LAS VEGAS—All, in their own way, are castoffs from Trumpworld. But this week finds them in a circus of a different sort.
A handful of former and wannabe administration officials have descended on the Bellagio Hotel to speak at an annual conference put on by one of their own: Anthony Scaramucci, the investment executive whose stint in the West Wing lasted only 11 days. The summit, called SALT, is a kind of reunion for these Trump discards, who either were hired and fired at the president’s behest, or never landed the enticing job that he had dangled.
They’re celebrities here. Walking through the main ballroom, past a reception area where a gleaming blue Rolls-Royce is on display and the Fox Business Network has set up its cameras, John Kelly gets stopped again and again. Entrepreneurs and corporate executives all want to shake the hand of President Donald Trump’s second chief of staff—and, long gone from the White House, a smiling Kelly happily obliges.
Yet all of the castoffs still bear scars from an association with Trump, their ties spanning every phase of his political career, from the campaign, to the transition, to the presidency. They were present for some of the most dramatic and perplexing episodes of the past three years. And in at least one case, the wounds are still very fresh.
Stephen Moore spoke at a panel Wednesday called “Fed Future,” yet whatever the future holds for the nation’s Federal Reserve, Moore won’t be part of it. Trump sought to nominate him for a seat on the board, but Moore’s bid collapsed last week amid media reports that showed he had made demeaning comments about women over the years. CNN, for example, had dug up old columns that Moore had written as an economics commentator in which he said women shouldn’t be permitted to referee college basketball games.
“Did I say some outrageous things? Yes. And I apologized for it,” Moore told me after his appearance, sitting at a hallway table near the “Glamsquad” room, where hairstylists worked their magic.
Trump had encouraged Moore to hang in and fight for Senate confirmation, Moore said, but he decided the pummeling was enough. He likened himself to a bloodied boxer whom the White House kept pushing back into the ring for another punishing round. In a final conversation with Trump last week, he told the president he felt like he had let him down. Trump disagreed. “He said, ‘No, you didn’t let me down. This was a great fight,’” Moore told me, adding that there were likely more reports to come. “Look, I have a two-mile-long paper trail. It wasn’t going to stop. There was going to be another story the next day, and another and another,” he said. “It was going to be too much. It was stressful and traumatic for my family. And we decided to cut our losses.”
A session billed as “The Past, Present & Future of Trump” showcased two officials who gravitated to Trump’s orbit in the early days of the 2016 campaign: former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been the first senator to endorse Trump, and ex–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who competed against Trump in the Republican primary and later led his transition team.
Sessions’s story is one of the strangest of the Trump era. His endorsement, given his background as a longtime Alabama lawmaker, helped legitimize Trump’s candidacy long before the rank-and-file GOP coalesced around the reality-TV star. Trump made him attorney general, but the gratitude ended soon afterward. Incensed by Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump subjected him to multiple rounds of public humiliation before firing him right after the midterm elections.
The conference was Sessions’s chance to tell the world how he felt about it all—to say, perhaps, that Trump was out of line. What was it like to be on the receiving end of Trump’s Twitter tirades? asked the panel’s moderator, the MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle.
But Sessions said … not much. Indeed, he sounded much like the Trump loyalist who proudly put on a red MAGA hat at the February 2016 rally in Huntsville, Alabama, where he offered his endorsement. “I think it was clear that the president was very upset” by his recusal, Sessions told the audience.
Christie, Sessions’s partner on the panel, also knows what it’s like to be publicly undermined by Trump. Passed over for the vice presidency in 2016, Christie spent months helping prepare the Trump team to take over the White House if he won, only to be pushed out of his role after the election and replaced by the incoming vice president, Mike Pence.
But while Christie isn’t part of Trump’s present, he said he isn’t ruling out a place in the president’s future. He told Ruhle that he’d take the right job in the Trump administration if it came along, though he left the position a mystery. “Let me rest your mind,” Christie told Ruhle. The president “knows.”
A former U.S. attorney, he has long been thought to covet the attorney-general job. “Does it rhyme with ‘schmattorney menaral’?” Ruhle pressed. Christie revealed nothing.
The real draw came Wednesday night, when Scaramucci interviewed Kelly. It had the potential to be quite a spectacle. After all, Kelly was the one who fired Scaramucci, and, afterward, Scaramucci was sharply critical of Kelly’s leadership inside the West Wing. What’s more, the public hasn’t heard much from Kelly since he parted ways with Trump in December. They sat alone onstage in suits and ties, their chairs side by side, with Scaramucci holding large note cards displaying the name of the conference. But there was little spectacle to be had: Their 45-minute conversation onstage was cordial. As I heard from Scaramucci in an interview this week, he and Kelly reconciled earlier this year.
Though they’re very different people—Kelly a former Marine Corps general and Scaramucci a New York investment–type and an entrepreneur—the pair have more in common than would seem on the surface. Neither had worked in the White House before. Both were expected to be mature figures, in their own ways, who would bring order to a tumultuous operation. Both would become targets of leaks and bad press.
Onstage, Kelly said he once asked an aide to figure out how many news stories about him were negative. The answer came back: about 1,000. Scaramucci described his experience similarly to me earlier this week: “I was only in the hot seat for 11 days,” he said, “but I got more press than O. J. Simpson.”
The two men explained what it was like to advise a president who is supremely confident in his own judgment. “Let’s talk about Twitter for a second,” Scaramucci said. “Did you ever provide him with feedback on his Twitter use? I have—unsuccessfully.” Kelly replied that he didn’t see it as his job to corral Trump. Rather, he said he tried to set up the machinery for Trump to make rational decisions based on full, unbiased briefings. (A laudable goal, sure, but Trump’s zigzagging positions and surprise pronouncements suggest there’s still plenty of freelancing.) “People have said I never controlled him,” Kelly said. “It’s not my job when I was there. Control the president of the United States?”
Kelly told Scaramucci he never tried to stop the president from using Twitter. “He would ask me periodically, ‘Hey, did you see that Twitter thing I sent out? What did you think?’ I would say, ‘You made my life more complicated than it had to be today.’”
Yet for all the personal and professional indignities the Trump castoffs have weathered, they largely spoke favorably about Trump, perhaps out of genuine loyalty, atavistic reflex, or something closer to Stockholm syndrome. Sessions described Trump as a “fighter,” someone willing to stand up for what he believes is right. When Ruhle asked him about Trump’s long-standing refusal to disclose his tax returns, Sessions noted that Trump isn’t legally required to release the material. “Being the fighter he is, he’s not going to do it until someone makes him do it,” Sessions said.
Scaramucci, at one point, asked Kelly whether the president truly is a “very stable genius,” as Trump described himself amid criticism that his behavior was erratic.
Is that right? Scaramucci asked—is Trump a very stable genius? “I wouldn’t pass judgment on either of those,” Kelly said.
The audience laughed. “He’s a smart man,” Kelly offered. “He’s an accomplished man.”
Walking around the conference a few hours before Kelly was to speak, I approached him in the ballroom, where so many of the guests were shaking his hand, and I asked him whether he missed the White House. He didn’t want to be interviewed, but he gave a succinct answer before walking away: “No.”