بنن و اسکاراموچی

کتاب: خشم و آتش / فصل 21

بنن و اسکاراموچی

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21

BANNON AND SCARAMUCCI

Bannon’s apartment in Arlington, Virginia, a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Washington, was called the “safe house.” This seemed somehow to acknowledge his transience and to nod, with whatever irony, to the underground and even romantic nature of his politics—the roguish and joie de guerre alt-right. Bannon had decamped here from the Breitbart Embassy on A Street on Capitol Hill. It was a one-bedroom graduate-student sort of apartment, in a mixed-use building over a mega-McDonald’s—quite belying Bannon’s rumored fortune—with five or six hundred books (emphasis on popular history) stacked against the wall without benefit of shelving. His lieutenant, Alexandra Preate, also lived in the building, as did the American lawyer for Nigel Farage, the right-wing British Brexit leader who was part of the greater Breitbart circle.

On the evening on Thursday, July 20, the day after the contentious meeting about Afghanistan, Bannon was hosting a small dinner—organized by Preate, with Chinese takeout. Bannon was in an expansive, almost celebratory, mood. Still, Bannon knew, just when you felt on top of the world in the Trump administration, you could probably count on getting cut down. That was the pattern and price of one-man leadership—insecure-man leadership. The other biggest guy in the room always had to be reduced in size.

Many around him felt Bannon was going into another bad cycle. In his first run around the track, he’d been punished by the president for his Time magazine cover and for the Saturday Night Live portrayal of “President Bannon”—that cruelest of digs to Trump. Now there was a new book, The Devil’s Bargain, and it claimed, often in Bannon’s own words, that Trump could not have done it without him. The president was again greatly peeved.

Still, Bannon seemed to feel he had broken through. Whatever happened, he had clarity. It was such a mess inside in the White House that, if nothing else, this clarity would put him on top. His agenda was front and center, and his enemies sidelined. Jared and Ivanka were getting blown up every day and were now wholly preoccupied with protecting themselves. Dina Powell was looking for another job. McMaster had screwed himself on Afghanistan. Gary Cohn, once a killer enemy, was now desperate to be named Fed chairman and currying favor with Bannon—“licking my balls,” Bannon said with a quite a cackle. In return for supporting Cohn’s campaign to win the Fed job, Bannon was extracting fealty from him for the right-wing trade agenda.

The geniuses were fu@ked. Even POTUS might be fu@ked. But Bannon had the vision and the discipline—he was sure he did. “I’m cracking my sh@t every day. The nationalist agenda, we’re fu@king owning it. I’ll be there for the duration.”

Before the dinner, Bannon had sent around an article from the Guardian—though one of the leading English-language left-leaning newspapers, it was nevertheless Bannon’s favorite paper—about the backlash to globalization. The article, by the liberal journalist Nikil Saval, both accepted Bannon’s central populist political premise—“the competition between workers in developing and developed countries . . . helped drive down wages and job security for workers in developed countries”—and elevated it to the epochal fight of our time. Davos was dead and Bannon was very much alive. “Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalization have become some of its most prominent critics,” wrote Saval. “Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.” “I’m starting to get tired of winning” was all that Bannon said in his email with the link to the article.

Now, restless and pacing, Bannon was recounting how Trump had dumped on McMaster and, as well, savoring the rolling-on-the-floor absurdity of the geniuses’ Scaramucci gambit. But most of all he was incredulous about something else that had happened the day before.

Unbeknownst to senior staff, or to the comms office—other than by way of a pro forma schedule note—the president had given a major interview to the New York Times. Jared and Ivanka, along with Hope Hicks, had set it up. The Times’s Maggie Haberman, Trump’s bête noire (“very mean, and not smart”) and yet his go-to journalist for some higher sort of approval, had been called in to see the president with her colleagues Peter Baker and Michael Schmidt. The result was one of the most peculiar and ill-advised interviews in presidential history, from a president who had already, several times before, achieved that milestone.

