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Donald Trump struggles to regain footing after first staff defections

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-07-2017 Kevin Cirilli

New York/Washington: President Donald Trump sought to impose order in his White House in the face of a widening Russia probe on Friday, ending a tumultuous week by appointing a new lead lawyer, sidelining his old one and hiring a new communications director as two top spokesmen quit in protest.

The changes leave Trump with new leaders on his legal and communications teams heading into a week when the highest-ranking White House official so far will appear before a congressional committee. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner will be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer resigned on Friday after news broke that Trump had hired financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. A day earlier, the spokesman for his legal team, Mark Corallo, resigned after Trump appointed attorney John Dowd his lead lawyer. Marc Kasowitz, the previous leader of Trump’s legal team, will play a diminished role, Dowd said.

Fractures in the White House emerged immediately. Dowd said in an interview on Friday that Trump would not seek to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller, almost at the same time Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway did just that, describing his investigation on Fox News as “a hoax” and criticizing his deputies as Democratic partisans.

Frustrated spokesmen

Spicer and Corallo both left out of frustration with Trump’s political and legal strategy, according to a person familiar with their decisions. Corallo declined to discuss his departure and Spicer didn’t respond to attempts to contact him.

Spicer said on Fox News’s “Hannity” on Friday that Trump didn’t want him to resign.

“He wanted to bring some new folks in to help rev up the communications operation, and after reflection, my decision was to recommend to the president that I give Anthony and Sarah a clean slate to start from,” Spicer said.

In his first televised appearance in his new job, Scaramucci said that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s principal deputy, would become press secretary. Scaramucci lived up to his reputation as a polished performer at the briefing room podium. He deftly wished Spicer well — “I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money” — and brushed away his own old criticisms of the president, while mixing ample charm and self-deprecation into his remarks.

“He brings it up every 15 seconds,” Scaramucci said of a 2015 television appearance in which he called Trump “a hack.” Scaramucci said he’s repeatedly apologized for “one of the biggest mistakes I made because I was an inexperienced person in politics. He’s never forgotten it. You’ve never forgotten it.”

Television appearances

Scaramucci, 53, is expected to appear frequently on television speaking on Trump’s behalf, a role he’s voluntarily filled for months. He was a campaign fundraiser for Trump and regular adviser during the presidential transition who’s been considered for multiple jobs in the administration, most recently ambassador to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He faces an especially difficult test as communications director, a position he described as responsible for restoring Trump’s credibility and respect with the press and the public. Trump’s job approval was 36% in the most recent Gallup poll conducted 17-19 July. No president has been less popular in his first six months in office since the advent of modern polling.

“There has been an arbitrage spread between how well we are doing and how well some of you guys think we are doing and we are going to work hard to close that spread,” Scaramucci said.

One person familiar with the changes said that Trump offered Scaramucci the communications job out of a sense of loyalty to his surrogate, whom he calls “the Italian kid.” Scaramucci is not expected to perform the traditional duties of a communications director, such as planning messaging campaigns for the president’s policies -- in part why Spicer, to whom those tasks would have fallen, decided to leave, the person said.

“I don’t think this is a traditional communications director job,” Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former press secretary, said in an interview. “I think Anthony is going to be a very powerful and effective presence for the White House on TV.”

Scaramucci may have also wound up outranking Spicer. He said he would report directly to Trump, not to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus or to the press secretary.

“I am grateful for Sean’s work on behalf of my administration and the American people,” Trump said in a statement read by Sanders. “I wish him continued success as he moves on to pursue new opportunities. Just look at his great television ratings.”

Priebus, Kushner

The White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said he backed Scaramucci’s hiring.

“I support Anthony 100 percent,” he said in a text message. “We go back a long way and are very good friends.”

Priebus and Spicer are close, having worked together for years at the Republican National Committee before joining the White House. But Priebus has no plans to leave his job, a person familiar with his thinking said.

Scaramucci said he’s been “personal friends” with Priebus for six years. “A little like brothers, we rough each other up once in a while,” he said.

Scaramucci agreed in January to sell his approximately 45% stake in SkyBridge Capital. The buyer group included a subsidiary of HNA Group, the Chinese conglomerate, as well as a little-known company called RON Transatlantic.

He’s still trying to close the sale, which Trump’s government is said to be complicating. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, a government panel chaired by treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, is scrutinizing Scaramucci’s sale of his stake in SkyBridge, two people familiar with the situation said. The deal valued Skybridge at $180 million or more.

Kushner began planning a couple weeks ago to bring Scaramucci into the communications office at the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter. Kushner was impressed by the fact that CNN retracted a story about Scaramucci in June, said the person. That story cited an anonymous source saying the Senate Intelligence Committee was reviewing an alleged meeting between Scaramucci and a Russian investment-fund executive.

The New York Times first reported Spicer’s resignation, which it said was in protest over Scaramucci’s hiring. The White House communications staff gathered in Spicer’s office Friday morning, where applause was heard shortly after the news broke.

Spicer’s struggles

Spicer’s departure from the administration was sudden. On Thursday, Spicer travelled with the president to a meeting at the Pentagon and told reporters he was still planning his family’s summer vacation schedule around his duties. He attended a farewell drinks for a White House reporter departing the beat Thursday night, mingling with members of the media and even former Obama White House press staffers.

Asked on “Hannity” if he’d been considering resigning for some time, Spicer answered: “no.”

Spicer struggled to adjust to the demands of the job from the outset. During his first official press event a day after Trump’s inauguration ceremony, Spicer berated reporters about the crowd size at the inauguration, using false information that was quickly debunked.

In the weeks that followed, Spicer’s press briefings were regularly packed with reporters and aired on live television as he repeatedly flummoxed the media with incorrect or inconsistent statements.

He has been regularly lampooned on NBC’s Saturday Night Live by actress Melissa McCarthy, who portrayed Spicer as a belligerent and unprepared spokesman often struggling with his words.

“I think that there were parts of it that were funny but there’s a lot of it that was over the line,” Spicer said on “Hannity.” “It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, or silly, or malicious.”

But Spicer more recently had retreated from public view. It’s been more than a month since he has briefed reporters on-camera, and Sanders instead increasingly took over the podium in the White House briefing room. In June, people familiar with the discussions said Trump was considering a more senior role for Spicer and hiring a new press secretary. Bloomberg

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