Watching Anthony Scaramucci’s formal introduction as White House communications director on Friday, it was clear why President Trump wanted him for the gig.
Even though he’s never worked as a spokesman for anyone other than himself (and a great spokesman he was, bringing wide renown to an underachieving hedge fund), Scaramucci looked at home behind the lectern in the White House Briefing Room. Moreover, he was everything that Sean Spicer—the long-suffering press secretary who announced his resignation today—was not.
Where Spicer was nervous, tentative, and likely to stumble over his words, Scaramucci was smooth, relaxed, and confident. Where Spicer’s suits were often ill-fitting, Scaramucci was sharply tailored. Where Spicer was a career cog in the Republican machine, Scaramucci is a swaggering New Yorker who speaks in the same clunky business pidgin as the president and can drop names nearly as prodigiously too. (Goldman Sachs, Yankees president Randy Levine, and Harvard Law School were a few of Scaramucci’s mentions during his brief spell at the mic.) Where Spicer’s professions of praise for the president always seemed mousy, pleading, perhaps a little browbeaten, Scaramucci brought the sincere sycophancy that comes from truly adoring Donald Trump. When did Spicer ever say he “loves” the president?
Spicer wasn’t averse to offering total nonsense at the podium; he famously began his tenure by marching out and scolding the press for reporting, accurately, that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was smaller than at Obama’s, a humiliating duel with truth from which Spicer never quite recovered. But he seemed to wince at least a little as he lied. Scaramucci was a study in contrasts there, too.
“Is it your commitment to give accurate information to the best of your ability from that podium?” a reporter asked him Friday.
“I almost feel I don't have to answer that question,” he said. “You can tell from me and my body language what kind of person I am.”
The answer was, at least, appealingly open to interpretation. He was certainly not the kind of person who was going to commit to not lying. Might as well set the expectations realistically.
There are important questions yet to answer about Scaramucci’s role. Typically, the White House communications director has been a PR professional who plays a behind-the-scenes strategic and managerial role. That’s how Mike Dubke, who held the job from February to May, approached it, though Trump was displeased with his work.
What Scaramucci brings to the job is a resume as a smooth and assertive presence on TV. On Friday, after announcing that Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be promoted to press secretary, he said he didn’t plan to be at the lectern often. It may be hard to keep him away: Even if he didn’t love being there as much as he evidently did, his smooth, confident, fast-talking performance seems more like what Trump wants from a press secretary than Sanders, who, though slightly more agile than Spicer, is a slow, careful speaker. Sanders’s signature move is to beg ignorance of specific issues; Scaramucci cherishes the chance to spin.
All of this is, again, a demonstration of why Trump wanted Scaramucci for the job. He has been convinced for months that what ails his administration is communications failures.
“President Donald Trump is considering broad changes to his communications team and strategy, which he blames for failing to contain the controversy surrounding his firing of former FBI Director James Comey, according to multiple administration officials,” The Wall Street Journal reported in May.
“As the White House faces another week of turmoil, sources tell ABC News President Donald Trump is laying a large chunk of the blame squarely on his communications team,” ABC said.
“Privately, Trump has lashed out at the communications office—led by press secretary Sean Spicer and communications director Michael Dubke—and has spoken candidly with advisers about a broad shake-up that could include demotions or dismissals,” The Washington Post reported.
It’s natural that Trump would view his challenge in communications terms. He is, above, all, a salesman. His gospel, as has been much remarked, is not Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. His business career was built not, as he maintains, on deals but on marketing. The Art of the Deal, his many franchising arrangements for both buildings and consumers goods, and his star turn on The Apprentice were triumphs of messaging, convincing the general public that he was the mogul he never quite became. His presidential campaign walked the same path. He offered few concrete policy ideas, and those that he did (Build the wall! Ban Muslims! Repeal and replace Obamacare with something cheaper, better, and more conservative!) were shallowly thought out. But he knew how to grab the media spotlight and with it voter attention, and that brought him a narrow victory in November 2016.
Now Trump finds himself a historically embattled president. His legislative agenda is stalled, his executive orders have fared poorly in the courts, his foreign policy is chaotic and subject to dispute among advisers, and an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller threatens legal action against the president’s top aides, his family members, and perhaps even himself. Trump, who has little understanding of policy, foreign affairs, or the law, naturally sees this as a problem of communication, just requiring a little positive thinking and a better messenger. SNL’s obsession with Sean Spicer, the wall-to-wall coverage of his departure, and the rockstar treatment afforded Scaramucci by the press Friday no doubt feed Trump’s judgment.
If he were right, Scaramucci might be exactly the trick he was looking for. But since these are not all marketing problems, Scaramucci is the right answer to the wrong question. During Friday’s briefing, Scaramucci told reporters he sought a “de-escalation” of the tensions between the White House and the press, and as he stepped down, he blew a kiss to the assembled journalists. How long will the lovefest last when it becomes clear to Trump and Scaramucci that messaging can’t fix everything?