New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is vowing a renewed war on leakers, some of whose actions he says “are so treasonous that people would have been hung” for them 150 years ago. And perhaps most shockingly, he’s publicly pointing the finger for some of the leaks directly at White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who in a normal administration would be his boss.
This current caper kicked off Wednesday night, when Scaramucci fired off a since-deleted tweet at 10:41 that read, “In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept. #swamp @Reince45.”
This tweet was based on a misconception. There was no leak of Scaramucci’s financial disclosures — information came from his public financial disclosure for his job at the Export-Import Bank. But it also kicked off a wild 12-hours of internal feuding that reflects the general chaos and mismanagement of the Trump White House.
The inclusion of Priebus’s handle in the tweet looked like Scaramucci pointing the finger at him, and subsequent reporting confirms that was indeed his intention, even if he subsequently deleted the tweet.
In case there's any ambiguity in his tweet I can confirm that Scaramucci wants the FBI to investigate Reince for leaking.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) July 27, 2017
Some in White House are trying to build a case that Priebus is a leaker — “a diagram” charting leaks, per senior official — to show Trump.— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) July 27, 2017
Things escalated rapidly Thursday morning when CNN’s New Day, hosted by Chris Cuomo, aired a segment featuring Lizza as a guest reporting on the White House drama. Scaramucci unexpectedly called in to the program, to confirm that “we have a very, very good idea who the leakers are, the senior leakers in the White House." He also said, “I don’t know if the relationship with Reince is reparable,” and that it will be “up to the president.” At one point, he appeared to compare himself and Priebus to Cain and Abel.
The comments about treason and hanging people, however, came in the context of a mini pivot away from the Priebus drama.
.@Scaramucci on CNN: "There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president. Ok?"— Dan Merica (@danmericaCNN) July 27, 2017
According to Scaramucci, “the White House leakers are small potatoes," and what he and the president are really concerned with are leaks from inside the national security establishment: people who “think it is their job to save America from” the Trump administration.
The Trump White House is a wild leakfest
Personal tension between Scaramucci and Priebus appear to be largely an extension of the tensions that led to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer quitting when Trump insisted on promoting Scaramucci. Priebus was the one who brought Spicer into the White House in the first place (he’d previously been the RNC spokesperson while Priebus was the chair), and Scaramucci’s rise parallels their falling star. There’s been talk all week that Trump’s intention is to groom Scaramucci to replace Priebus as chief of staff.
Scaramucci is wildly unqualified for the chief of staff job, but then again, so is Priebus, so this is as plausible as anything.
Whether or not Priebus specifically leaked the documents in question, it’s almost certainly the case that he has leaked some information to the press, simply because everyone in the Trump White House leaks. They leak because the White House is catastrophically mismanaged, with nobody controlling access to the president or running a disciplined policymaking process. The best way for administration officials to draw the president’s attention to something is to have it reported on cable news or in a major newspaper, so people leak constantly — almost certainly including the president’s own untouchable family members.
Trump’s mercurial nature and tendency to do things like publicly assailing his own attorney general further incentivize leaking. Key officials at all levels of government know that they need allies who can help them get out their version of the story if things go bad.
The semi-fake war on national security leaks
All administrations wrestle with leaks of classified information, and all agencies with the ability to classify information to some extent abuse that authority by classifying things that are merely embarrassing.
The Trump administration adds two things to this mix:
- One is that the president’s close associates, in a highly unusual manner, appear to have long been the targets of a counterintelligence investigation looking into their ties to the Russian government. At crucial moments, leaks — for example, of the fact that the Trump White House was apprised that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was lying to the public about his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — have embarrassed the administration while also pushing the investigations forward.
- Another is that the Trump administration lies freely and frequently, and likes to use hazy allegations of illegal leaking to try to stifle merely inconvenient information about the Russia investigation. Trump himself, for example, keeps pretending that former FBI Director James Comey broke some kind of law by conveying his recollection of private meetings with Trump to the media.
At the nexus of these two trends is an administration that at times seems to be prosecuting a war against fake national security leaks. The Obama administration pioneered the most aggressive legal war on national security leakers that America has seen since Watergate, but it typically focused on actual leaks that had taken place.
