WASHINGTON | New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci went after chief of staff Reince Priebus on Thursday as a suspected “leaker” inside the West Wing in a pull-no-punches interview that laid bare the personality clashes and internal turmoil of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The fish stinks from the head down,” Scaramucci said after calling in to CNN for an interview that he said was authorized by Trump, the only person to whom Scaramucci reports. A say-anything New Yorker like his boss, Scaramucci challenged Priebus to come forward and say publicly that he’s not a leaker.
In the clearest sign yet that the president and his new communications director are cut from the same cloth, Scaramucci has spent the past 24 hours publicly complaining about the “leak” of a public document, speculating on Twitter and calling in to television shows. He’s shown no hesitation to enlist what he describes as his “buddies” at the FBI to investigate anyone he believes is damaging the White House.
And he’s openly aired differences between himself and Priebus, comparing their relationship to that of brothers who are “rough on each other” and invoking Cain and Abel. One of those biblical brothers murdered the other.
“I don’t know if this is repairable or not — that will be up to the president,” Scaramucci said of his differences with Priebus.
It all appears to signal what could be a new and even less stable phase in Trump’s young presidency, with considerable energy devoted to palace intrigue and internal power struggles. And it comes as Republicans on Capitol Hill are having trouble advancing the president’s agenda and as investigators probe allegations of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election last fall.
Scaramucci has been on the job less than a week, having been hired by the president against the wishes of Priebus and other senior officials, including adviser Steve Bannon.
His arrival marked the first in a series of falling dominoes that seemed to be leading toward Priebus, the chief of staff who as of Wednesday insisted he isn’t going anywhere.
Press secretary Sean Spicer, a close ally of Priebus, resigned last week.
Scaramucci then forced out another communications aide close with Priebus.
Then came Wednesday night.
Scaramucci tweeted that someone had illegally leaked financial information about him, conspicuously mentioning Priebus’s Twitter handle. Scaramucci later deleted that tweet and said he had only mentioned Priebus to show that all senior leaders are taking the leak crackdown seriously.
“In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony, I will be contacting @FBI and the @JusticeDept #swamp @Reince45,” his since-deleted tweet read.
Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form wasn’t leaked at all. It was released after a public records request by a Politico reporter to the Export-Import Bank, where Scaramucci had been employed at a senior level since mid-June.
The Associated Press subsequently obtained the same financial disclosure Thursday. A reporter filled out a publicly available form, turned it in at the bank’s office and was emailed a copy of Scaramucci’s financial disclosure about 30 minutes later.
In the CNN interview, Scaramucci said he’d be reaching out to his “buddies” in the FBI about the matter.
If Scaramucci tries to direct the FBI to conduct a leak investigation, especially when there was no illegal disclosure to begin with, that could brush up against the Justice Department’s obligation to function independently from the White House, said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer in Washington.
“It starts to potentially smell and approach an inappropriate line,” Zaid said.
As CNN was discussing the financial disclosure episode, Scaramucci called in — ripping a page from Trump’s own playbook.
In his free-wheeling diatribe, he sidestepped the point that his financial documents were a matter of public record, saying he believes there are efforts to “undermine me with the president and my teammates.” He insisted, “they’re releasing all this information trying to hit me, to eject me,”
“I can tell you two fish that don’t stink, and that’s me and the president,” Scaramucci declared after implying the chief of staff was among those who leak harmful information to the media. “I don’t like the activity going on in the White House. I don’t like what they’re doing to my friend.”
Later in the interview, Scaramucci addressed Priebus in even clearer terms.
“If Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that,” Scaramucci said. “He’s going to need to speak for his own actions.”
Kellyanne Conway, another senior White House adviser, said in a Fox News interview: “Somebody is trying to get in his way and scare him off from working here, which is a huge mistake.”
Trump has praised Scaramucci’s combativeness and loyalty, which the president has contrasted with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ perceived betrayal. That’s according to three White House officials and people close to the president not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Trump has publicly complained about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, while attaching little import to the fact that Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse his longshot candidacy. Scaramucci, meanwhile, backed other GOP contenders before supporting Trump.
Trump so far he has made no move to stop Scaramucci from putting increased scrutiny on Priebus, according to the three people.
But a rule of thumb in Trump’s inner circle is that it’s never wise to outshine the president. Trump has reacted angrily when certain aides — including Bannon and, briefly, his son-in-law Jared Kushner — received outsized media attention.
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under George W. Bush, said Scaramucci should be careful with his public appearances.
“Ask Steve Bannon what happens if you get too much publicity and go too far,” he said. “It reminds me of Icarus flying too close to the sun.”
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York, Eric Tucker, Jill Colvin and Daniel Trielli contributed to this report.