Simmering White House tensions are breaking into the open as President Donald Trump’s newly named communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, wages a campaign to root out damaging leaks of embarrassing and sometimes classified information that have undercut the administration’s credibility.
One of Scaramucci’s immediate targets appears to be White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a politically well-connected former Republican Party chief who, by virtue of his position, is one of the most powerful officials in the administration.
Scaramucci, a wealthy former Wall Street banker and frequent Trump defender on television news programs, was brought in to head the White House communications department last week, prompting the 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.
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 Thursday. During an appearance on the CNN New Day program, he mentioned Cain and Abel, the biblical brothers who fought until one killed the other.
“Now, if you want to talk about the chief of staff, we have had odds, we have had differences,” Scaramucci told CNN. “When I said we were brothers from the podium, that’s because we’re rough on each other. Some brothers are like Cain and Abel. Other brothers can fight with each other and get along. I don’t know if this is repairable or not. That will be up to the president.”
Scaramucci’s CNN interview appeared to have been an attempt to calm the waters after he issued a tweet that was widely seen as blaming Priebus for leaks.
“In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept, “#swamp @Reince45.”
The Wednesday evening Twitter post came soon after the Politico website posted details from Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form, a publicly available document that government employees are required to file with the Office of Government Ethics.
Scaramucci’s tweet incorrectly said the form had been illegally leaked to the press and seemed to imply that Priebus was the source. The tweet has since been removed from Scaramucci’s Twitter account.
In his 30-minute CNN interview Thursday, Scaramucci denied that he was specifically accusing Priebus, and hinted the leaks may be widespread.
“I am not. I am saying senior officials are working on this together,” he said.
Priebus’ many supporters in the so-called Establishment Wing of the Republican Party were quick to come to his defense.
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 and Trump encourages that competition.
“With that competition, you usually get the best results,” she said.
Sanders said people who work in the White House are professionals and they may occasionally have differences of opinions, but they try to work out those differences in a constructive manner.
“This is a White House that has a lot of different perspectives,” she said. “Unlike previous administrations, this isn’t groupthink. We all come and have a chance to voice those ideas.”
University of Akron political science professor David Cohen said jealousy and backstabbing have been a common occurrence in past administrations. In a VOA interview, however, Cohen said there has never been anything like the “open warfare” currently on display in the West Wing.
‘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, who is among the few American scholars focusing specifically on the office of White House chief of staff, notes that Priebus and Speaker Ryan have long been close friends. “Priebus was Ryan’s choice to be chief of staff. That’s his guy in the West Wing,” he said.
Cohen said forcing out Priebus could trigger a mass exit from the West Wing. “There will very likely be a large purge of White House staff that will occur after Reince leaves.”
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.