The Memo: Spicer shock leaves WH staff bracing for more change

The tumultuous Trump White House witnessed its most notable shake-up yet on Friday — and speculation is rife that more departures could be coming.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer resigned abruptly after Trump made Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier and frequent TV surrogate for the president, communications director.

The move was not just a humiliating rebuke to Spicer. It was also a broader defeat for the pro-GOP establishment faction in the White House, of which chief of staff Reince Priebus is the most prominent representative.

One former Trump campaign adviser said that while the Scaramucci appointment was a surprise, change had been expected.


“We have been waiting for this. The question now is whether this is an isolated incident or the beginning of a dam-burst,” the source said.

 “I think there are a lot of people trying to figure out what to do,” the person added, alluding to White House staff who might choose to follow Spicer’s lead out the door.

Rumors are swirling around Priebus in particular, who is said to have become an isolated figure.

One key staffer who will not be leaving is Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She appeared alongside Scaramucci at a packed White House media briefing on Friday afternoon. There, Scaramucci announced that she would replace Spicer as press secretary, an elevation from her current position as Spicer’s deputy. 

Among those loyal to the Priebus wing, there was outrage at the appointment of Scaramucci. 

His detractors gripe that, aside from his TV appearances, he has no real communications experience. They are dismayed at the treatment of Spicer, whose tenure lasted only six months amid trying and often chaotic circumstances.

“This is a joke,” said one source close to the White House press operation, who added that Trump “wanted Scaramucci on television as a surrogate for the White House and wanted to give him more of a formal title. 

“There was simply no understanding by the president that the communications director title comes with lots of responsibilities — not just going on television.”

Republicans outside of the White House expressed similar misgivings.

“What actual track record is he bringing that would give anyone confidence that he can do this very difficult job?” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak asked. 

Alluding to Scaramucci’s wealth and importance as a GOP fundraiser, Mackowiak added, “I am sure he is a talented guy, and he clearly was a successful donor and fundraiser. He has a lot of high-level relationships. But I don’t see how this works.”

According to multiple reports, Scaramucci’s elevation was pushed in part by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. 

The president is believed to admire Scaramucci in part for wringing an apology from CNN for a recent false story about the former financier. 

More broadly, Scaramucci’s confident, somewhat brash persona, personal style and business success — as well as his roots on Long Island, N.Y. — appear to make him simpatico with Trump in a way that was never true of Spicer, a classic creature of Washington.

“It’s a New York pace, a New York attitude, a New York style — the president likes that a lot,” the former Trump campaign adviser said, adding with a laugh, “It’s not very popular in Washington.”

For all the shock generated by his appointment, Scaramucci acquitted himself strongly in his first turn at the White House podium. His relaxed demeanor and colorful turns of phrase won praise on social media. 

He noted his closeness to, and admiration for, Trump several times. He also made light of his August 2015 description of Trump in a Fox Business Network interview as a “hack politician.” 

Trump “brings it up every 15 seconds,” Scaramucci said, before going on to apologize. “I should have never said that about him,” he said.

At a more substantive level, however, Scaramucci’s charismatic debut encountered greater challenges. 

He insisted that the White House was “on track” and that “the ship is going in the right direction.”

In fact, Trump’s job approval rating is just under 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average — very low by historical standards — and he has no major legislative achievements to show for his first half-year in power. 

Scaramucci’s appointment is an implicit acknowledgment that major change is needed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

An air of crisis has enveloped the White House over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s election. 

In an expansive interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Trump said that any probe of his family’s finances would be outside of Muller’s purview. Trump also took aim at Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Shortly before Scaramucci’s appointment was announced, changes were made to Trump’s personal legal team. Spokesman Mark Corallo confirmed in an email to The Hill that he had resigned. There are conflicting reports about the precise fate of Trump's personal counsel, Marc Kasowitz, but he appears to be set for a less prominent role.

The New York Times interview, meanwhile, may have sounded a death-knell of a kind for Spicer. Only one press aide, Hope Hicks, sat in on that encounter. Spicer and Priebus are said to only have learned that the president had given on-the-record remarks after the encounter was over.

To some, that was a sign of a broader lack of trust between the president and his staff.

“There are entire sections of the White House that the president has lost faith with,” the former campaign adviser said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong or bad or anything else. But if he is not listening to you, let someone else try.”

Others took a less sanguine view of Scaramucci’s appointment.

A third source familiar with the thinking of many White House staff said that insiders “were very surprised by this choice — and by his lack of experience in the areas that will be his main responsibilities.”

To both supporters and critics of the decision, it seems that the president is once again operating outside of political norms — and elevating those with whom he feels a gut-level kinship.

Timothy O’Brien, the executive editor of Bloomberg View and the author of a Trump biography, said the president was following a lifelong pattern.

The appointment of Scaramucci, he said, was “a classic Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE move.”

Characterizing Scaramucci as “a streetwise, self-made guy who wears expensive suits and talks tough,” O’Brien said, “People all over the Trump Organization and in the White House got their jobs not because they necessarily had the experience or skills for the job. It’s simply because they appealed to Trump’s sense of himself.”

Those who take a more sympathetic view see Spicer’s departure and Scaramucci’s hiring as consistent with the daring sensibility that powered Trump’s against-all-odds election victory: Let Trump be Trump.

Whether the latest gambit will pay off, however, is anyone’s guess.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.