The body of former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci was discovered on the White House lawn Monday. Scaramucci’s neatly-coiffed head, along with the mushier, more panicked capitulum of former chief of staff and freshly-resigned rival Reince Priebus, was found a short distance away, gored on the White House gates as a message to their replacements.
The heads – you’re looking at the heads – are beginning to pile up in number. Donald Trump rose to fame as a TV star with his cruel punchline firings of hapless reality-show contestants. As chief executive of the world’s mightiest nuclear superpower, he has now spent most of his first term sowing panic around the world with an ever-tightening pattern of purges and forced resignations.
Like Soviet Commissars promoted during the Great Terror, Trump appointees begin composing their last words from the moment they ascend to high office. The fallen include an FBI Director (James Comey), an NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs (Craig Deare, escorted off the White House grounds for criticising Trump in off-the-record comments at the Woodrow Wilson Center), the first female White House usher (Angella Reid), a top Middle East adviser (Derek Harvey, a longtime intelligence official quietly whacked last week in what was seen as a message to Steve Bannon), an Acting Attorney General (Sally Yates), and a host of others.
There have been many resignations, a few of them perhaps truly voluntary – like Disney CEO Bob Iger and Tesla chief Elon Musk deciding to bounce from a White House Advisory Council after his Orangeness pulled out of the Paris Accords – but a great many others seem to have been “resigned.”
Michael Flynn, Priebus, and former Priebus Deputy Katie Walsh come to mind here. The most public posts are the most perilous. The next White House Director of Communications will already be Trump’s fourth – you may have forgotten about Mike Dubke, who served for 85 days from February through the end of May. That doesn’t even factor in assistant press secretaries like Michael Short, who ate the cyanide pill in the form of a hastily written resignation text last week.
Short rushed to quit after seeing a Politico report indicating that he was about to be fired. Anthony Scaramucci, who reportedly was about to do the firing, said he was terribly upset “as a human being and as a Roman Catholic” that the press somehow knew Short’s fate before Short did. Scaramucci himself was out a few days later, and the week-plus on the job with Trump only cost him his marriage – his wife Deidre reportedly filed for divorce after “Mooch” elected to skip the birth of their child to be with his president.
In Mooch’s defence, he texted after the birth – “Congratulations, I’ll pray for the child” – but this surprisingly did little to mollify his soon-to-be ex-wife.
The maelstrom of firings speaks to the peculiar chaos of the Trump White House. Basically, there is no successful formula for bureaucratic survival in this administration.
The twin killings of Scaramucci and Priebus tell the whole story. The two men represented opposite strategies for surviving Castle Trumpsylvania, and both turned out to be equally ineffective.
Scaramucci committed the cardinal sin in the Trump White House, getting more press than the president. The kiss of death was probably a Breitbart article about his brief but colorful reign. “Move over President Donald Trump. You are yesterday’s news,” the piece said. “It seems like this is now The Anthony Scaramucci Show. And Trump better get used to it.”
If this was return fire from Scaramucci-accused autofellator Steve Bannon, who after all used to run Breitbart, it hit its mark. The bestubbled Pope of the alt-right understands the “never outshine Trump” dynamic better than anyone. Bannon himself was nearly ousted (and was in fact removed from the National Security Council) after Time magazine ran a somber cover portrait of Trump’s Svengali in full pseudo-intellectual chin-scratch over the headline, “THE GREAT MANIPULATOR.”
The piece asked if Bannon was the second-most powerful man in the world. This was actually was a mild take compared to the New York Times, which ran an editorial questioning, “President Bannon?”
The wave of press depicting Trump as a brainless puppet with Bannon’s manipulative hand thrust up his clacker prompted an avalanche of leaks from inside the Trump White House, apparently from the Jared Kushner side of the building, all targeting the ex-Breitbart chief. It also led to an abrupt policy reversal with a missile attack into Syria, a move that was widely seen as Trump wriggling free of Bannon’s irresponsibly populist/isolationist tendencies.