In the interview, Trump had done his daughter and son-in-law’s increasingly frantic bidding. He had, even if to no clear end and without certain strategy, continued on his course of threatening the attorney general for recusing himself and opening the door to a special prosecutor. He openly pushed Sessions to resign—mocking and insulting him and daring him to try to stay. However much this seemed to advance no one’s cause, except perhaps that of the special prosecutor, Bannon’s incredulity—“Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is not going to go anywhere”—was most keenly focused on another remarkable passage in the interview: the president had admonished the special counsel not to cross the line into his family’s finances.

“Ehhh . . . ehhh . . . ehhh!” screeched Bannon, making the sound of an emergency alarm. “Don’t look here! Let’s tell a prosecutor what not to look at!”

Bannon then described the conversation he’d had with the president earlier that day: “I went right into him and said, ‘Why did you say that?’ And he says, ‘The Sessions thing?’ and I say, ‘No, that’s bad, but it’s another day at the office.’ I said, ‘Why did you say it was off limits to go after your family’s finances?’ And he says, ‘Well, it is . . . .’ I go, ‘Hey, they are going to determine their mandate. . . . You may not like it, but you just guaranteed if you want to get anybody else in [the special counsel] slot, every senator will make him swear that the first thing he’s going to do is come in and subpoena your fu@king tax returns.’ ” Bannon, with further disbelief, recounted the details of a recent story from the Financial Times about Felix Sater, one of the shadiest of the shady Trump-associated characters, who was closely aligned with Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen (reportedly a target of the Mueller investigation), and a key follow-the-money link to Russia. Sater, “get ready for it—I know this may shock you, but wait for it”—had had major problems with the law before, “caught with a couple of guys in Boca running Russian money through a boiler room.” And, it turns out, “Brother Sater” was prosecuted by—“wait”—Andrew Weissmann. (Mueller had recently hired Weissmann, a high-powered Washington lawyer who headed the DOJ’s criminal fraud division.) “You’ve got the LeBron James of money laundering investigations on you, Jarvanka. My asshole just got so tight!” Bannon quite literally slapped his sides and then returned to his conversation with the president. “And he goes, ‘That’s not their mandate.’ Seriously, dude?”

Preate, putting out the Chinese food on a table, said, “It wasn’t their mandate to put Arthur Andersen out of business during Enron, but that didn’t stop Andrew Weissmann”—one of the Enron prosecutors.

“You realize where this is going,” Bannon continued. “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann first and he is a money laundering guy. Their path to fu@king Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner . . . It’s as plain as a hair on your face. . . . It goes through all the Kushner sh@t. They’re going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me. But . . . ‘executive privilege!’ ” Bannon mimicked. “ ‘We’ve got executive privilege!’ There’s no executive privilege! We proved that in Watergate.” An expressive man, Bannon seemed to have suddenly exhausted himself. After a pause, he added wearily: “They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.”

With his hands in front of him, he mimed something like a force field that would isolate him from danger. “It’s not my deal. He’s got the five geniuses around him: Jarvanka, Hope Hicks, Dina Powell, and Josh Raffel.” He threw up his hands again, this time as if to say Hands off. “I know no Russians, I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. I’m not being a witness. I’m not hiring a lawyer. It is not going to be my ass in front of a microphone on national TV answering questions. Hope Hicks is so fu@ked she doesn’t even know it. They are going to lay her out. They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV. Michael Cohen, cracked like an egg. He”—the president—“said to me everybody would take that Don Junior meeting with the Russians. I said, ‘Everybody would not take that meeting.’ I said, ‘I’m a naval officer. I’m not going to take a meeting with Russian nationals, and do it in headquarters, are you fu@king insane?’ and he says, ‘But he’s a good boy.’ There were no meetings like that after I took over the campaign.” Bannon’s tone veered from ad absurdum desperation to resignation.

