Spicer resigns as an embattled Trump shakes up his press and legal teams

President Trump’s well-known but increasingly sidelined press secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned abruptly on Friday, as the beleaguered president shuffled his legal and communications teams amid mounting investigations and legislative troubles.

Spicer told the president of his decision on Friday morning, after learning that Trump had hired Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and frequent Trump defender on Fox News, as communications director.

Scaramucci then announced, in his debut appearance in the White House briefing room, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders would take over as press secretary, making official the job she has been doing for weeks as Spicer has been relegated to the background.

Spicer will leave the White House in August, he wrote on Twitter, adding that it had been “an honor & a privilege to serve” Trump.

The changes were part of Trump’s broader staff shake-up at the six-month mark of his presidency, reflecting the president’s growing frustration with media coverage of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with his campaign.

For months the president has complained, openly at times, at what he sees as the inability of his communications team to counter the steady drip of damaging headlines — though often Trump provokes such coverage by his own actions or remarks.

The president also reorganized his legal team in recent days. His longtime personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, will have a reduced role; he publicly defended Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in early May, but is reportedly not eligible for a security clearance that will likely be needed to handle material related to the Russia inquiry.

Trump has hired longtime Washington defense attorneys John Dowd and Ty Cobb to join conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow, who frequently appears on television to defend the president. Dowd will lead the legal team for the Russia investigation.

The recently hired spokesman for the legal team, Mark Corallo, also resigned Friday. A Justice Department spokesman during the George W. Bush administration, Corallo was said to be uncomfortable with criticism from Trump and his associates of officials Corallo knew at the Justice Department who are now involved in the Russia investigation.

Trump’s legal team is collecting information on Justice Department special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the investigators he has hired, including their party affiliations and political donations, in an effort to paint Mueller’s team as political hacks with conflicts of interest.

"It’s relevant that people know what their motivations are. That is not an attack on the team," White House advisor Kellyanne Conway said Friday on Fox News.

Lawyers for Trump are reportedly also examining what specific power the president has to pardon people who might be charged by the special counsel, including himself.

"The president retains pardon power just like any other president would," Sanders told reporters.

Spicer’s departure had been the subject of speculation for months in a White House rife with backbiting among factions, even as his daily news briefings were must-see television.

His combative jousts with reporters and misstatement of facts — like his insistence on Trump’s first day in office that the inauguration had set attendance records — became fodder for a popular spoof on “Saturday Night Live” starring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer, but also eroded his credibility.

The president boasted of Spicer’s “great television ratings.” Yet as Trump grew impatient with his own low job approval ratings and the scandal enveloping his presidency, Spicer came in for blame and his public appearances declined.

Trump has told close advisors that Spicer had been beaten into submission by the media, according to a person close to Trump, and no longer was able to punch back forcefully enough.

Spicer hasn’t held a news briefing for a month, since June 23; Sanders, mostly off camera, has largely taken over the task.

Meanwhile, Scaramucci — a frequent pro-Trump presence on cable television — was floated as someone who could jab and parry more effectively with the media.

Scaramucci, who worked on Trump’s transition, sold his stake in SkyBridge Capital, which manages hedge funds, to a Chinese conglomerate in January in hopes of landing a White House job.

While Trump has admired Scaramucci’s defense of him on television, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and strategist Stephen K. Bannon were both said to oppose Scaramucci’s appointment. Spicer was an ally of Priebus, having worked for him when Priebus headed the Republican National Committee.

To explain away the tension with Priebus, Scaramucci said they were “like brothers” and sometimes “rough each other up.”

But Scaramucci also made clear that he would have his own power center in the White House, telling reporters that he would report directly to the president, not Priebus — at Trump’s instruction.

”The president said I work for him directly,” he said.

Trump tends to respect people with wealth and business experience, so Scaramucci,who assembled business titans and political leaders at large conferences in Las Vegas and Asia for more than a decade, may garner more respect from Trump than Spicer or Priebus have.

Scaramucci told reporters that Spicer’s departure was “obviously a difficult situation.”

“I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money,” Scaramucci said.

When asked what he would do to “right the ship” at the White House, Scaramucci said that the administration was going in the right direction and that he would focus on improving the communications strategy.

To that end, he also signaled that he would be Trump’s full-throated cheerleader. Asked about the president’s false claim that 3 million people voted illegally for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in November, Scaramucci said, “My guess is that there’s probably some level of truth to that.”

He called the president a winner, with perhaps the greatest political instincts in history, and a man of great karma.

“I've seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire,” Scaramucci said of Trump. “I've seen him at Madison Square Garden with a topcoat on, standing in the key and hitting foul shots and swishing them. He sinks three-foot putts. I don't see this as a guy who's ever under siege.”

But amid his adulatory comments, Scaramucci also was prodded by reporters to answer for his past, biting criticisms of Trump, which were quickly being disseminated again on Twitter.

He apologized for them, looking into cameras for the televised briefing as if talking to the president himself.

In 2015, Scaramucci called Trump “another hack politician” during a Fox Business appearance. On Friday, he said that Trump continued to remind him about it.

In the 2016 campaign, Scaramucci worked for two of Trump’s Republican rivals. He served as national finance chairman for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after Walker withdrew from the race.

Scaramucci’s views also haven’t always been in lockstep with the president’s. In March 2016, Scaramucci wrote on Twitter in favor of policies to combat climate change, calling it “disheartening” that some people still believe climate change is a hoax.

And in 2012, Scaramucci tweeted in favor of gun control: “We (the USA) has 5% of the world’s population but 50% of the world’s guns. Enough is enough.”

Scaramucci largely avoided questions about Trump’s legal strategy on Friday, telling reporters he knew most of Trump’s attorneys but had not yet met with them to discuss what he could say.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

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UPDATES:

4:55 p.m.: Updated throughout with additional detail and reaction.

This article was originally published at 12 p.m.

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