The Lesson Trump Hasn't Learned

Trump says that he surrounds himself with “the best people”—but too often, that means people like himself.  

Jim Young / Reuters

The world’s best Donald Trump impersonator is now in charge of White House communications—and if nothing else, it’s making for great television.

For evidence, look no further than Anthony Scaramucci’s mesmerizing Thursday morning interview with CNN. “The Mooch”—as he is known among his friends and admirers (a group that seems to include a growing number of reporters)—was coming off a late night spent waging a bitter and outrageously public battle against White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, when he called in to CNN’s morning show New Day. For the next 30 minutes, he put on a compulsively watchable performance that so precisely captured his boss’s style that it seemed designed to demoralize Alec Baldwin.

Scaramucci’s voice dripped with Trumpian machismo; he began sentences with “look” and “let me tell you something,” and ended them with “OK?” He careened unpredictably between combativeness and schmooziness in his exchange with anchor Chris Cuomo—threatening him one minute, then insisting he was “just teasing” the next. He punctuated his proclamations with as many redundant adverbs as he could get his hands on (“absolutely, completely, and totally reprehensible”), and let loose a rat-a-tat of chyron-ready metaphors in his candid descriptions of administration infighting (“the fish stinks from the head down”). You could almost imagine the president himself sitting next to Scaramucci, whispering lines into his ear.

That the president would be drawn to a figure like Scaramucci comes as little surprise to longtime Trump-watchers. For decades, he has made a habit of populating his inner-circle with a retinue of mini-mes—hard-charging, bellicose big talkers who idolize their boss and labor to perfect their imitations of him. When Trump says that he surrounds himself with “the best people,” he means people like himself.

Of course, this philosophy comes with consequences. As I wrote back in July 2015, shortly after Trump launched his campaign, there tends to be a Hunger Games-like climate among Trump’s various advisers and lieutenants. Perpetually uncertain of their place in the boss’s orbit, and desperate to survive, they compete ruthlessly for status and approval, never hesitating to bludgeon each other to death when the time comes.

During his CNN interview, Scaramucci diagnosed what he believes ails the White House he has just joined. “Under-confidence plus insecurity always equals paranoia and backstabbing.” What he failed to mention—but almost certainly knows—is that this is a feature, not a bug, in the fratricidal team of rivals that Trump has assembled.

As White House press secretary Sarah Sanders put it Thursday when she was asked about the latest round of infighting, “The president likes that type of competition and encourages it.”

So far at least, Scaramucci seems much more skilled than the other combatants who have vied for supremacy in the never-ending Trumplandia Civil War. Whereas aides like Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer could sometimes come off as rehearsed and a tad pathetic when they attempted to mimic Trump’s schtick, Scaramucci pulls it off completely. What’s more, his oft-stated and unabashed affection for the president seems to have won him the license to publicly knife those advisers who have fallen out of favor with Trump.

But amid all the palace intrigue, there remains a more fundamental issue that may ultimately determine the fate of Trump’s presidency—regardless of who survives the latest White House shakeup.

Consider the backdrop against which Scaramucci is undertaking his current power play against the chief of staff. The GOP’s top legislative priority of the past seven years is on the brink of total collapse on Capitol Hill. Investigators are circling the White House in their quest to determine whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. Military leaders are scrambling to respond to a seemingly out-of-nowhere presidential directive to ban transgender people from the Armed Forces. And an array of potential international crises threaten to erupt at any given moment, from Iran to North Korea.

And where is Trump? He is allowing—and very likely egging on—a hugely distracting, unavoidably disruptive intramural fight between two of his top White House aides. A lesson that the president still seems not to have learned: That which makes for the best television isn’t always what’s best for his administration, or the country.