By Jonathan Bernstein
WE’VE finally found the one thing that’s perfectly normal about the Donald Trump White House: When things go bad, blame the message (and the messenger), not the substance. And so, with things going quite badly indeed, we get to the resignation of Sean Spicer, press secretary and short-term celebrity “Saturday Night Live” send-up, and the hiring of a new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.
Spicer reportedly resigned over his opposition to Scaramucci, although as with all such explanations, we’ll have to see whether it holds up over time. What is obvious from Friday’s news is that the White House is as chaotic and mismanaged as ever, given that the news media has already reported not only Spicer’s objection to the new press secretary, but also the strong opposition of both White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon, who said Scaramucci would get the job “over my dead body.”
That part is not normal.
It is meaningful.
And it doesn’t bode well for the future.
Nor do reports that Scaramucci got his job by impressing the president with his hard-hitting defense of the administration on cable TV shows. While appearing on television certainly is part of the job of a White House communications director, the real job is to map out and execute an overall communications strategy, something Scaramucci doesn’t appear to be qualified for. He hasn’t worked in government or politics, much less in a White House; his background is in finance, not communications. His hiring is another disturbing indication that the president of the United States is still governing mainly by reacting to what is on TV news shows, and that he still uses a “cut of his jib” test for personnel. That’s all very bad news.
Indeed, as the Washington Examiner’s Sarah Westwood and Al Weave report: Scaramucci would take the prestigious communications director title “but would not be fulfilling that responsibility because he doesn’t know how,” the source said. “Basically, Trump wanted to give Scaramucci something to do because he thinks he’s a ‘good Italian kid,’” the source said.
Replacing Spicer and former White House communications chief Mike Dubke with Scaramucci is also another step away from the Republican Party and toward a more personal presidency. That’s not good news, either, since the record of personal presidencies in the 1960s and 1970s was not very impressive. Indeed, Sean Spicer was one of the very few people in the Trump White House who actually had the proper experience and credentials for the job he was hired to do.
Was he good at the job? I’ll admit up front: As a former Hill press aide long ago, I have a principled bias in favor of all White House press secretaries. It’s a very difficult job in the best of times, and with the current president, it was almost certainly impossible for anyone to look good doing it. I do agree that Spicer made a serious mistake when, on Trump’s orders, he undermined his own credibility in his first days on the job by arguing an impossible position over inauguration crowd sizes. As hard as it would have been to do, Spicer should have stood up to Trump right away and explained that no one could do the job under those circumstances.
Still, much of what Spicer was subsequently hit for seemed to me mostly about blaming the messenger. Of course he was going to spin. Of course the White House was going to limit access at times. And of course reporters would complain about it. That’s how the system works, and as far as I could see, Spicer—more than most in this White House—was doing his job more or less the way it was supposed to be done.
One could certainly argue that Spicer simply should have resigned early on, and that no competent professional could possibly hold down that job in this administration. There’s a pretty good case for that. And obviously he made his share of mistakes over his six months in the job.
Still, anyone who thinks Sean Spicer was among the top 100 problems with Donald Trump’s presidency is confusing visibility with importance. And there’s a much-better-than-zero chance that the press corps six months from now will be telling stories of how much everything has deteriorated since he left.