In an emergency politics mini-chat, we appraise the abbreviated tenure of former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): 🚨 EMERGENCY MOOCH CHAT 🚨
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to an emergency mini-chat!!!
natesilver: THE MOOCH IS LOOCH!
micah: The news: The Mooch is out!
micah: OK, so as The New York Times put it:
President Trump on Monday removed Anthony Scaramucci from his position as communications director, the White House announced, ousting him just days after Mr. Scaramucci unloaded a crude verbal tirade against other senior members of the president’s senior staff.
This sort of story isn’t really the type of thing we typically jump on, but I thought it’d be fun to quickly gather and trade some thoughts.
Let’s start with this: WTF?
clare.malone: All things are possible with THE MOOCH … or more accurately … newly installed chief of staff John Kelly.
micah: This was Kelly’s first official day in the job!
julia (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): So this is actually kind of normal, right? You go on a crude tirade to a New Yorker reporter, you get fired?
natesilver: I knew early on that they were just bringing Scaramucci on for one episode. Not enough depth in his character. Too over the top.
clare.malone: Special guest star.
natesilver: Still, a little bizarre that they brought him on for the health care episode — which already had plenty of subplots — but it seems like they’re trying to set up a PIVOT for later this season.
But I’m with Julia that this seems like a normal and healthy response in some ways.
micah: Is this a Kelly-restoring-order story?
clare.malone: It seems like it to me. It’s his first day in office, he’s making a statement.
julia: Because I study political communication for a living, goddammit, and I’ve been waiting my whole life for an opportunity to discuss … nevermind, I can’t even …
micah: Go! Julia! Go!
julia: Firing Scaramucci is only a statement because of the context. Normally, firing a communications director for not knowing how to handle himself with the press would be a pretty non-bold move.
micah: This is Wikipedia, so grains of salt, but for context:
clare.malone: I guess we now know what is a bridge too far for the Trump White House?
natesilver: I dunno. This reminds me of first-grade when me and Tyler were fighting, and the music teacher made us BOTH stay after class even though it was totally his fault. (Tyler is Mooch in this analogy and I’m former chief of staff Reince Priebus. The music teacher is Kelly.)
clare.malone: Though, this seems farcical, given Trump’s own vulgarities:
julia: To me, this is less about Kelly and more about how far from standard communication politics we’ve fallen.
Having a tight communications operation is a big deal for modern presidents, or at least it was. It’s hard for presidents to get anyone on board with their agenda if they can’t clearly communicate what their agenda is.
And when you’re dealing with complicated policy issues, this is kind of a thing.
clare.malone: I’m sorry, I’m still reeling: Who will they get for this job now? Maybe they shouldn’t fill this role? Maybe Trump is just the communications director and they should resign themselves to that.
clare.malone: I know that’s serious. But I can’t believe that’s serious.
natesilver: Micah just said aloud, “I had a substantive question but I can’t remember it now.”
clare.malone: I’m kinda serious about the Trump-as-comms-director thing.
micah: It seems like an impossible job.
clare.malone: He’s just going to tweet stuff out anyhow. Maybe they should just cut out the middleman.
julia: I gave Micah an unsolicited lecture about the history of the White House this morning. These positions are relatively new.
Know who else tried to play with the organization of the White House? JIMMY CARTER! And it had kind of a presidential DIY feel also.
clare.malone: Axios is reporting that Kelly basically told Scaramucci that he was fired right after Kelly was sworn in.
micah: Let’s talk NARRATIVE for a second…
How will the media cover this, and how should they cover this? Is this more disarray in the “Trump White House in disarray” storyline? Or is this the first scene in the “Kelly restores order to Trump administration” narrative we’ll inevitably get?
clare.malone: Latter. Although, I guess Twitter is going for disarray?
micah: Seems like it…
clare.malone: That might just be the first day reaction, though? What about the second and third day stories?
natesilver: Twitter always goes for disarray. That’s like the 5th law of thermodynamics.
julia: SO the thing about the modern White House is that you need someone to run the show. If you don’t have anyone really running things (which seemed to be the case with Priebus in charge, maybe) then you have a huge amount of disarray over messaging and details.
But if you impose too much control, you run into other problems. If we assume this is a sign of Kelly taking control, there’s a danger in becoming too dependent on someone who’s not the president. (This happened with Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams.)
