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White House rifts widen as Anthony Scaramucci jabs at Reince Priebus on leaks

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-07-2017 Margaret Talev

Washington: Internal White House tensions exploded into a public spectacle on Thursday as communications director Anthony Scaramucci undermined chief of staff Reince Priebus on live television by suggesting he was behind some of the leaks that have sparked turmoil in the White House and anger from President Donald Trump.

“If Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that,” Scaramucci told CNN during a half-hour live phone interview. “I’m a straight shooter. I’ll go right to the heart of the matter.”

Scaramucci’s remarks laid bare a power struggle among factions within the administration as it finds itself under siege by multiple investigations and stalled on its agenda. The statements will be a test of Priebus’s grip on a job that in any other White House would be one of the most powerful in Washington. It also comes as Trump has been berating his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in public statements and on Twitter.

Scaramucci said there is an establishment element inside the White House that is trying “to save America from this president” and is interfering with the full changes Trump is trying to make to “transform” the nation and “drain the swamp.”

He didn’t name who he thinks is among that element, but Priebus is a long-time party figure who was Republican National Committee chairman before joining a Trump team dominated by outsiders.

Trump changed the communications director job he gave Scaramucci to directly report to the president, bypassing Priebus and setting up a potential rivalry among two men who have had a sometimes-tempestuous relationship in the past.

“We have had odds, we have had differences,” Scaramucci said of Priebus during the course of the CNN interview. “Some brothers are like Cain and Abel” while others can get along, he said. He also suggested that Trump himself knows the contours of some of the internal leaks.

The focus on leaks offers Trump an opportunity to turn public attention from congressional and special counsel probes of Russian meddling in the US election and whether the president’s campaign had any involvement. But the White House infighting also has unsettled many fellow Republicans in Congress as efforts to pass health care and tax legislation are struggling.

Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told CNN after the Scaramucci interview that while some public spats are inevitable in every presidential administration “in this White House it’s out of control.”

“You don’t have to comment on everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it.”

Scaramucci’s wide-ranging interview touched on subjects ranging from Trump’s private dinner conversations to the probes and whether Trump would veto congressional efforts to add new sanctions on Russia. It followed a late night Twitter posting by Scaramucci on Wednesday in which he vowed to go to the FBI with accusations that he was the victim of an illegal leak of his financial information.

“In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept,” Scaramucci wrote on Twitter Wednesday night, tagging Priebus’ Twitter handle in a way that suggested he was calling out Priebus as a leaker—an assertion Scaramucci later denied he was trying to make.

The tweet followed a Politico report that the SkyBridge Capital founder had a net worth of as much as $85 million, citing a financial disclosure dated 23 June that he filed with the US Office of Government Ethics.

It wasn’t clear that there was a leak. Lorraine Woellert, Politico’s reporter on the story, said on Twitter she requested the financial disclosure form through normal channels and was provided it by the Export-Import Bank. The documents are supposed to be available to any member of the public within 30 days of being certified by the employing agency, in this case the bank. Scaramucci deleted his Twitter message on the leak.

Scaramucci is leading an intensifying effort by the White House to crack down on unauthorized disclosures of information. Trump blames the leaks on unnamed adversaries within federal agencies who are determined to undermine him.

After publicly disparaging Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and allowing a special prosecutor to be appointed, Trump put the attorney general on notice this week that the Justice Department must do more to stop leaks to the media. The department responded immediately to Scaramucci’s demands, though the financial disclosure information is public.

“We have seen an astonishing increase in the number of leaks of classified national security information in recent months,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement, in response to Scaramucci’s claim. “We agree with Anthony that these staggering number of leaks are undermining the ability of our government to function and to protect this country. Like the attorney general has said, ‘whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,’ and we will aggressively pursue leak cases wherever they may lead.”

Scaramucci, a campaign fundraiser for Trump and an adviser during the presidential transition, said earlier this week that he would “fire everybody” if needed to stop leaks coming out of the White House press office.

“If they don’t stop leaking, I’m going to put them out on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he told reporters on 25 July. “If you want to work in the West Wing you’ve got to stop leaking.”

Scaramucci entered an agreement to sell his stake in Skybridge in January, when he first announced that he’d be joining the administration. He earned $4.9 million from that holding in addition to more than $5 million in salary between 1 January 2016, and the end of June, according to the Politico report. He was named communications director by Trump last week. Bloomberg

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