Mooch: the best new clown in town

We’re a week into Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure as President Trump’s Director of Communications, perhaps the only full week he’ll serve, as incredulity at this latest turn in the Trump White House soap-opera has already turned to high farce with Mooch’s expletive laden on-the-record interview with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza where he firmly set his sights on ridding the Trump Administration of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and political svengali, Steve Bannon.

Scaramucci has launched himself into one of the hottest hot seats in global political communication – but seemingly with no grasp of either Journalist, nor Organisational Communications, School 101. As someone who spent over 20 years in corporate communications prior to heading into academia, that appals and saddens me. Scaramucci is seemingly ignorant both of how the media operates (nothing is off the record until both sides have agreed that’s the case), and of what makes a great spokesperson, be it for a corporate or a president.

Now Mooch is clearly a pal of the President, albeit politically, it seems he’s a very recent one. You can almost imagine his pitch for the Director of Comms role: “Hey Mr President. I can walk and talk at the same time. Give me enough access and I’ll spit out whatever you want me to, with a big grin and a warm, Italian, touchy-feely tone that’ll have the White House reporters eating outta my hand! Capiche? How hard can it be?”

Well, if you know nothing about it, pretty hard, as Anthony’s  first week in big school has shown. Here are just a few lessons he should have learned.

  1. Be aware of your net footprint. Scaramucci has been all over Twitter for a while, with positions on issues such as gun control and climate change at odds with the president. All week he has been mocked for them – and trying to “acid wash” (a Donald Trump term, seemingly from the 80s) them away after the event just doesn’t work, and has drawn ever more exposure to his past views.
  2. Be humble. According to Scaramucci’s late night rant, he’s here to “serve the country”. Perhaps that entails first getting to know the country from other than a Wall Street perspective, and taking the time to get to know his colleagues, stakeholders and audience before letting rip. Tom Wolfe’s description of a ‘Master of the Universe’ is apt for the Mooch. He arrived in the West Wing Press Briefing Room knowing it all. A week later, it’s apparent to the rest of us that he has an awful lot to learn.
  3. Be proud of what you do, but leave your ego at the door – is Mooch proud of what he’s doing, or has he just sold his soul to be Trump’s consigliere? Great Directors of Communication hone their craft over years. They stand up to their bosses, acting as part conscience, part teacher as they shape the messages that will create the right actions from those on the receiving end. As soon as they become the story, their impact wanes – as seen with Sean Spicer almost from January 21. The very best spokespeople understand the media and can push all the right buttons – but they never eclipse the star.

Anthony Scaramucci’s performance so far is more the fire cracker than the Saturn V rocket. Maybe he’s a quick study. Maybe, as some journalists contend, he’s not in Trump’s pocket, but a tool for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the power struggle with Bannon and Priebus. Perhaps he has been the perfect deflection in a terrible week for the Trump presidency. What he’s not, and I suspect will never be, is an effective Director of Communications. But there again, this White House is consistent only in its surprises. It’s a circus, and Mooch is the new clown in town.

Mark Shanahan

Politics & IR lecturer, University of Reading

photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Breezes picking up: six months into a presidency like no other

I’ve just been scanning the latest headlines on President Trump and a presidency that history may well record as the car crash to end all car crashes. In the past few days he has publicly humiliated his Attorney General, while his Secretary of State is rumoured to be on the verge of quitting. His Press Secretary – and a senior assistant in that team – have quit, to be replaced by a Wall Street financier with no communications experience (but who appears to be straight out of central casting for The Godfather).

In legislative terms, Trump has pushed the Senate to vote on a Healthcare Bill (forced through on the casting vote of the VP) without any detail on what the Bill contained or discussion about it. Yet the chances are that his efforts to Repeal and Replace Obamacare could well still die in Congress. At the same time, the House has voted 416-3 on a Sanctions Bill on Russia, Iran and North Korea – a Bill that the President is contemplating not writing into law. If he does that, he may find Congress summons up the votes to override his veto.

Meanwhile, the President’s much-trumpeted tax legislation has yet to progress; the Mexican Wall remains a pipe-dream and, in fact, six months into his term in office, Trump has failed to land any major legislation. And what’s clear is that he doesn’t seem to be enjoying the job at all. But should we be surprised?

Donald Trump came to prominence as the scion of a family empire where his wishes were never questioned. He surrounded himself with people who were prepared to take the money and not challenge his opinion – and his intent was to take that style to Washington DC. His inner circle encompasses his family – a very few outsiders. Those such as his new Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, are tolerated so long as they present no threat – and certainly Scaramucci has gone out of his way to sell his soul on prime time TV since last weekend to prove his loyalty to Trump. And loyalty is the key word. Trump is threatened not just by those who are more intelligent, but by anyone who might have their own power base outside his circle – too often they’re the butt of his increasingly intemperate tweets. and as exemplified by his treatment of Jeff Sessions, he’s a bully who exerts his power not through witty repartie and searing intellect, but through aggression and humiliation. It might work for a New York development project, but is significantly less effective when you are supposed to be the Leader of the Free World and are operating under 24/7 media scrutiny.