“If he fires Mueller it just brings the impeachment quicker. Why not, let’s do it. Let’s get it on. Why not? What am I going to do? Am I going to go in and save him? He’s Donald Trump. He’s always gonna do things. He wants an unrecused attorney general. I told him if Jeff Sessions goes, Rod Rosenstein goes, and then Rachel Brand”—the associate attorney general, next in line after Rosenstein—“goes, we’ll be digging down into Obama career guys. An Obama guy will be acting attorney general. I said you’re not going to get Rudy”—Trump had again revived a wish for his loyalists Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie to take the job—“because he was on the campaign and will have to recuse himself, and Chris Christie, too, so those are masturbatory fantasies, get those out of your brain. And, for anybody to get confirmed now, they are going to have to swear and ensure that things will go ahead and they won’t fire anybody, because you said yesterday—Ehhh . . . ehhh . . . .ehhh!—‘my family finances are off limits,’ and they’re going to demand that, whoever he is, he promises and commits to make the family finances part of this investigation. I told him as night follows day that’s a lock, so you better hope Sessions stays around.” “He was calling people in New York last night asking what he should do,” added Preate. (Almost everybody in the White House followed Trump’s thinking by tracking whom he had called the night before.)

Bannon sat back and, with steam-rising frustration—almost a cartoon figure—he outlined his Clinton-like legal plan. “They went to the mattresses with amazing discipline. They ground through it.” But that was about discipline, he emphasized, and Trump, said Bannon, noting the obvious, was the least disciplined man in politics.

It was clear where Mueller and his team were going, said Bannon: they would trace a money trail through Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Jared Kushner and roll one or all of them on the president.

It’s Shakespearean, he said, enumerating the bad advice from his family circle: “It’s the geniuses, the same people who talked him into firing Comey, the same people on Air Force One who cut out his outside legal team, knowing the email was out there, knowing that email existed, put the statement out about Don Junior, that the meeting was all about adoptions . . . the same geniuses trying to get Sessions fired.

“Look, Kasowitz has known him for twenty-five years. Kasowitz has gotten him out of all kinds of jams. Kasowitz on the campaign—what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them. And now he’s out in, what, four weeks? He’s New York’s toughest lawyer. Mark Corallo, toughest motherfu@ker I ever met, just can’t do it.”

Jared and Ivanka believe, said Bannon, that if they advocate prison reform and save DACA—the program to protect the children of illegal immigrants—the liberals will come to their defense. He digressed briefly to characterize Ivanka Trump’s legislative acumen, and her difficulty—which had become quite a White House preoccupation—in finding sponsorship for her family leave proposal. “Here’s why, I keep telling her: there’s no political constituency in it. You know how easy it is to get a bill sponsored, any schmendrick can do it. You know why your bill has no sponsorship? Because people realize how dumb it is.” In fact, said, Bannon, eyes rolling and mouth agape, it was the Jarvanka idea to try to trade off amnesty for the border wall. “If not the dumbest idea in Western civilization, it’s up there in the top three. Do these geniuses even know who we are?” Just then Bannon took a call, the caller telling him that it looked as if Scaramucci might indeed be getting the job of communications director. “Don’t fu@k with me, dude,” he laughed. “Don’t fu@k with me like that!”

He got off the phone expressing further wonder at the fantasy world of the geniuses—and added, for good measure, an extra dollop of dripping contempt for them. “I literally do not talk to them. You know why? I’m doing my sh@t, and they got nothing to do with it, and I don’t care what they’re doing . . . I don’t care. . . . I’m not going to be alone with them, I’m not going to be in a room with them. Ivanka walked into the Oval today . . . [and] as soon as she walked in, I looked at her and walked right out. . . . I won’t be in a room . . . don’t want to do it. . . . Hope Hicks walked in, I walked out.” “The FBI put Jared’s father in jail,” said Preate. “Don’t they understand you don’t mess—”

“Charlie Kushner,” said Bannon, smacking his head again in additional disbelief. “He’s going crazy because they’re going to get down deep in his sh@t about how he’s financed everyfhing. . . . all the sh@t coming out of Israel . . . and all these guys coming out of Eastern Europe . . . all these Russian guys . . . and guys in Kazakhstan. . . . And he’s frozen on 666 [Fifth Avenue]. . . . [If] it goes under next year, the whole thing’s cross-collateralized . . . he’s wiped, he’s gone, he’s done, it’s over. . . . Toast.” He held his face in his hands for a moment and then looked up again.

