WASHINGTON — In a White House under siege, something had to change.
Press secretary Sean Spicer’s resignation Friday let off a pressure valve, allowing an administration that is being pummeled on multiple and multiplying fronts the chance, at least for once, to dictate its own story.
But Spicer’s departure after the most fraught six months of antagonism between the press and a West Wing that anyone can remember is just one move in a shuffle of personnel and tactics that augurs an aggressive White House fightback that is likely to intensify the current discord in Washington.
Trump has beefed up his legal team and escalated his rhetoric in an apparent attempt to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller, and any results of his probe into alleged collusion between his campaign team and Russian officials.
And in a shake-up in the communications team, he brought in Anthony Scaramucci, a swaggering, New York wheeler-and-dealer, to revive his political brand and promoted Sarah Huckabee Sanders to replace Spicer.
Trump appears to be trying to revive his organization in an attempt to break out of a prolonged funk that has to a great extent wasted the first six months of his term — a time when presidents are usually at the apex of their power.
But the reshuffle will not address what many critics see as the root of the crises that are assailing the White House — the behavior and political conduct of the President himself. Scaramucci made that much clear.
“The President himself is always going to be the President. I was in the Oval Office with him earlier today, and we were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity,” he said.
“I think he’s got some of the best political instincts in the world, and perhaps in history.”
Trump’s own behavior in recent days, in which he has all but declared war on both Mueller and his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well as revived questions over the Russia investigation in an astonishing interview with the New York Times, appeared at the least to call Scaramucci’s assessment of his political sense into question.
His heated interventions also appear to be betraying the rising pressure inside the White House at the expanding allegations and investigations marching inexorably closer to the administration and the Trump family.
News broken by CNN Friday that Mueller’s investigators asked the West Wing staff to preserve documents relevant to a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer last year confirmed that the White House itself is now in Mueller’s crosshairs.
Mueller is also moving inexorably closer to the thing Trump cares about most — his family — with both his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Donald Jr. under scrutiny over their past history of meetings with Russian intermediaries.
Trump’s warning in the Times interview that it would be a “violation” if Mueller probed his personal finances, could indicate that he believes the special counsel is targeting tax returns he has refused to release.
Trump’s position is that his and his family’s financial dealings are off limits, even though Mueller might view them as a possible tool to see whether his business history poses any conflicts of interests to the President’s current role.
“The President’s point is that he doesn’t want the special counsel to move beyond the scope and outside of its mission,” Sanders told reporters after Scaramucci had vacated the podium. “And the President’s been very clear, as have his accountants and team, that he has no financial dealings with Russia.”
The Russia pressure is not going to relent next week either.
Key members of the Trump campaign team, including Donald Jr., Kushner and former campaign chair Paul Manafort have been asked to give testimony on Capitol Hill that would send Russia fever into overdrive.
Meanwhile, the White House is still struggling for the kind of “wins” that Trump promised. Despite introducing new measures to curtail illegal immigration, there are few other obvious successes for the new communications team to trumpet. While jobs creation has remained steady and strong, the economy has not yet exploded into growth. And though the stock market has been on a bull run, many presidents find that tying their performance to the markets is a perilous practice.
The near-death limbo that is the current fate of health care reform has exemplified the trouble the White House has experienced in enacting any significant legislation. Trump’s relationships with GOP lawmakers are brittle at best and he has the lowest approval ratings of any president at the same point in his administration.
Scaramucci’s first job, in his first appearance at the podium in the White House Briefing Room on Friday, was to insist that the walls are not closing in around Trump. And he appeared to be performing as much for the President as the journalists in front of him and the audience watching at home.
“I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire, I’ve seen him at Madison Square Garden with a topcoat on, standing in the key and hitting foul shots and swishing them — he sinks three-foot putts,” Scaramucci said.
“I don’t see this as a guy who’s ever under siege. This is a very, very competitive person. Obviously there’s a lot of incoming that comes into the White House. But the President’s a winner and what we’re going to do is we’re going to do a lot of winning.”
Scaramucci’s attitude to his new job appears, for public consumption at least to be that Trump is actually doing a great job as president, but that his successes have simply not been properly communicated to the nation.
“When you look at the individual state by state polls, you can see the guy’s doing phenomenally well,” Scaramucci said. “It’s indicating to me that the president is really well loved. There seems to be a disconnect in terms of some of the things that are going on and we want to connect that.”
Scaramucci’s smooth, urbane performance was in contrast to the antagonistic and defensive performances from the podium that characterized much of Spicer’s tumultuous tenure as White House spokesman.
But it was a contrast in style more than it was a contrast in substance.
He punted on the question of Trump’s unproven assertion that millions of illegal votes cost him victory in the popular vote against Hillary Clinton in last year’s election. But he was careful not to contradict the President in one of his most infamous falsehoods, suggesting that questions of credibility and truthfulness will continue to be an issue once he is running the show.
“If the president says it, … let me do more research on it, My guess is that there’s probably some level of truth to that,” Scaramucci said.