Fair play to Trump. He seemed to have got away with it up to this week. But since last Friday, there has been a pretty perceptible shift in his behaviour – which has largely arisen from the realisation that the investigation into his campaign’s links with Russia, led by Special Counsel Mueller, seems to have the power to requisition and investigate Trump’s finances. Why has that spooked the President? What does he have to hide?

Other than his increasingly questionable surrogates, President Trump appears to be the only person on the planet still questioning whether Russia attempted to intervene in the US election. Actually that’s not fair. Anything up to 35 million people in Heartland America seem not to care a jot about ‘Russiagate’ either – but I’ll return to them presently.

This week has already seen ‘behind-closed-doors’ appearances from Jared Kushner before both the House and Senate’s Intelligence Committees. We’re about to be treated to former Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Junior’s testimony on the Hill too, though it appears this will be out of the public’s view…at this stage.

Democrats in DC are seeing the vultures circling and talking about impending impeachment, while Trump’s advocates staunchly state the whole Russian-connection investigation is a ‘nothingburger’. So why the increasingly-rattled Trump and his perceived chain of action that could see Jeff Sessions resign under presidential pressure; a new Recess-appointed Attorney General, and that person firing Robert Mueller and making the whole investigation go away?

It all comes down to the Trump finances – we’ve yet to see Trump’s tax returns, and if he has his way, we never will. What if, just for speculation’s sake, those returns and the abundance of corporate information around them, showed that Trump’s family businesses raised money in Russia to fund his developments. How far could Mueller follow the trail to investigate how clean that money was? And what if money flowing through the Trump accounts as he sold properties originated from the accounts of Russian oligarchs and was polished and shined as it emerged, freshly pressed from a wash and spin in the Trump financial laundry. Pure speculation of course, and at this stage there is no evidence to corroborate this train of thought. But what if? Would it be treason?

Treason would be very difficult to prove under the very tight US definition of treason which states:

By Section 110 of Article III. of the Constitution of the United States, it is declared that:

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open Court. The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason.”

Is Russia the ‘enemy’? Could Trump be seen as giving them aid and comfort? There are those saying that even proving links to involvement in election manipulation could be seen as treason. Couple this with the worst that could emerge from a deep probe into his finances, and no wonder Trump has been casting around for opinion on whether he can pardon both himself and the rest of his inner circle!

But we’re far from there yet. The febrile nature of DC politics hasn’t yet made it to Nebraska, or the Rust Belt or the Red counties of Texas. In the Heartland, while Trump may not yet have fulfilled his campaign promises, he hasn’t yet done his base wrong. Across social media, through alt-right radio and in the right-leaning press and TV, they rush to his defence, even when the ‘fake news’ is proven to be true – cf Don Junior’s release of e-mails relating to his pre-election meeting with a Russian lawyer.

Over the past six months in office, Trump has normalised the irrational, the intemperate and the unwise – and his base have loved him for it. Yet in the coming months, repeal of the ACA will bite at that base hard. Tax changes look set to favour the wealthy – and again, will hit the base hard. And still the swamp continues to fill with Wall Street billionaires, while the Mexican Wall continues to look great…but only on paper. If the base turns, Trump’s game could be up. Not because of any more negative headlines, but because it will lose him the support of GOP Representatives whose sole loyalty is to getting re-elected in the 2018 Mid-terms. If abandoning Trump will secure their seats, then that’s what will happen – and fast! So far they have backed the President because it cements the Republican stranglehold over the levers of power. In theory the Presidency is their greatest strength. It could yet turn out to be the GOP’s most massive weakness.

Six months in, and Trump is far from finished. The breezes are just picking up and not blowing the way he wants. They could bring the whole Trump House of Cards down. If that happens, it will be quick and Trump could be gone without warning. I suspect we won’t see any long-drawn-out impeachment process. It just doesn’t fit the style of a President quite unlike any other.

Mark Shanahan

Lecturer In Politics & IR, University of Reading

The Monroe Group – Reading Interdisciplinary Research Network for the Study of Politics in the Americas

The Monroe Group was established by Dr Mara Oliva (Department of History), Dr Mark Shanahan (Department of Politics) and Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English) in March 2017. The network is designed to encourage dialogue between scholars in the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences working on all aspects of politics in the American continent. It has been developed in response to recent expansion of staff and student recruitment working in the field of US and Latin American politics at the University of Reading.  

The Monroe Group will be home to existing UoR researchers and PhD students working in this area and will facilitate new collaborative projects, research grants applications and teaching development across all disciplines. In particular:


1)   US foreign policy

2)   Climate Change Diplomacy

3)   Gender, Diversity and Inclusion

4)   Representations, Rhetoric and Media

5)   Policy