The fact that Bannon was not fired at that time has led to occasional speculation that he remains the most powerful voice in the White House (GQ, in an admirably blatant attempt to get Bannon axed, has continued to call him the “shadow president”). In the recent context, the Breitbart piece telling Trump to “move over” and “get used” to the Scaramucci show sealed the hedge-funder’s fate, as even the New York Times wondered if the Mooch era was “overshadowing” Trump.
The Scaramucci/Bannon rule seems to suggest that the best strategy for survival in the Trump White House is to lay low, keep your face off cable, and genuflect to His Highness as shamelessly and excessively as possible. No dice!
Priebus, a born bootlicker and capitulator whose spine was surgically removed years ago during his first term as RNC chairman, tried exactly this strategy, and ended up just as dead as Scaramucci.
There are countless stories attesting to Priebus’ extreme unwillingness to confront the president. Granted the White House Chief of Staff job with sweeping assurances from Trump that he would have full autonomy and control in the White House, Priebus ultimately was reduced – this is according to the latest leaks – to listening at the door of the Oval Office in an attempt to guess who was meeting with the president.
Priebus put up with everything, including being groped on stage by Bannon, ripped in public by Trump pal Christopher Ruddy (“He’s in way over his head,” Ruddy said of Reince), and not-so-subtly blamed for a host of Trump administration failures (a February Breitbart piece blaming Reince for the botched immigration ban was a classic example).
Priebus took it all in a soldierly way – well, more like a grovelling, frat pledge-y way – and yet in the most crucial moment, his lack of backbone was held against him. Scaramucci had done the opposite of Priebus, bragging about his new influence and insisting he had a direct line to the man with the funny hair. He ridiculed Priebus in an epic nighttime rant to New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, calling him a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” who had “cock-blocked” Scaramucci and systematically leaked Trumplandia secrets to the media.
To this Priebus did what he’d always done – nothing, eating the humiliation like a meat loaf. He told fellow self-flagellating yes man Wolf Blitzer he “wasn’t going to get in the mud in those kind of things.”
This was the high road, seemingly, but not to Trump, who hilariously was furious with Priebus for refusing to “fight back.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump was “dismissive” of the fact that Priebus didn’t stick up for himself. As the Huffington Post and others have pointed out, Trump likes competition among subordinates, and doesn’t much go for turning the other cheek (or, in Priebus’ case, “turning the other face”).
“Get even with people,” Trump told an audience in Australia, to cheers, many years ago. “If they screw you, you screw them back 10 times as hard.”
This is a great strategy for creating reality show drama, and Trump has certainly done a fantastic job of that. The Trump White House of late has become a must-see drama combining multiple reality genres, with the fire-the-loser format of The Apprentice merged with geeks-trapped-in-a-house concepts like Real World or the more apropos Estate of Panic.
It’s great television, but impossible politics. Trump, if he had any brains at all, would have kept Scaramucci at all costs. “Mooch” would have mesmerised the media with his ribald insanity and dragged the cameras away from Trump’s impending indictment/impeachment, perhaps even giving Trump enough time to form a legal defence or an interstellar escape plan.
But even in a crisis, Trump cannot take not being the center of attention. Hiring a mulish Marine four-star general to take charge of the White House sounds like a good idea and will probably draw plaudits from the credential-obsessed corporate press (particularly if Kelly succeeds in convincing Trump to launch a war somewhere). But hiring a military taskmaster to impose message discipline is useless if the new general has no power to keep the loudest mouth of the lot – Trump’s own – shut.
Some see in all these manoeuvrings an effort to purge GOP loyalists like Spicer and Priebus. Others see a Nixonian lunge to hire thugs in a crisis. This to me is all overthinking things. There is no strategy. This White House is just a succession of spasmodic Trump failures, with a growing line of people taking the fall for each of them. You can fall with honor, or without, entertainingly or not. But if you join this White House, fall you will. It’s only a matter of time.