On Monday afternoon, John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, made his first major staffing decision, forcing out the White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, after less than two weeks on the job. The move was unexpected. President Trump had issued no public statements criticizing Scaramucci for a series of obscenity-laced statements he made to me last Wednesday night, which accused the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus of leaking to reporters and, without offering any evidence, committing a felony.
The sacking of Scaramucci signals that Kelly, a retired marine general, may actually be empowered to be a true chief of staff. There was no bigger test for Kelly than the fate of Scaramucci, who, in his Wednesday phone call, demanded that I reveal my sources for a trivial tweet about who the President had dinner with that night, threatened to fire his entire staff if I didn’t, alleged that he had called the F.B.I. to investigate his White House rivals, attacked Reince Priebus as a “paranoid schizophrenic,” and described Steve Bannon as engaging in auto-fellatio.
After the interview was published, several people asked me if I believed Scaramucci would be fired. My understanding at the time was that Scaramucci was already on thin ice with the President after a series of high-profile appearances. But with Trump you never know—he could fire him, or he could promote him. When Trump fired Reince Priebus instead of Scaramucci on Friday, we seemed to have the answer. Scaramucci had publicly attacked the chief of staff, whom he blamed, in crude terms, for “cock-blocking” him from a position at the White House for six months. And it was Priebus who was forced out.
But Kelly, apparently, as his first move as chief of staff, told Trump that he wanted Scaramucci out of the White House. “Anthony Scaramucci will be leaving his role as White House Communications Director,” the official White House statement announcing his departure said. “Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team. We wish him all the best.”
A hint of Kelly’s potential influence on Trump emerged two weeks ago, in Aspen, Colorado, when Kelly made a startling revelation. According to several sources who attended a private briefing that included some of the nation’s most senior current and former national-security officials, Kelly sought to ease their minds about one of the most controversial and famous Trump proposals: the border wall with Mexico. Many of the current and former officials were deeply skeptical of Trump, and surprised that Kelly, a respected Marine Corps general, would even take a job working for him.
Kelly explained that he had spent a great deal of time talking through the issue with Trump, and he believed he had convinced the President that he didn’t actually need to build a physical wall along the entire nineteen-hundred-mile-long border between the United States and Mexico. Instead, the use of sophisticated monitoring technology, air surveillance, and fencing could secure the border with what Trump could start calling a “barrier.”
To the officials in the room, it was a fascinating admission. Kelly seemed to be suggesting that he was one of the few people who might be able to tame Trump and get him to back off some of his most cartoonish policy ideas, even the ones that were core campaign promises. Kelly did not seem delusional. After impressing the group with the anecdote, Kelly added a caveat that was paraphrased for me as something to the effect of, “But you never know: one tweet, and that could all change.”
The question hanging over Kelly’s move to chief of staff is whether he can convince Trump that he needs the kind of control over the White House that a traditional chief of staff enjoys in order to be effective. The vast majority of modern Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have required all employees in the Executive Office of the President to report to the President through the chief of staff.
No chief of staff would want to step into the role with a communications director who seemed to be super-empowered by the President and was talking to reporters as if he, not the chief of staff, ran the White House. When Trump hired him, Scaramucci announced that he would report directly to the President, not to Priebus. That was a deal that Kelly would have been foolish to tolerate.
The idea that all of Trump’s problems are communications failures that can be easily fixed, or the result of the West Wing’s warring factions, is absurd. The problems of this White House run far deeper, and start with Trump himself. But surely he could have communications professionals who don’t make things even worse.
On Wednesday night, Scaramucci told me, “What I’m going to do is I’m going to eliminate everyone on the comms team and we’ll start over.” He did not know how prescient he was.