Tag Archives: White House

Scaramucci’s Removal Evokes White House Turmoil During the Reagan Years

The first nine days of Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure as the White House’s director of communications was a combination of bluster, bullying, and charm mixed with a bit of crazy. But, then again, that’s the sort of recipe favored by Donald Trump, a president who acts with impetuosity and has little time for strategy.

In the end, Scaramucci was too much even for Trump, and on the tenth day, the former hedge fund executive found himself amongst a long list of White House staffers suddenly on the outs with the president: Citing a wish to give new chief of staff John Kelly a clean slate, Scaramucci stepped down (or was removed, depending on your interpretation of reports) from his position. It’s a week Scaramucci will likely ponder over and over again in the coming months:

Scaramucci’s brief White House stay also set an (unofficial) record for shortest tenure for a communications director, besting the previous mark of eleven days set by John Koehler in 1987. Though Ronald Reagan won the 1984 election in a landslide, thoroughly thrashing Walter Mondale, the end of his second administration was beset by staff upheaval and intense intra-cabinet bickering and back stabbing. Sound familiar?

Reagan had appointed Treasury Secretary Don Regan as his chief of staff in 1985, setting off two years of feuding between Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan; in his 1988 memoir, Regan portrayed Mrs. Reagan as a puppet master who heavily relied on an astrologer to help guide and influence decision and American policy. Coupled with the Iran-Contra scandal, the executive branch of government seemed paralyzed. Perhaps the most illuminating example of the administration’s disarray during the last 24 months of the 40th president’s time in office was the appointment of Koehler as the new comm director, replacing Pat Buchanan, who resigned in January 1987 (and had his own issues with Regan and was mulling a run for president in 1988).

Mrs. Reagan was Koehler’s advocate within the administration. Largely on the advice of  Charles Wick, head of the US Information Agency, Mrs. Reagan felt Koehler, a German immigrant who served as interpreter for the U.S. Army in World War II and former managing director of the AP’s world services, could best shape the president’s message, and rushed through his appointment. “It was done quickly and without running the usual traps,” a White House official told the Washington Post at the time, which is why no one discovered that Koehler, as a 10-year-old, had served for six mouths in a Nazi youth group in Germany known as Jungvolk.

Regan wasn’t consulted before Koehler was brought aboard, and since Koehler didn’t list his participation in the youth group “on his resume,” the chief of staff said the West Wing had no way of knowing his past activities. Sensing a much-needed opening to possibly decrease the First Lady’s influence, Regan immediately shifted blame to the East Wing—aka Mrs. Reagan—for the hiring. Meanwhile, Koehler reportedly couldn’t understand the uproar: growing up in Dresden, Koehler said his participation was “almost mandatory” and that he left Jungvolk because “[he] was bored.” And, in a bizarre deflection, he told the Los Angeles Times that both his first and second wives were Jewish, adding, “What does that make me? A Zionist or a member of the Stern gang?”

Asked whether his appointment was in jeopardy, he said it would be a “black day in journalism” if he was ousted. And yet, in early March 1987, 11 days after being named the new communications director (and five days after he officially began the job), he was asked to effectively resign, following Regan out the door, who the president had ousted the previous week before (the coincidences are quite eerie). Unsurprisingly, Dutch sided with his wife, telling Regan, “[Nancy is] being blamed for Koehler and she’s seen unfairly.”

Trump consistently refers to the Reagan years as a golden period in American history, that he wants to make America great again like it was in the 1980s. Certainly, the events of this past week show how the 45th president is following in Reagan’s footsteps, though it may not be the path Trump thought he would encounter just seven months into his administration.

The Press Has Always Been a Guest in the President’s Home

Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.

It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.

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Where Have All The White House Press Briefings Gone?

The Trump administration’s combative relationship with the media is no secret, and the president’s supporters have happily rallied behind his purported distaste for the Fourth Estate — apparently not caring that, though he tweets angrily about the New York Times, his first call on issues is often to Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Over at The Atlantic, Rosie Gray describes the erosion of the traditional daily press briefing under Trump:

President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February.

The White House Press Corps has understandably balked at being told they can’t record audio or video, especially those whose medium is audio or video. CNN’s Jim Acosta, quoted in Gray’s story, tweeted:

Acosta is half-correct here. State- and city-level political reporters do experience this kind of stonewalling, and they do chafe at it. The tactic is also not limited to Republican politicians: in the Democratic haven of New York (both city and state), reporters are constantly frustrated with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to take off-topic questions, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to answer any questions at all.

And the Democrats’ great blue hope in the Congressional race in Georgia’s Sixth District reportedly banned the conservative-leaning Free Beacon from attending an event.

