The rise and fall of the Mooch
After former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly got sworn in as President Trump's new chief of staff on Monday, Trump predicted that the retired Marine general would do a "spectacular" job in replacing Reince Priebus. It didn't take long for Kelly to add to the spectacle at the White House — or, perhaps better put, bring the spectacle to a close. Almost as soon as Kelly began his tenure as Trump's adjutant, he booted Trump crony Anthony Scaramucci out of the White House and established himself as the top dog in the office.
Give Scaramucci this much credit — he may have set a record for tenure among presidential advisers, and not in a good way. His 10 days as White House communications director amounts to less than half of the tenure of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who officially served in that role for 25 days. And while some defend Flynn as the target of unfair attacks, no one doubts that the man who calls himself "the Mooch" managed to do this all on his own.
Scaramucci's debut promised a more polished approach to the daily briefings and broader communications strategy. Reporters in the White House briefing room gave Scaramucci high marks after his first day on the job — just a week ago last Friday, if you can believe it — impressed with his poise and businesslike approach to the job. But it didn't take long for poise to turn into arrogance and professionalism to transform into personal attacks, and for Scaramucci to usurp the role usually reserved for chiefs of staff rather than comms directors.
Two days after his appointment — which precipitated the resignation of Press Secretary Sean Spicer — Scaramucci made the rounds on Sunday news shows to explain that his first mission was to plug the leaks coming out of the White House. Four days later, Scaramucci openly accused Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of being a leaker, and claimed that other senior White House officials were engaging in "treasonous" behavior with leaks. "One hundred and fifty years ago," he told CNN's Chris Cuomo, "people would have been hung for those kinds of leaks." Scaramucci claimed his jurisdiction on leaks extended to the entire White House rather than just the communications department, suggested that he and the FBI had conferred on who might be leaking, and then declared that his position didn't answer to the chief of staff. The Mooch had Oval Office privileges, and was the new alpha dog.
All of that might have been simply colorful had it not been for a bizarre rant during an on-the-record interview with New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza. Scaramucci called Priebus "a f--king paranoid schizophrenic." He then told Lizza, somewhat ironically, that he wasn't interested in "build[ing] my own brand off the f--king strength of the president," unlike chief strategist Stephen Bannon, about whom Scaramucci used an obscene (and physically challenging) autoerotic metaphor.
Priebus had enough at this point, opting to resign, and his departure created a critical decision point for President Trump. The next chief of staff would have to either be empowered to take control of the entire White House apparatus, or Trump would have to ride herd on continuing chaos, leaving the impression that Scaramucci would be the new locus of access to the president.
As it turns out, Trump chose wisely, although some wondered whether Kelly had. He left a stable position with clear lines of authority to take over chaos that Trump appeared to encourage. That didn't look like a good fit for a grizzled Marine combat commander. Would Trump allow Kelly to impose some discipline and get the West Wing focused on policy and governance, or would Scaramucci's personal access undermine Kelly's authority?
It only took a few hours to find the answer to that question. It became clear almost immediately that Scaramucci's was not a voluntary resignation, as Priebus and the White House had characterized last week's personnel change. A White House press release noted that Scaramucci "felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team," but other reporting made it more clear that the Mooch didn't just decide to turn the job down. CNN's White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny reported that Scaramucci was "essentially escorted off the White House property earlier this afternoon," which indicates an abrupt termination rather than a freely offered resignation.
It seems that a new alpha dog has indeed arrived. Following Scaramucci's departure, new Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made it clear that Kelly would have "full authority" for the administration. Even Jared Kushner and Bannon would now have to report to Kelly, and Kelly would direct everyone's workflow.
The real question will be how long Trump sticks to that discipline. It's the best potential for an effective administration, and to unify the White House to focus on the mission rather than personal survival. Chaos breeds inefficiencies and conflict, as any military commander could well attest. If Trump allows Kelly to do his job, it might be the most effective appointment he has made within the administration. If not, no one will have to tell John Kelly to leave — he'll leave rather than enable failure.