“I’m pretty good at coming up with solutions, I came up with a solution for his broke-di@k campaign in about a day, but I don’t see this. I don’t see a plan for getting through. Now, I gave him a plan, I said you seal the Oval Office, you send those two kids home, you get rid of Hope, all these deadbeats, and you listen to your legal team—Kasowitz, and Mark Dowd, and Jay Sekulow, and Mark Corallo, these are all professionals who have done this many times. You listen to those guys and never talk about this stuff again, you just conduct yourself as commander in chief and then you can be president for eight years. If you don’t, you’re not, simple. But he’s the president, he gets a choice, and he’s clearly choosing to go down another path . . . and you can’t stop him. The guy is going to call his own plays. He’s Trump. . . .” And then another call came, this one from Sam Nunberg. He, too, was calling about Scaramucci, and his words caused something like stupefaction in Bannon: “No fu@king, fu@king way.”

Bannon got off the phone and said, “Jesus. Scaramucci. I can’t even respond to this. It’s Kafkaesque. Jared and Ivanka needed somebody to represent their sh@t. It’s madness. He’ll be on that podium for two days and he’ll be so chopped he’ll bleed out everywhere. He’ll literally blow up in a week. This is why I don’t take this stuff seriously. Hiring Scaramucci? He’s not qualified to do anything. He runs a fund of funds. Do you know what a fund of funds is? It’s not a fund. Dude, it’s sick. We look like buffoons.”

The ten days of Anthony Scaramucci, saw, on the first day, July 21, the resignation of Sean Spicer. Oddly, this seemed to catch everyone unawares. In a meeting with Scaramucci, Spicer, and Priebus, the president—who in his announcement of Scaramucci’s hire as communications director had promoted Scaramucci not only over Spicer, but in effect over Priebus, his chief of staff—suggested that the men ought to be able to work it out together.

Spicer went back to his office, printed out his letter of resignation, and then took it back to the nonplussed president, who said again that he really wanted Spicer to be a part of things. But Spicer, surely the most mocked man in America, understood that he had been handed a gift. His White House days were over.

For Scaramucci, it was now payback time. Scaramucci blamed his six humiliating months out in the cold on nobody so much as Reince Priebus—having announced his White House future, having sold his business in anticipation of it, he had come away with nothing, or at least nothing of any value. But now, in a reversal befitting a true master of the universe—befitting, actually, Trump himself—Scaramucci was in the White House, bigger, better, and grander than even he had had the gall to imagine. And Priebus was dead meat.

That was the signal the president had sent Scaramucci—deal with the mess. In Trump’s view, the problems in his tenure so far were just problems about the team. If the team went, the problems went. So Scaramucci had his marching orders. The fact that the president had been saying the same stuff about his rotten team from the first day, that this riff had been a constant from the campaign on, that he would often say he wanted everybody to go and then turn around and say he didn’t want everybody to go—all that rather went over Scaramucci’s head.

Scaramucci began taunting Priebus publicly, and inside the West Wing he adopted a tough-guy attitude about Bannon—“I won’t take his bullsh@t.” Trump seemed delighted with this behavior, which led Scaramucci to feel that the president was urging him on. Jared and Ivanka were pleased, too; they believed they had scored with Scaramucci and were confident that he would defend them against Bannon and the rest.

Bannon and Priebus remained not just disbelieving but barely able not to crack up. For both men, Scaramucci was either a hallucinatory episode—they wondered whether they ought to just shut their eyes while it passed—or some further march into madness.

Even as measured against other trying weeks in the Trump White House, the week of July 24 was a head-slammer. First, it opened the next episode in what had become a comic-opera effort to repeal Obamacare in the Senate. As in the House, this had become much less about health care than a struggle both among Republicans in Congress and between the Republican leadership and the White House. The signature stand for the Republican Party had now become the symbol of its civil war.

On that Monday, the president’s son-in-law appeared at the microphones in front of the West Wing to preview his statement to Senate investigators about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Having almost never spoken before in public, he now denied culpability in the Russian mess by claiming feckless naïveté; speaking in a reedy, self-pitying voice, he portrayed himself as a Candide-like figure who had become disillusioned by a harsh world.