And there are advantages to having a somewhat looser gatekeeping process as far as information that reaches the president — a big theme in the George W. Bush White House.
micah: Right, so per what Julia said earlier, it definitely seems like a good move from the perspective of Trump’s agenda being advanced.
natesilver: So, I think the “Kelly cleaning House” narrative is the correct one here, but let’s see Trump take more than two steps in the right direction before declaring a “pivot.”
natesilver: Trump is recognizing, on some level — maybe not even consciously, but on some level — that he’s struggling. That’s some kind of progress.
julia: But I’m writing about all this as if it’s a normal administration because I’ve been told to put my political scientist hat on even though I really just want to make Steve Bannon yoga jokes.
clare.malone: So, to Julia’s point, groupthink might have been a problem in the George W. Bush era, but what we know about Trump is that he doesn’t vet his outside information well.
clare.malone: That’s the thing that, I think, would worry me if I were Kelly thinking through this new comms thing.
natesilver: What about the theory that they only brought in Scaramucci to fire Reince Priebus?
My opinion of this firing goes way down if it was ordained by Jivanka.
julia: I agree Clare, but my main worry with the new communications director position is who they’ll be able to get.
Another good question: What would we be worried about now if we were in Kelly’s position?
micah: President Trump.
Or the family?
clare.malone: All of the above.
Jared Kushner makes everyone angry because he’s stepping on their territory. (see Rex Tillerson.)
Trump gets distracted easily. I think Kelly needs the president to find his groove post-health care. Give him a new project.
micah: But this does seem like a decent start.
Get ready for PIVOT stories!!!
clare.malone: Axios is so stoked right now.
julia: I feel much less optimistic. It’s not a bad move, but it’s a very low baseline for something as important as high-level presidential staffing.
natesilver: Wait, hold on, I’ve got one more question.
natesilver: Should we feel sad for Mooch?
clare.malone: OH BOY.
micah: I feel sad for everyone, frankly.
clare.malone: I do not even have the time to tell you how wrong you are about that.
julia: People make choices.
clare.malone: The Mooch needs U.S. approval for the sale of his company. His time in the Trump White House, I’m sure, has been relatively well spent to this end.
natesilver: He’s also gonna get like a $1 million book deal.
Like, what if he was just playing a character the whole time?
Are we sure he wasn’t in on the gag?
julia: I remember saying something along those lines in July 2015 about Trump.
natesilver: But Mooch hadn’t originally been a Trump supporter.
julia: Well, I just mean that the whole thing was a self-conscious gag.
Trump wasn’t originally a Republican, or a politician.
micah: Last question in this mini-chat: Trump’s job approval ratings have been mostly steady, but they have creeped down over the past couple weeks. Organizationally, getting rid of Scaramucci might help the White House in the long-term, but does it add to a sense of chaos that seems to be hurting Trump’s standing with the public? Or does this kind of thing not even break through for most people, and it’s actually the health care debacle exerting downward pressure on Trump’s numbers?
clare.malone: I think people love the Mooch and this will break through.
And I guess on that front, it does make the White House look a bit nutty right now.
julia: I don’t have any data in front of me, but “sense of chaos” seemed to be part of the Bill Clinton story early on in 1993, which was among the worst stretches of his presidency. (In retrospect, that all seems pretty tame.)
natesilver: So… the downward movement has been pretty minor. I do think it’s interesting that conservative pundits and publications have been tougher on Trump lately. They weren’t happy at all about his fight with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example. I tend to think the Kelly/Spicer/Priebus/Mooch stuff matters less to well-adjusted human beings and is mostly a media obsession.
Health care matters, obviously.
julia: If you woke me up at 3 a.m. and asked me “what are the determinants of presidential approval?” (Note: please do not do that.) I would blurt out, “the economy!”
But that doesn’t help us much.
micah: You wouldn’t blurt out “THE MOOCH!!?”
julia: A White House with no communications operation and a president who likes tweeting is on a collision course (to use Nate’s phrase from last week) with pretty much everything.
natesilver: I do have a substantive thought, though, which is that all of these people who have left the White House are at risk of tattling on Trump later on. I don’t think Mooch is very dangerous in that regard because he wasn’t there long enough … but if Trump ever fired (say) Bannon, look out.
clare.malone: I would read the bejesus out of that book.