The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist,Al-Baghdadi.Their sick agenda over National Security— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
On July 22, for example, Trump castigated the New York Times for foiling an effort to kill the leader of ISIS. This tweet, as the president’s missives often are, appeared to be based on a Fox & Friends segment that was completely erroneous. The information the Times allegedly revealed had, in fact, been publicly disclosed by the Pentagon weeks earlier.
In a follow-up to that imbroglio, the White House social media director accused Times columnist Bret Stephens of leaking the name of a covert CIA operative, when in fact the person Stephens named was Phil Agee, who very publicly left the CIA, denounced the agency, and died in 2008.
This is not normal
To state the obvious, none of this is remotely normal.
Neither the persecution of leaks that didn’t take place nor the constant internal chaos nor the highly public internecine feuding is remotely normal. Also not normal is the prospect that the embarrassing, highly public airing of internal dirty laundry could be construed as beneficial to the Trump administration since it detracts attention from a piece of health care legislation that is so hideously unpopular that any story about any other subject arguably serves their interests.
Update: Here is the full Scaramucci phone call, uploaded to Youtube by Yashar Ali, a contributing writer at New York Magazine, Mother Jones, and Huffington Post.
Transcript of Scaramucci’s remarks on Priebus
I want to reset at zero, but I want you to know I spent about 15 minutes on the phone talking with the president of the United States, who has given me his full support and full blessing. And I'm going to read you something, Chris, and you bear with me. And the president also told me, if you're nice to me in this segment, he'll let me come back on the show. Is that cool? So why don't you let me talk for a little bit and then you can ask me questions. But this is super, super important to the country.
Now, whether you agree with the president or disagree with the president, you have to love the institution of the presidency. You have to love the office and love our country. What is going on right now, I've done a major amount of work over the last five days. I've interviewed most of the assistants to the president. I've interviewed most of the people in the communications team and the White House. And what the president and I would like to tell everybody: We have a very, very good idea who the leakers are, who the senior leakers are in the White House. We'll get to that in a second.
What I also want to say is that we are working together, the president and myself and other members of his team and law enforcement, to undercut and undercover — or out, if you will — the leakers in the entire country. As the president would say in his own words, the White House leakers are small potatoes. I'll talk to you about a few leaks that happened last night that I find reprehensible, but the White House leaks are small potatoes relative to things that are going on with leaking things about Syria or North Korea or leaking things about Iraq. Those are the types of leaks that are so treasonous, 150 years ago people would be put to death.
Chris, you're from New York, I'm from New York, the president is from New York; we had dinner last night; I sat next to the first lady. I love the president. I've said that. I know the press wants to ridicule me for saying it six times on the podium, but we started out as friends. I am not a politician. I'm an American businessman and entrepreneur that has built two businesses. And I try to play it straight with people.
The president is trying to play it straight with people, which is why he has 140 or 125 social media followers, because they want to hear it straight from the president. And I said to the president this morning, I can't afford to be a sycophant, sir, I have to talk to you as a friend so I can help you with this problem. So what I want to say to you is I understand the law. I know there was a public disclosure mechanism in my financial forms.
What I'm upset about is the process and the junk pool, the dirty pool, Chris, in terms of the way this stuff is being done, and the leaking won't stop. I can't have a couple of friends up from Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity, who's one of my closest friends, to dinner with the president and his first lady without it being leaked in seven minutes.
It's absolutely, completely and totally reprehensible. And as you know from the Italian expression, the fish stinks from the head down. But I can tell you two fish that don't stink, and that's me and the president. I don't like the activity that's going on in the White House. I don't like what they're doing to my friend. I don't like what they're doing to the president of the United States or their fellow colleagues in the West Wing.
Now, if you want to talk about the staff, we have had odds, we have had differences. When I said we are brothers from the podium, that's because we're rough — some brothers are like Cain and Abel; other brothers can fight with each other and get along. The president is the chief of staff. He's responsible for understanding and uncovering and helping me do that inside the White House, Chris, which is why I put that tweet out last night.
When the journalists who actually know who the leakers are, like Ryan Lizza, they know the leakers, they know, I respect them for not telling me because I understand and respect journalistic integrity. However, when I put out a tweet and I put Reince's name in the tweet, they're all making the assumption that it's him because journalists know who the leakers are. So if Reince wants to explain that he's not a leaker, let him do that.
But let me tell you something about myself: I am a straight shooter. I'll go right to the heart of the matter. So I'm done talking. You can ask me questions. But be nice on the segment, Chris, because this is a very serious matter of interest to all of America.