Off the rails: Anthony Scaramucci's bizarre first week as White House communications director

Start with a brash New Yorker with no formal communications experience. Give him a plum Executive Branch job with a flawed reporting structure. The result: Anthony Scaramucci's bizarre first week at the White House.

Anthony Scaramucci. (Image via WhiteHouse.gov).
Anthony Scaramucci. (Image via WhiteHouse.gov).

White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci’s first full week on the job has been highly unusual, especially for the scripted world of presidential communications. First, he demanded an FBI probe into a "leak" of non-classified documents that are publicly available, indicating White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was the main suspect. Then he rang up a reporter at The New Yorker and called Priebus "a paranoid schizophrenic," and that was among the tamer of his insults. (Update: Priebus was fired on Friday and replaced as chief of staff with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly).

Experts say part of the reason the White House’s message went so far off the rails this week, aside from Scaramucci’s brash personality, is a flawed management structure, with the communications director reporting to the president instead of the chief of staff, which has typically been the case. Scaramucci is also serving as the key spokesperson for the administration, a frontline responsibility usually given to the press secretary.

The unbelievable events of the past week underscore the importance of a strong chief of staff, or at least one not being undermined by the president, according to experts. Anita Dunn, one of President Barack Obama’s communications directors and now MD at SKDKnickerbocker in Washington, notes Scaramucci reporting to the president may "reduce the gap between what Trump is saying and what the press and comms shop are saying," but could be unhelpful in other areas.

"The bigger managerial issue is the structure of the White House staff with all these direct reports. It isn't a comms issue but is a prescription for dysfunction and chaos, which, of course, is what we’ve seen to date," she explains. "You need a [strong] chief of staff to coordinate across the building to keep everyone moving in the same direction. Access to the president is fine, although not to be abused, but direct reports are not."

Don Baer, worldwide CEO at Burson-Marsteller and former White House communications director under President Bill Clinton, agrees that the Trump White House has an imperfect reporting structure, contending the communications director needs to be "behind the scenes," not in front of the cameras.

"It is a strategic job for someone who understands that there are many moving parts, different voices, and points of view. What you should be trying to do in the job is bring a coherent strategic communications plan together and roll that out in a way so that you’re seen as an honest broker," Baer says. "That is the job of a good communications director in an effective White House."

Scaramucci’s combative nature is another issue. After a more civil introductory press conference last Friday, Scaramucci began to wage a very public war, both in the media and with his Twitter account, against leaks from the administration. "I’m going to fire everybody; that’s how I am going to do it," Scaramucci told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, about his strategy for stopping leaks.

In an early morning Wednesday tweet, he called for the FBI to investigate the "leak" of his financial disclosure forms, tagging Priebus as if accusing him of doing the leaking. Scaramucci subsequently deleted the tweet.

Ellen Moran, EVP and GM at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who served as Obama’s communications director early in his first term, notes senior White House officials are required to publicly release financial forms.

"I don’t know how you leak a public document," she says. "I can only assume he wanted to send a pretty chilling signal to the rest of his staff."

Moran notes that by handing Scaramucci control of the entire communications operation, the White House put him in charge of messaging development and strategy. Yet so far, his main role has been as "a day-to-day combatant with reporters, which has been a hallmark Trump approach," she says.

"What I still don’t see is the person who is going to plan the narrative, who is going to look around the corner and try to set up a storyline that gets the operation where it needs to go," Moran adds. "He’s only going to be a change agent for the administration so far as they are going more and more into the day-to-day minutiae and less and less into building a longer-term narrative."

That minutiae has included Scaramucci calling up Washington-based New Yorker correspondent Ryan Lizza and demanding he reveal a source. Lizza detailed his wild phone conversation with Scaramucci, who called Reince a "paranoid schizophrenic," in an article posted Thursday afternoon. The newly minted communications director and former hedge fund chief also said Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is only interested in furthering his own brand rather than Trump’s, albeit using far more colorful language to make his point.

Though his choice of words shocked many, the fact that Scaramucci directly called a journalist is hardly surprising, experts say. Earlier this year, the financier warned media organizations "to tighten up editorial standards" after winning a retraction from CNN linking him to a Russian bank, a move Politico claimed scored points with Trump.

Scaramucci issued no public apology to his colleagues for the name-calling, but suggested the media is out to get him. "I made a mistake in trusting a reporter," he tweeted. "It won’t happen again."

Tom Griscom, director of communications for President Ronald Reagan and now leader of crisis management and government relations firm Q Strategies, says Scaramucci, and Trump, for that matter, need to stop worrying about leaks.

"People in Washington leak because they believe it builds credibility with the media for themselves. It’s just the way Washington works. It’s learning how to manage the leak that is more important," he says. "You do not look underneath every basket to find a leak because it distracts from the reason you are there. You are there to help build support to things get done."

Trump’s ‘Mini-Me’
Reached before Scaramucci’s conversation with Lizza went public, several political comms veterans said that even without a strategic communications background, Scaramucci seemed to be a good appointment for the embattled administration, or at least one that made sense to them.

"Scaramucci is articulate, has the president’s trust and confidence, and relationships with reporters-not a bad place to start," Dunn said earlier this week. And while Scaramucci doesn’t have a traditional communications background, she points out, "This administration doesn’t do traditional on anything. Plus, Scaramucci can build a staff to manage his lack of strategic comms planning."

Others note Scaramucci and his boss are cut from the same cloth -- New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Scaramucci a Trump "Mini-Me" -- a plus in dealing with the president, who is said to favor personal relationships over political experience. They’re both brash New Yorkers who built their wealth and went on to have successful TV personas.

Griscom contends that Trump needed to fill the role with someone who understands the brand of the real estate mogul turned populist politician.

"The typical Washington comms director candidate would not work well with this president. Trump works differently than most," he says. "And so he was trying to reshape the comms job to fit who he is as president."

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