And that evening, the president traveled to West Virginia to deliver a speech before the Boy Scouts of America. Once more, his speech was tonally at odds with time, place, and good sense. It prompted an immediate apology from the Boy Scouts to its members, their parents, and the country at large. The quick trip did not seem to improve Trump’s mood: the next morning, seething, the president again publicly attacked his attorney general and—for good measure and no evident reason—tweeted his ban of transgender people in the military. (The president had been presented with four different options related to the military’s transgender policy. The presentation was meant to frame an ongoing discussion, but ten minutes after receiving the discussion points, and without further consultation, Trump tweeted his transgender ban.) The following day, Wednesday, Scaramucci learned that one of his financial disclosure forms seemed to have been leaked; assuming he’d been sabotaged by his enemies, Scaramucci blamed Priebus directly, implicitly accusing him of a felony. In fact, Scaramucci’s financial form was a public document available to all.

That afternoon, Priebus told the president that he understood he should resign and they should start talking about his replacement.

Then, that evening, there was a small dinner in the White House, with various current and former Fox News people, including Kimberly Guilfoyle, in attendance—and this was leaked. Drinking more than usual, trying desperately to contain the details of the meltdown of his personal life (being linked to Guilfoyle wasn’t going to help his negotiation with his wife), and wired by events beyond his own circuits’ capacity, Scaramucci called a reporter at the New Yorker magazine and unloaded.

The resulting article was surreal—so naked in its pain and fury, that for almost twenty-four hours nobody seemed to be able to quite acknowledge that he had committed public suicide. The article quoted Scaramucci speaking bluntly about the chief of staff: “Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.” Saying that he had taken his new job “to serve the country” and that he was “not trying to build my brand,” Scaramucci also took on Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” (In fact, Bannon learned about the piece when fact-checkers from the magazine called him for comment about Scaramucci’s accusation that he sucked his own cock.) Scaramucci, who had in effect publicly fired Priebus, was behaving so bizarrely that it wasn’t at all clear who would be the last man standing. Priebus, on the verge of being fired for so long, realized that he might have agreed to resign too soon. He might have gotten the chance to fire Scaramucci!

On Friday, as health care repeal cratered in the Senate, Priebus joined the president on board Air Force One for a trip to New York for a speech. As it happened, so did Scaramucci, who, avoiding the New Yorker fallout, had said he’d gone to New York to visit his mother but in fact had been hiding out at the Trump Hotel in Washington. Now here he was, with his bags (he would indeed now stay in New York and visit his mother), behaving as though nothing had happened.

On the way back from the trip, Priebus and the president talked on the plane and discussed the timing of his departure, with the president urging him to do it the right way and to take his time. “You tell me what works for you,” said Trump. “Let’s make it good.”

Minutes later, Priebus stepped onto the tarmac and an alert on his phone said the president had just tweeted that there was a new chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly, and that Priebus was out.

The Trump presidency was six months old, but the question of who might replace Priebus had been a topic of discussion almost from day one. Among the string of candidates were Powell and Cohn, the Jarvanka favorites; OMB director Mick Mulvaney, one of the Bannon picks; and Kelly.

In fact, Kelly—who would soon abjectly apologize to Priebus for the basic lack of courtesy in the way his dismissal was handled—had not been consulted about his appointment. The president’s tweet was the first he knew of it.

But indeed there was no time to waste. Now the paramount issue before the Trump government was that somebody would have to fire Scaramucci. Since Scaramucci had effectively gotten rid of Priebus—the person who logically should have fired him—the new chief of staff was needed, more or less immediately, to get rid of the Mooch.

And six days later, just hours after he was sworn in, Kelly fired Scaramucci.

Chastened themselves, the junior first couple, the geniuses of the Scaramucci hire, panicked that they would, deservedly, catch the blame for one of the most ludicrous if not catastrophic hires in modern White House history. Now they rushed to say how firmly they supported the decision to get rid of Scaramucci.

“So I punch you in the face,” Sean Spicer noted from the sidelines, “and then say, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to get you to a hospital!’ ”

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