Six months into his presidency, an embattled Donald Trump may finally have found the mouthpiece he wants — a fellow New York tycoon who gushes about his “love” for the president and blames White House woes on poor communication, not a burgeoning scandal.
Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s new communications director, appeared confident and polished in a series of Sunday TV talk-show appearances as the White House girds for what may be a crucial week in the multiple investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, will appear behind closed doors in the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday and in the House committee on Tuesday, the first official in the Trump White House known to do so.
Lawmakers are expected to question Kushner about several hot-button issues for the FBI and the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading a separate criminal investigation.
They include Kushner’s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer who has represented Moscow’s spy service and another meeting with the then-Russian ambassador in which Kushner reportedly discussed setting up a secret back-channel communication to the Kremlin.
Scaramucci can be expected to try to turn the spotlight away from Russia, or least argue that Kushner’s cooperation shows the White House has nothing to hide.
Of all the Trump surrogates trotted out in recent months, the 53-year-old former Wall Street hedge fund manager turned in a performance far smoother — and far less combative — than figures like Sean Spicer, whose awkward TV appearances were widely mocked before he quit last week rather than work for Scaramucci.
Or than Stephen Miller, the senior White House advisor who stared stone-faced into the camera in February and declared — chillingly, in critics’ eyes — that presidential authority “will not be questioned.”
During appearances on three major news talk shows, Scaramucci artfully pivoted away from troublesome topics — with a burst of candor, by changing the subject, by evoking the blue-collar roots he shares with many in Trump’s base, or just with a disarming quip.
Even amid sharp exchanges, his manner remained resolutely genial.
Are the president’s tweets a problem? No. Did Trump discuss his ability to grant pardons? Yes, but none will be needed. Does the president believe Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign? Maybe not — but Scaramucci vowed to tell Trump if he thought the president was wrong about that, or anything else.
Scaramucci repeatedly argued that the White House needs to fix its messaging and public relations operation, not its legislative agenda or its policies.
“Listen, there’s obviously a communications problem,” he declared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” even while citing “phenomenal achievements” for Trump’s presidency. “I just think we need to deliver the messaging a little bit differently than we have been doing it in the past.”
He insisted that disarray inside the White House can largely be blamed on unauthorized leaks by White House staff members to the news media, which he pledged to halt, drastically if necessary.
“They’re going to get fired. I’m just going to make it very, very clear, OK? Tomorrow I’m going to have a staff meeting,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And it’s going to be a very binary thing. I’m not going to make any prejudgments about anybody on that staff. If they want to stay on the staff, they’re going to stop leaking…. But if you’re going to keep leaking, I’m going to fire everybody.”
Scaramucci says he likes to use jokes to make a point, but his self-deprecating quips can land flat sometimes.
After praising the podium skills of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was elevated Friday to principal White House spokeswoman to replace Spicer, Scaramucci added — specifically addressing Sanders — “I loved the hair and makeup person that we had on Friday.”
After he later was slammed online for seemingly grading a subordinate by her appearance, Scaramucci quickly went on Twitter to declare he was talking about his own hair and makeup, not hers. He used the hashtag #humor.
In keeping with Trump’s own often-voiced insistence that those who work for him should look the part — he once praised the generals in his Cabinet as appearing from “central casting” — Scaramucci comes off well sartorially.
Trump had complained vociferously about an ill-fitting suit that Spicer wore for his first turn at the White House lectern, a wardrobe choice immortalized in comedian Melissa McCarthy’s skewering of Spicer on “Saturday Night Live.”
But staying on message amid a murky, slow-grinding scandal with many moving parts can be difficult. In his appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Scaramucci casually contradicted a senior member of the president’s personal legal team, Jay Sekulow.
Sekulow said on ABC’s “This Week” that pardons were not under discussion; Scaramucci acknowledged Trump himself had recently brought up the topic.
“I’m in the Oval Office with the president last week, we’re talking about that,” he said on Fox. Trump, he said, “brought that up, he said but he doesn’t have to be pardoned. There’s nobody around him that has to be pardoned. He was just making the statement about the power of pardons.”
Scaramucci was seemingly sanguine about the fact that anyone who speaks for Trump can quickly run afoul of the president. Trump, who spent Sunday at his Virginia golf property, is known to monitor his surrogates’ TV performances, either live or soon afterward on playback.
CNN host Jake Tapper alluded to that, telling Scaramucci after a lengthy exchange about Russia: “I love how you’re talking to one specific viewer right now… the most important audience that there is.”
“I like talking to him,” Scaramucci countered. “But you know who else I’m talking to? The people I grew up with.”
The president is known to prize shows of fealty, and Scaramucci came through in spades: likening Trump to a favorite athletic coach, praising his election victory, hailing him as a “super-hard” worker, and full-throatedly denying there was anything to the Russia story.
“We’re New Yorkers…. I love the guy,” he said on Fox. “He’s a great person, and he’s going to be a phenomenal – he is a phenomenal president, and he’s going to be a better president.”
But Scaramucci also acknowledged what many critics cite as the main reason Trump has consistently dismissed U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia actively sought to help him win the White House — a belief that his political opponents are trying to tarnish his win.
“One of the reasons why he’s upset about it is … the mainstream media position on this, that they [the Russians] interfered in the election,” Scaramucci said on CNN. “Actually, in his mind, what are you guys suggesting? You are going to delegitimize his victory?”
Scaramucci showed some sympathy for Trump’s attacks on what he calls “fake news,” which extends to virtually any unfavorable coverage. Scaramucci alluded to CNN’s recent withdrawal of an unsubstantiated story involving him and Russia. Three journalists subsequently resigned from the network.
But Sunday on CNN, he held out an olive branch, pledging to “soften up our relationship with the press.”