, is exercising a broad mandate from the president and intends to follow through on threats to purge aides he believes are disloyal to Trump and leaking to the press, officials with knowledge of the fast-moving effort said Monday.
Just four days into the job, Scaramucci has moved into Trump’s inner sanctum and is now described by some colleagues as almost family to the president – in contrast to his predecessor, outgoing press secretary Sean Spicer, who was described more like the help.
In consultation with confidants inside and outside the administration, Scaramucci has begun undertaking an audit of the White House’s dozens of press and communications staffers. He is meeting one-on-one with aides in an effort to understand each person’s contributions and weed out those he determines are not working hard enough to defend the president through the crises besieging the White House, according to several of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal issues.
The potential shake-up has exacerbated long-simmering tensions between Scaramucci and chief of staff Reince Priebus, according to people familiar with the dynamic, despite the outward, if forced, public displays of unity between the two men.
Scaramucci has long complained to associates that some White House staffers have been more focused on managing the image of Priebus than on defending Trump and promoting his agenda. An informal list of names, including several officials who previously worked under Priebus and Spicer at the Republican National Committee, has been circulating among Scaramucci allies as those whose jobs may be in jeopardy.
One of Priebus’ deputies, Katie Walsh, was pushed out of the White House earlier this year, and Scaramucci’s planned overhaul is likely to leave Priebus even more isolated in the West Wing.
Scaramucci also has vowed to root out unauthorized leaks to journalists from White House officials – an issue that has consumed and enraged the president. Over the weekend, Scaramucci delivered an unusual public warning to the staff he is inheriting: If you are leaking, prepare to be fired.
“We’ve got to get the leaks stopped,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If we don’t get the leaks stopped – I am a businessperson, and so I will take dramatic action to stop those leaks.”
Scaramucci did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but other White House officials, as well as outside Trump loyalists, described Scaramucci’s efforts so far. They said he is likely to move quickly to make changes, pointing out that the president has little patience for reading what one informal adviser called “reorganization stories” in the press.
Trump has empowered Scaramucci to make the changes that he sees fit, these people said. While the communications director traditionally reports to the chief of staff, Scaramucci reports directly to Trump.
Scaramucci said Friday that the aides whose jobs are secure – other than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was promoted to replace Spicer as press secretary – are Hope Hicks, the director of strategic communications, and Dan Scavino, the director of social media, both of whom have the top rank of assistant to the president and are personally close to Trump.
“Anthony’s extremely empowered,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign and transition adviser. “The president deserves a top-tier communications shop, and with Anthony they get a top-tier talent to manage the communications shop. We’re going to see a communications shop that’s dedicated to pushing the president’s agenda and defending the president, and I can’t say that that’s always been the case.”
Trump respects Scaramucci’s financial success and his television performances, in which Scaramucci both defends and flatters the president while simultaneously charming and jousting with journalists, people familiar with the president’s thinking said. Trump has been especially taken by Scaramucci’s confidence and his biography as a Long Island kid who became a wealthy Manhattan player.
Inside the White House, the mood surrounding the shift from Spicer to Scaramucci has been mixed. Some aides are enthusiastic – “It’s a whole new day,” one said – and say Scaramucci is reinvigorating an embattled staff.
These aides also privately voiced good riddance to Spicer, an experienced operative who some viewed as a poor manager in a stressful environment. Some recounted with glee an anecdote published in the Wall Street Journal of Spicer stealing a mini-fridge from junior staffers working in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and lugging the icebox to his West Wing office late one evening after many of his colleagues had gone home.
But other aides express immense sympathy for Spicer, believing he did the best anyone could have done given the sometimes impossible task of explaining the unexplainable, and performing every day for a critical boss who always believed he was his own best messenger.
The existential question for Scaramucci is whether he can truly change the chaotic environment in the White House, much of which emanates from the 71-year-old man in the Oval Office who shows little willingness to change his behavior.
“The majority of the communications problems have been caused by the president going off script and blowing up a well-planned message week with a single tweet, and it doesn’t matter who the staffers are in the communications office if the principals can’t get on the same page with the message and exercise some self-discipline,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “Unlike every other staffer, maybe Anthony Scaramucci will be able to persuade the president to stay on message, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Scaramucci wants the communications shop focused on serving a single client – the president – and is looking outside of the White House to recruit new advisers with professional experience, especially on television. He is considering bringing on corporate communications specialists as well as people who have on-air experience, according to people briefed on his plans. Scaramucci has deep contacts at Fox News, where he was a paid contributor and hosted a weekly show on Fox Business Network.
Wayne Berman, a longtime Republican operative whose name has been previously floated as a possible chief of staff, is scheduled to meet with Scaramucci on Tuesday at the White House, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Rather than try to develop a communications strategy that restricts Trump’s public comments and engagement with the media, Scaramucci is trying to help channel the populist and pugilistic instincts that propelled Trump’s candidacy.
“You can either adapt Trump into the presidency, or you can adapt the presidency into Trump,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “The latter is the only way it will ever work, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”
Over the past two months, Spicer all but stopped allowing television cameras to record or broadcast the White House’s near-daily news briefings. The move was seen by some critics as a survival strategy for Spicer, because it meant the president could no longer critique his performances on television.
But on Monday, in one of his first acts as communications director, Scaramucci – who on the circuit of Sunday shows directly addressed the president through the television – reversed Spicer’s directive.
Turning to the president’s favorite medium of Twitter, Scaramucci declared, “The TV Cameras are back on.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker