By Jenna Johnson, Philip Rucker and David Nakamura / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The cinematic infighting that has consumed the White House in recent days was pushed into public view on Thursday, exposing the West Wing as the political equivalent of a New York-accented reality television show that runs on a raucous mix of drama, machismo and suspicion.
The new communications director — Anthony Scaramucci, a flashy New York financier who brags that he and Trump “started out as friends” — has been trying to oust White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in a foul-mouthed campaign fueled by months of brewing animus. Scaramucci accused Priebus of leaking to the media about behind-the-scenes maneuverings and his own personal finances, but his broader intent is to purge senior advisers and low-level staffers who he suspects are not adequately loyal to President Donald Trump.
In an interview with The New Yorker published Thursday, Scaramucci called Priebus a “f——- paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac” and claimed that the former Republican Party chairman will “be asked to resign very shortly” in a sweep that he warned could eventually involve much of the staff.
The New Yorker interview gave voice to the profane intensity of the warring West Wing factions that has defined much of Trump’s early administration — but the level of candor and raging frustration Scaramucci expressed yet again stunned a Washington political class that has become increasingly inured to the unorthodoxy of this White House.
At one point in the interview, Scaramucci switched to speaking in the third-person while trying to make his mission clear.
“O.K., the Mooch showed up a week ago,” he said. “This is going to get cleaned up very shortly, O.K.?”
Scaramucci’s anger toward Priebus was burning long before he joined the White House this week.
After the election, he sold his company, investment fund SkyBridge Capital, in preparation for a job in the White House, only to be blocked by Priebus. Scaramucci was later shuffled into a position at the Export-Import Bank, where he plotted his next move. Last week, Trump surprised Priebus, Bannon and others by announcing that Scaramucci would become the next White House communications director — news that prompted press secretary Sean Spicer, Priebus’ closest ally, to resign.
Priebus is considered an establishment figure in a sea of nontraditional White House staffers, and he has long faced criticism from some of Trump’s staunchest allies who view him as ill-prepared for the job and too concerned about his own reputation. But the attacks that had been quietly waged against him for months in behind-the-scenes trash talk are now being spoken aloud by Scaramucci, who claims he has the president’s blessing to do so.
In the expletive-filled interview with the New Yorker, Scaramucci presented himself as someone who is fully dedicated to the president. He accused Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, of trying to build his “own brand off the f——— strength of the president.”And he angrily lashed out at Priebus for blocking him from the White House for six months and accused him of leaking the details of a Wednesday night dinner with Fox News personality Sean Hannity at the White House to a reporter.
“What I want to do is I want to f——— kill all the leakers, and I want to get the president’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people,” Scaramucci said.
After the article was published, Scaramucci sought to shrug off the controversy with a tweet: “I sometimes use colorful language. I will refrain in this arena but not give up the passionate fight for realDonaldTrump’s agenda. #MAGA.”
Later in the night he took to Twitter again, this time to lay blame at the feet of New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza for reporting on their phone call.
“I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again,” Scaramucci tweeted. Lizza said Scaramucci never set any rules for the conversation, such as his comments being off-the-record.
The White House at first seemed unfazed by the article or unsure of how to respond. Incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointed reporters to Scaramucci’s tweet and said “We’re working on health care.”
Spicer, who will soon leave the White House, walked by reporters staking out his office and passed on the opportunity to comment.
But by early Thursday evening, Sanders spoke to reporters outside the West Wing saying Scaramucci has “made pretty clear he’s a passionate guy. I think he might sometimes let that passion get the better of him. I think maybe that happened and he used some colorful language that I don’t anticipate he’ll do again.”
Asked if Trump needs to step in to referee the infighting on his staff, she touted the president’s business career and said, “I think he knows when he needs to play a role and when he does, he will.”
Scaramucci took over the communications job on Wednesday, even though he wasn’t supposed to start until Aug. 15 — a move that a White House official said was designed to thwart any attempt by Priebus to derail Scaramucci yet again.
Scaramucci and his allies are compiling a diagram of the news organizations that they suspect received leaked information from Priebus, and they plan to present it to the president on Friday, according to a White House official who asked for anonymity to discuss the secret plan of attack.
“If Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that,” Scaramucci said in an interview with CNN early Thursday morning.
On Fox News that same morning, Kellyanne Conway, a senior counselor to the president, described the leaks that Scaramucci was ranting about as “people using the press to shiv each other in the ribs.”
