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White House Tensions Soar as Leaks Probe Intensifies

  • Peter Heinlein

FILE - Anthony Scaramucci talks with media at Trump Tower in New York, Nov. 17, 2016.

Simmering White House tensions broke into the open Thursday as President Donald Trump’s new communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, denounced those who leak damaging and embarrassing information about the administration, by beginning a searing, coarsely worded campaign aimed at his internal rivals.

Scaramucci denounced White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, in a profanity-filled interview with The New Yorker, which the weekly published online Thursday.

Scaramucci, a wealthy former Wall Street banker and a fervent defender of Trump, took aim first at Priebus, whom he has suspected of leaking confidential details about White House meetings. Priebus, a former Republican Party chairman who has many strong connections to prominent Republican lawmakers, is one of the most powerful administration officials.

“Reince is a [expletive] paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said in a telephone conversation with the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.

FILE - White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus talks with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 26, 2017.
FILE - White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus talks with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 26, 2017.

‘I’m here to serve the country’

Scaramucci then turned his attention to Bannon, whom he accused of using his senior position at the White House to advance his own reputation. Using unusually vulgar language to describe Bannon, the new communications director said he was not that sort of person: “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the [expletive] strength of the president. I’m here to serve the country.”

Priebus and Bannon are known to have strongly opposed Trump’s decision to appoint Scaramucci last week, and his arrival at the White House prompted the immediate resignation of press secretary and Priebus ally Sean Spicer. Another communications team member has since resigned amid allegations that he was the source of press leaks.

FILE - Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist to President Donald Trump, left, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stand in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
FILE - Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist to President Donald Trump, left, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stand in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

The author of The New Yorker account, Ryan Lizza, wrote that Scaramucci demanded that he identify the source for a story he had posted a day before. The writer refused, but Scaramucci got “more and more worked up, and he eventually convinced himself that Priebus was my source.”

Leakers ‘will all be fired’

The communications director said of White House staffers who might be leaking confidential information: “They’ll all be fired by me. I fired one guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow. I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus ... he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.”

Screen shot of tweet by Anthony Scaramucci on White House leaks that he subsequently deleted, July 27, 2017.
Screen shot of tweet by Anthony Scaramucci on White House leaks that he subsequently deleted, July 27, 2017.

After the telephone conversation, Scaramucci posted an anti-Priebus tweet, then apparently thought better of it and deleted the remark. He later said that his denunciations of the chief of staff had been misinterpreted, and that all senior staff executives, including himself and Priebus, were equally determined to find out and remove whoever has been passing confidential information to reporters.

Priebus and Bannon both declined to respond late Thursday to Scaramucci’s remarks about them. The communications director returned to Twitter when he became aware of the political firestorm his remarks had generated, and posted: “I sometimes use colorful language. I will refrain in this arena but not give up the passionate fight for @realDonaldTrump’s agenda. #MAGA” — the hashtag denoting Trump’s campaign slogan, “make America great again.”

Watch: Simmering White House Tensions Break Into the Open

Showdown likely

Scaramucci set the stage for a showdown with Priebus the day he was hired, telling a White House briefing that he and the chief of staff were “like brothers” in that they had strong disagreements.

He took the analogy a step further early Thursday during a television appearance (CNN’s New Day program) where he compared himself and Priebus to Cain and Abel, the biblical brothers who fought until Cain killed Abel. Scaramucci said then that he and Priebus “can fight with each other and [still] get along,” but added that he did not know if their differences were “repairable.”

“That will be up to the president,” Scaramucci told the TV audience.

Scaramucci also has complained about disclosures of details of his personal finances and threatened to get the FBI to step into that case, at the same time broadly hinting this was another action against him engineered by Priebus. However, the Politico website, which first published details of the communications director’s multimillion-dollar holdings, said all the information came from publicly available documents that Scaramucci himself had filed.

Priebus’ many supporters in the so-called establishment wing of the Republican Party were quick to come to his defense when the dispute with Scaramucci spun out of control.

FILE - Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, talk at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016.
FILE - Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, talk at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016.

House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters he thinks Priebus is doing a great job.

“Reince is a very close friend of mine,” he told reporters. “And I believe he has the president’s confidence. So, if those two gentlemen have differences, my advice would be to sit down and settle your differences.”

In a press briefing Thursday afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to directly address the comments made by Scaramucci, but said there is “healthy competition” in the White House, which Trump encourages.

“With that competition, you usually get the best results,” she said.

University of Akron political science professor David Cohen said jealousy and backstabbing have been a common occurrence in past administrations. However, Cohen told VOA there has never been anything like the “open warfare” currently on display among presidential aides.

‘Not long for his job’

“The reason he’s in White House, why Trump chose him as chief of staff, was to make peace with the Republican establishment,” Cohen said. “The fact that Reince is being undercut not only by Anthony Scaramucci but by the president of the United States himself is an indication that Reince is not long for his job.”

Cohen is one of a few American scholars who have specifically studied the office of White House chief of staff. Noting that Priebus and Speaker Ryan have long been close friends, the professor said any action by Trump to remove Priebus could trigger a mass exit of White House staff, or a “large purge” by whoever next assumes power.

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 15, 2017.
FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 15, 2017.

Trump’s obsession with leaks has also alienated moderate Republicans in the Senate.

Several GOP stalwarts have expressed concern about the president’s Twitter blast aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who served 20 years in the Senate before joining the administration.

In tweets this week, Trump pointedly faulted Sessions for the slow pace of several Justice Department investigations, including a probe into the source of intelligence leaks that have plagued his administration.

Many saw the Twitter blast as an attempt to force Sessions to step down, a move that would clear the way for Trump to appoint another attorney general who would have control over the Russia election meddling probe, which has expanded to include Trump’s finances.

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