Gray’s piece in The Atlantic highlights the rock-and-a-hard-place status of the White House press corps, who seem unsure of how to fight back against a president who doesn’t seem to care whether or not they show up to work — and may even prefer if they don’t. But the inability to record statements from an administration that habitually impugns the media’s character, squawking “Fake News” at any story it dislikes, is troubling.

For an example of why recordings are so important, see former White House ethics lawyer (under George W. Bush) Richard Painter’s response to a Daily Beast story reporting — with audio evidence — that Kellyanne Conway made comments publicly about fighting “demographic wars.”

And of course, there’s fired FBI director James Comey’s recent, memorable response to Trump threatening to release tapes of their conversations: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” NPR has a lengthy look at presidents themselves resorting to taping conversations out of frustration with media representations of their conversations.

For what it’s worth, here’s a tip for our colleagues in Washington, D.C.: It’s pretty easy to surreptitiously use Voice Memos on your iPhone, and the District of Columbia is a one-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations (shout-out to Nixon).

(N.B.: We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight that Gray asked Steve Bannon for an explanation for the off-camera press briefings, and he texted back, “Sean got fatter,” proving that Luke Mazur’s depiction of Bannon in his foe fiction for The Awl is spot-on.)

Two Scoops of Ice Cream for Him, One for You

Time reporters Michael Scherer and Zeke J. Miller spend dinner with the president and not only observe how the White House has changed under Donald Trump, but how Donald Trump has changed since taking over the White House. (Spoilers: the White House has already had an extreme makeover where maudlin oils have replaced modern art, yet Donald Trump remains essentially the same. He gets two scoops of ice cream and you get one, natch.)

One senior White House official recently outlined the three rules of Trump for a group of reporters: When you’re right, you fight. Controversy elevates message. And never apologize. All of these rules have survived his time in office, if in slightly more modest forms. After bringing new levels of combativeness to the political process, “the only way you survive is to be combative,” Trump says now. “I’ll read stories in the New York Times that are so one-sided. Hey, I know when I am successful. I know victory.”

But that is not all he has to say. Before the dinner breaks up, the President begins to muse about an alternative world to the one he has helped create. “It never made sense to me, the level of animosity,” Trump says. “All you want to do is, like, Let’s have a great military. Let’s have low taxes. Let’s have good health care. Let’s have good education.”

For a moment, he seems to be proposing a more civil public space in American democracy, one the Trump campaign did little to foster and which the Trump Administration is unlikely to experience.

Is this real introspection or just more performance for his guests? The answer isn’t long in coming. Within a day of the plates being cleared away, Trump takes to Twitter to attack “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” the Democratic Senate leader. He belittles Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal for once misrepresenting his military service—“he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness.”

No truce is around the corner. President Trump fights on.

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President Trump, Three Days On: The Sound and the Fury

By most standards, Spicer’s statement Saturday did not go well. He appeared tired and nervous in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit. He publicly gave faulty facts and figures — which he said were provided to him by the Presidential Inaugural Committee — that prompted a new round of media scrutiny.

Many critics thought Spicer went too far and compromised his integrity. But in Trump’s mind, Spicer’s attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.

Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralized that the public’s perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.

This story in the Washington Post — based on interviews with almost a dozen senior White House officials and and Trump advisors — paints a picture of an uneasy administration trying to stay in orbit around its hyper-sensitive leader and his insider cabal.

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Ten Letters A Day: To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation

In The New York Times Magazine, Jeanne Marie Laskas goes behind the scenes in the White House mailroom where “50 staff members, 36 interns, and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers” read and processed the 10,000 emails and letters President Barack Obama received daily during his eight-year presidency. From the 10,000 pieces of correspondence, staffers were charged with choosing the ten letters that Obama read each day.

President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate and explicit practice of 10 letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all hard mail would be scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every email every day would be used to create a word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at what everyday Americans were writing in to say.

Curating the 10LADs was a job she regarded as sacrosanct. She thought of it as a daily conversation with the president, each package an array of voices she believed most accurately rendered America’s mood: Here’s what America is feeling, Mr. President. “Sometimes I think of it as a tray passing under a door,” she said.

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A look at hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, and what they reveal about the president’s decision-making process:

One Cabinet official made it clear that she did not share the President’s growing commitment to coupon-clipping: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She rejected the White House’s budget for her department, and wrote the President a six-page letter detailing her complaints. Some in the White House saw the long letter as a weapon, something that could be leaked if Clinton didn’t get her way. ‘At the proposed funding levels,’ Clinton wrote, ‘we will not have the capacity to deliver either the full level of civilian staffing or the foreign assistance programs that underlie the civilian-military strategy you outlined for Afghanistan; nor the transition from U.S. Military to civilian programming in Iraq; nor the expanded assistance that is central to our Pakistan strategy.’

“The Obama Memos.” — Ryan Lizza, New Yorker

More Lizza: “Inside the Crisis.” New Yorker, Oct. 12, 2009