White House infighting gets very public and very profane

President Trump and his aides frequently complain about back-biting leaks from within the White House. But on Thursday, the infighting was out in the open, live on television.

The incoming communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, in a morning phone call broadcast on CNN, compared the West Wing to a fish that “stinks from the head down,” implying that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is responsible for at least some of the leaks.

"There are people inside this administration who think it's their job to save America from this president," Scaramucci said.

Another Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, used a prison analogy for the broader backstabbing, telling Fox News that her White House colleagues were using “the press to shiv each other.”

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to come to Priebus' defense and say whether Trump has full confidence in his chief of staff.

While the discord might suggest a new level of chaos in a White House known for it, the style is all Trump. As a businessman, he has a history of fostering rivalries among his employees.

“He always did sort of like competition, backstabbing, infighting kind of stuff,” said Barbara Res, who spent nearly two decades as a top executive in Trump’s real estate business. “He set people up to do that.

“He’d pick the winner and blame the loser,” she added.

As president, he hasn’t changed. As Sanders told reporters: "The president likes that kind of competition and encourages it."

Trump led the charge this week, using his Twitter account and an interview with the Wall Street Journal to ridicule his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s first and most prominent campaign supporters. By Thursday, both Priebus and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were seeing their fates publicly deliberated as well, less than a week after Press Secretary Sean Spicer was forced out after months of speculation and presidential slights.

The Priebus intrigue was amplified by Scaramucci on Twitter and in the CNN interview. He blamed Priebus for leaking Scaramucci's personal financial disclosure forms — forms that are publicly available — and suggested that Trump encouraged his attack on Priebus in a phone conversation the two men had just had before Scaramucci dialed in to CNN.

Later Thursday, New Yorker magazine writer Ryan Lizza reported that Scaramucci, in a profanity-laden phone call to him Wednesday night, referred to Priebus as a “paranoid schizophrenic” who had blocked him from the White House for six months. He accused White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon of seeking to “build [his] own brand off the … strength of the president,” and he claimed to have evidence from the FBI about who in the White House had been leaking information fueling derogatory stories about Trump.

Infuriated that someone had told Lizza about a dinner that night at the White House, Scaramucci demanded to know the reporter's source and said he would "eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” unless Lizza told him.

Priebus has declined to engage publicly. But hours after Scaramucci first aired his side in the two men’s strife, Sanders called it “healthy competition.”

The result of all the drama is a White House that increasingly resembles the set from the president's former way of life, as the star of a reality TV show. His aides' cable television appearances recall the "confessionals" familiar to fans of the genre, in which contestants look directly at the camera to confide their anger or enmity toward others on the show.

“The primary attribute for a successful tenure in the Trump White House is masochism,” tweeted Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican operative and Trump critic.

The repeated evidence of dysfunction and the high level of insecurity among Trump’s core aides help explain the White House’s inability to focus on its agenda.

Trump’s critics suggested the public staff blow-up was a deliberate distraction from several controversies — the struggle in Congress to pass a healthcare bill, ongoing investigations into potential collusion between his campaign and Russia, and the blowback from Republicans and others to Trump's surprise Twitter announcement on Wednesday that transgender people will be barred from military service.

But those issues also were being heavily covered on cable news. The stories that were overshadowed were those the White House was trying to promote this week: a deal the administration helped strike with Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn to build a production facility in Wisconsin, creating thousands of new jobs, and nascent efforts to craft a tax overhaul plan.

“Right now, the president is operating the White House by himself,” relying on only a few aides, including Scaramucci, said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign advisor who maintains contacts in the White House.

It’s Scaramucci’s “natural inclination to go after Reince, and he’s not getting any kind of halt sign,” Bennett added. “One of them is not going to make it.”

The tension between Scaramucci and Priebus was widely known for months behind the scenes, as Scaramucci came to believe Priebus sabotaged his early attempts to join the Trump administration. Priebus, in turn, was miffed as Scaramucci recently edged aside Sean Spicer, his closest ally in the White House, as press secretary.

Trump has given Priebus little comfort. During Wednesday’s White House announcement about the planned Foxconn facility in Wisconsin on Wednesday — a deal that Priebus, a Wisconsin native, helped secure — Trump failed to recognize him even as the president praised the state’s governor, congressional delegation and other members of his Cabinet who came to the East Room event.

Scaramucci joins a cadre seen by some West Wing officials as "enablers" who encourage Trump's most defiant and often self-defeating impulses, a group that notably includes Bannon.

In recent months, on foreign policy in particular, Bannon has taken a step back as a faction of so-called “realists” — or, as Bannon likes to call them, “globalists” — including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump and economics advisor Gary Cohn have held sway.

But Trump’s surprise announcement on Twitter on Wednesday morning of a ban on transgender troops, which blindsided Pentagon leadership, showed that the “realists” only have so much power to rein in the president.

Sanders defended Trump’s controversial speech at the Boy Scouts national jamboree on Monday night, a campaign-style event that prompted an apology from the organization’s chief executive on Thursday for the partisan tenor of the president’s address.

"I saw nothing but roughly 40,000 to 45,000 Boy Scouts cheering the president on," Sanders said Thursday.

David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who has studied the role of the White House chief of staff, said many administration problems stem from Priebus’ lack of power to help set Trump’s agenda and manage the staff members competing for his attention.

"In many ways Trump is his own chief of staff, and he's not a very good one," Cohen said.

The fact that Scaramucci was hired last week over Priebus' objections and reports directly to Trump, Cohen said, "shows that Priebus has been effectively neutered in the West Wing."

Scaramucci seems eager to fill any void. But as other Trump aides have learned, the glow of the president’s affection is seldom permanent.

One Republican in regular contact with the White House, who asked for anonymity to preserve his access, said of Scaramucci, “What got him there was … being an effective counterpuncher. But at a certain point, you become at risk of becoming the punching bag.”

Sessions, who gave up a secure Senate seat to become Trump’s attorney general, learned that lesson over the last week as Trump began openly expressing his frustrations, objecting to Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, which the president believes led to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Sessions said again on Fox News on Thursday that he intends to stay in the job if Trump does not fire him. Trump’s humiliation of Sessions lately has aroused more open complaints from congressional Republicans than any presidential action to date.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that “there will be holy hell to pay” if Trump fires Sessions. Any attempt to get rid of Mueller, Graham added, could be “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.”

brian.bennett@latimes.com | @byBrianBennett

noah.bierman@latimes.com | @noahbierman

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