“Colorful language” is how new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci described remarks of his that Ryan Lizza quoted in the New Yorker on Thursday.
“Degraded” seems to me a better adjective. To speak that way in private is a flaw. To speak that way in the capacity of a public official — a communications official at that — is to further coarsen our culture.
But obscene language wasn’t the worst thing about this now infamous interview. It wasn’t even one of the worst things about it. In no particular order:
- Scaramucci showed a bizarre obsession with trivial leaks. Part of the job description of the White House communications director is to oppose leaks that could cause trouble for the administration. But another part is to discriminate based on the seriousness of the leak — with the most serious ones being those that threaten national security.
In this case, the leak was that the president was having dinner with the first lady, Scaramucci, Sean Hannity and a former Fox News executive. Scaramucci even told Lizza it was the latter’s patriotic duty to tell him who shared this information.
The information Scaramucci gave him, if it’s true, was far more significant: He told Lizza that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was about to be canned. If Scaramucci didn’t want to be quoted, or quoted by name, he was leaking that information. (He has suggested that Lizza somehow broke his trust.)
It’s true that leakiness on the scale this White House experiences is a serious problem for its functioning. It’s also true that no White House can work well if it goes to war over small items of gossip.
- Scaramucci didn’t make even a cursory attempt to make sure what he said was true. Scaramucci accused Priebus of having illegally leaked a story about his finances. But the reporter behind that story noted how the information was available to the public and not sourced to Priebus. A communications director should want to be credible with reporters. Accusing a colleague of a felony, and quickly having that accusation proven false, does not build one’s reputation.
- He undermined his colleagues. One reason this White House is right to be concerned about all the leaks is that so many of them are part of a toxic culture of back-biting. The tone is set from the top: We have a president who won’t fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions but will complain bitterly about him in tweets and interviews.
For the record, I don’t feel too sorry for Sessions. Plenty of evidence about Trump’s character — his impulsiveness, pettiness and lack of loyalty — was available to Sessions when he chose to play a major role in helping make him president.
There was also an opportunity cost to Scaramucci’s remarks. Trump administration officials sometimes complain that all the good news about their work, from decent economic numbers to legislation to reform veterans’ health care, is getting lost. Those stories aren’t going to get more attention when the communications director chooses to dish about his co-workers rather than discuss accomplishments.
Some of the problems this interview illustrated should worry all Americans. It’s useful to all of us to have a White House that can attract talent. But it’s those Americans who are most sympathetic to Trump and his agenda who should have the deepest worries.