The “death watch” is finally over.
Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
“This is really a lesson in life,” a source close to the White House told me last Saturday, “Priebus made a mistake with Anthony because he kept his enemies on the outside, not the inside. Anthony wasn’t part of the problem they’ve been having, so Anthony can look like the solution.”
At the time, Anthony Scaramucci, a political novice who gave up dreams of being a Hollywood star to make millions in finance, had just been hired as the White House communications director — news that surprised even the president’s closest advisers, including his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who in a normal White House would’ve been responsible for such a hiring decision. The press secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned in protest of Scaramucci’s appointment — signaling that those of his Establishment, Republican National Committee ilk, like Priebus, who had prevented Scaramucci from joining the administration from the outset, might not be long for Trump World.
“Reince is on death watch,” the source told me then. “One of the major selling points Reince had to get this position was that he could work with Congress, he could help navigate it, he’s got these relationships — it turns out that he really doesn’t.”
Predictions regarding matters of palace intrigue at the White House have been notoriously inaccurate in these early stages of the Trump administration. The president is an unpredictable and emotional decision-maker, and, until last Friday, rumors of an imminent staff shake-up had been merely that. People talk about warring factions on the inside, about staffers teaming up with one another against their enemies. But that’s only true in a temporary way; most everyone working for the president is in fact working for themselves, and in and surrounding this White House, everyone treats everyone else with thinly veiled hatred and obvious suspicion. Sometimes, when their interests align, they seem to be on the same side. But that can only last so long. And yet, when it comes to anonymously sourced guesses about an official’s continued employment, it has remained the safest option to just wait and see.
As it would turn out, the week would go precisely as my source guessed — though nobody could’ve known just how strange and colorful it would all be.
You know the rest by now: Scaramucci announced on Twitter that he was having the FBI investigate Priebus for suspected leaking (specifically of a document that was a matter of public record), then he deleted the tweet and claimed he didn’t mean to imply what he said. That night, a second source close to the White House told me matter of factly that Priebus was on the outs: “Tomorrow he’s going to go to the office and get ass-raped by Anthony and the president — but just verbally.” The following day, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza published an explosive interview conducted with Scaramucci just before his deleted tweet was sent, wherein he, among other things, confirmed he wanted the FBI to investigate Priebus, whom he described as, “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” (He also said Bannon was guilty of trying to “suck” his “own cock.”)
In any other administration, Scaramucci would be out. In this one, however, he’s safe — for now. The Wall Street Journal reported that the president was disappointed in Priebus for not responding to Scaramucci’s fire with fire of his own — a common Trump refrain, after all, is that when he gets hit, he hits back harder. And to make matters worse, the Republican health-care bill failed again — yet another legislative setback that reflected poorly on his abilities. From Air Force One on the tarmac in Washington early Friday evening, as it cinematically poured, Trump announced that Priebus was gone. Taking his place would be Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
Scaramucci had served as a cable-news surrogate and economic adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, but he’d been prevented from getting an official job in the administration by his many enemies, which included everyone from Spicer and Priebus to Omarosa, the Apprentice villain who reportedly wanted the office Scaramucci planned to occupy for herself, since it had an unobstructed view of the Washington Monument. Friday night, as the political world reacted to news of Priebus’s firing, a source close to Scaramucci texted me a kissy-face emoji followed by the word “wins,” that symbol being shorthand for Mooch, Scaramucci’s nickname.
In the end — or as of now — missing out on the beginning of the administration was good for the kissy-face. “Trump is unhappy whenever he gets bad press,” a source close to the president told me recently, explaining his sour mood. “Someone must be blamed. He’s not going to blame himself. He’s not going to say, ‘You are a failure. You fucked up. That’s why things aren’t going well.’ Someone must be blamed, and that someone is Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus.”
They were easy marks, since, with their histories of Establishment conservatism and their lack of New York cred, they never quite felt like Trump guys. In and out of the White House, Priebus was referred to by all manner of derogatory nicknames centered on the male anatomy, like Rancid Penis, which was coined in 2012 by Roger Stone, Reince Penis, the Penis, and Little Penis. And the president, according to various reports, took great joy in humiliating him, too, even once ordering him to kill a fly during a meeting.
The source close to the White House said this: “Juxtapose Anthony and Priebus — who is Trump going to like more? Who is Trump going to listen to more? Who is Trump going to want to represent him?”
Still, even without Priebus or Spicer, Scaramucci is entering a White House full of potential landmines. Bannon had cautioned against his hiring because he wanted a communications professional in the role instead, for instance, and that was before the whole sucking-his-own-cock thing.
“This isn’t a normal presidency,” the source said. “Trump always likes shiny new toys. Anthony will be the golden boy for the next couple of months.”
“Trump is taking a gamble on Scaramucci,” the source added. “But if he makes Trump look bad on this, he’s going to fall out of favor very soon — and if he thinks Reince was mistreated by the president? Wait until he sees how the president will treat him.”