As all of this was playing out, few came to Priebus’ defense. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a longtime friend and fellow Republican from Wisconsin, said at a news conference on Thursday that “Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House, and I believe he has the president’s confidence.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has informally advised Trump on his feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, was one of the few Trump allies to come to Preibus’ defense on Thursday.
“My advice to Reince is just do your job,” Gingrich said. “Ignore the noise. Assume it’s noise. He’s the chief of staff, and he’s the chief of staff until he isn’t.”
At the White House press briefing on Thursday afternoon, reporters asked Sanders three times if the president still has confidence in his chief of staff. She would not directly answer.
“We all serve at the pleasure of the president, and if he gets to a place where that isn’t the case, he’ll let you know,” Sanders said.
A Republican who is in close contact with those at the White House rated Priebus’s job security in this way: “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 2.”
Priebus attended a medal of valor ceremony at the White House Thursday where he was seen smiling broadly and applauding as Trump entered East Room. When the president left the event he appeared to briefly shake hands with his chief of staff who clasped Trump’s right shoulder with his left hand.
Since being named the new communications director last week, Scaramucci has taken a very Trumpian approach to the job — blowing a kiss during a press briefing on Friday, sparring with a BBC reporter over whether the president is elitist, threatening to fire his entire staff, cursing and unexpectedly calling into a morning talk show. While this might appear out of control, it creates the sort of must-watch drama that delights the president.
On Wednesday night, Scaramucci had dinner at the White House with the president, first lady, Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine to discuss how best to overhaul the West Wing staff. New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza tweeted about the dinner, prompting an angry call from Scaramucci, who wanted to know Lizza’s source.
“You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you, as an American patriot, to give me a sense of who leaked it,” Scaramucci said to Lizza.
Scaramucci was also angry that Politico reported on the financial disclosure form he filed while at the Export-Import Bank, which showed that he stood to continue to receive profits from his former company. Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert, who wrote the article, said she obtained the document — which is considered a public record — by simply requesting it from the agency.
Scaramucci told Lizza that he thought Priebus had leaked it and that he had called the FBI and the Department of Justice.
“Are you serious?” Lizza asked.
Soon after their conversation, Scaramucci made his suspicions public in a tweet and tagged Priebus: “In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting FBI and the TheJusticeDept #swamp Reince45.”
In an unusual move, the spokeswoman for the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — whom Trump has repeatedly attacked this week for not investigating reports of leaks — released a late-night statement pledging that Sessions “will aggressively pursue leak cases wherever they may lead.”
Two hours after Scaramucci posted the tweet, he deleted it.
The next morning, Lizza appeared on CNN’s “New Day” to share some details from the night before — and he was suddenly cut short by a call from Scaramucci, who wanted to explain himself.
“Yeah so, when I was speaking to you last night, Ryan, I said it was unpatriotic that you weren’t telling me who the leakers were … And so you may have caught it the wrong way,” Scaramucci said, as if having a private conversation with Lizza. “I was teasing you, and it was sarcastic. It was one Italian to another.”
Chris Cuomo, one of the show’s hosts, tried to take the interview back over, and Scaramucci acknowledged that the financial disclosure was actually a public record — but he repeatedly railed against those in the White House he believes are leaking information.
“I told the president this morning, ‘When the iceberg hits the boat, the rats are flying up from steerage.’ Right? Because the water comes in steerage,” Scaramucci said, comparing the White House to a sinking ship. “So when you mention the FBI and the Department of Justice, you watch how the rats lift in the boat.”
Scaramucci claimed that he tagged Priebus in the late-night tweet so that he could investigate the leak, but he also said that journalists assumed he was blaming Priebus because they “actually know who the leakers are.”
“So if Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that,” Scaramucci said.
Scaramucci also said that he doesn’t know if his relationship with Priebus, which last week he insisted was just fine, can ever be repaired.
“We have had differences. When I said we were brothers … that’s because we’re rough on each other. Some brothers are like Cain and Abel, other brothers can fight with each other and then get along,” Scaramucci said, referencing the biblical brothers without mentioning that Cain murdered Abel. “I don’t know if this is repairable or not — that will be up to the president.”
Later in the morning, The Washington Post asked Scaramucci if Trump had authorized him to call into CNN to discuss Priebus and the leaks, and Scaramucci responded: “He did, yes.”
The Washington Post’s Abby Philip contributed to this report.