A White House week to remember: Confusion to the enemy (and everyone else)

Taylor Rogers and Jerry Adler
President Trump holds a rally with supporters in Youngstown, Ohio, July 25, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

For fans of Steve Bannon’s program for “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” it was a very good week.

Whether or not the alt-right-provocateur-turned-chief-White-House-strategist orchestrated the chaos that was kicked off last Thursday with President Trump’s hair-raising interview with the New York Times, it certainly advanced the “creative destruction” that he reportedly favors.

To most observers, though, the destruction part was more apparent than the creative effort, as Trump launched an unprecedented campaign to undermine Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with the explicit goal of controlling the special counsel’s investigation into Russian influence in last year’s election. His remarks in the Times interview and subsequent tweets achieved the rare feat of uniting Democrats (who want the investigation to continue unfettered) with Republicans (who generally like Sessions and his policies) while making Trump look both bullying and weak (as Sessions, refusing to comment or resign, in effect called the president’s bluff). The impression that Trump’s vaunted toughness wasn’t even skin deep was reinforced when he whined that Republicans in the Senate weren’t doing enough to “protect their president.”

Trump did manage to find a scapegoat for his anger: press secretary Sean Spicer, who resigned minutes after the president undercut him with the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. Scaramucci, a Wall Street investor and longtime friend of the president, set himself up as Trump’s Torquemada, launching an inquisition against media leaks from the White House, issuing threats against staffers up to and including his own nominal boss, chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Steve Bannon listens as Trump delivers remarks to auto industry executives in Ypsilanti, Mich., March 15, 2017. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Chaos enough for one week? Apparently not: Trump proceeded to give a meandering, confounding speech to 40,000 Boy Scouts at their annual jamboree, including an attack on former President Obama, flagrantly defying the Scouts’ tradition of nonpartisanship and reportedly angering Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an Eagle Scout and former national president of the organization. Coincidentally or not, Tillerson, who has been rumored to be unhappy in his job, proceeded to “[take] a little time off,” according to his spokesperson. His vacation came just as the White House faced a critical decision about whether to sign legislation, passed overwhelmingly in Congress, writing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea into law and forestalling the president from unilaterally relaxing them.

The White House sent mixed signals about its intentions.

Meanwhile the Senate continued its seemingly endless peregrination through the wilderness of health care reform, and Trump threw the entire Pentagon into confusion with a tweet announcing that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed into the military — reversing, with no warning to the generals, a carefully crafted policy that had been in effect for a year.

President Trump delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, W.Va., July 24, 2017. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even for an administration that has defied the norms and conventions of American politics from the moment it took office, the past seven days have constituted an extraordinary display of misdirection and chaos, calling to mind the motto of the right-wing millionaire and Florida power broker Edward Ball, who would raise a glass of Jack Daniel’s with the toast “Confusion to the enemy.” Trump has done an admirable job of confusing his enemies. But at this point, his friends are in the same situation.

Below is a timeline of events:

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Trump shared his thoughts on a variety of topics in a lengthy Oval Office interview with three New York Times reporters, covering topics ranging from his desire to have a military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue to his disappointment with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions should have never recused himself” from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Trump said, “and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.”

Trump commented on many aspects of the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s connections to Russia, saying that he had “done nothing wrong” and is not under investigation by the FBI. He also said that special counsel Robert Mueller “should never have been appointed in this case” and warned him not to look into his family’s personal finances.

The president claimed that his unscheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 was about Moscow’s policy on the adoption of Russian children by Americans, and that he did not look “very closely” into his son’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians last June.  

Trump also commented on his infamous handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron, (“he loves holding my hand”)  Japanese first lady Akie Abe’s inability to converse in English (“not even hello”), and demonstrated his granddaughter’s ability to speak Chinese.

Read more highlights from the interview here.

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Press secretary Sean Spicer resigned Friday, soon after long-time Trump supporter and financier Anthony Scaramucci was appointed as the White House communications director.

According to the New York Times, Spicer “vehemently disagreed with the appointment of New York financier Anthony Scaramucci…”

Scaramucci announced Spicer’s departure from the White House during an on-camera press briefing. Spicer later confirmed this on Twitter, saying that he will officially leave the White House in August.


Meanwhile, in the Oval Office, President Trump inquired about his ability to pardon himself and family members to protect them from indictments from the ongoing Russia investigation. While he can undoubtedly pardon his staff and family members, the Constitution is unclear on whether he can pardon himself.

Scaramucci announced for the sake of “transparency” that he was deleting old tweets in which he had been critical of the president or expressed opinions that contradicted White House positions. Scaramucci has differed from Trump’s views on a long series of items, including gun control, climate change, globalization, Hillary Clinton’s competency, Brexit, the effectiveness of walls, Russia and Jeb Bush.


Trump also continued his tweeting on Saturday, attacking the media for their negative coverage and Republicans in Congress for their slow progress on health care. “It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President,” wrote Trump. The White House did not respond to questions about which legislators Trump was disappointed by or what he expected them to do to “protect” him.

White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci speaks to members of the media at the White House in Washington, July 25, 2017. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

A frequent cable news guest, Scaramucci made his first Sunday talk show appearance as the White House communications director. He immediately outed Trump as a source of intelligence information after mild pressing from Jake Tapper.

“Somebody said to me yesterday, I won’t tell you who, that if the Russians actually hacked this situation and spilled out those emails, you would have never seen it,” said Scaramucci. “You would never had any evidence of them. Meaning they are super confident in their deception skills and hacking. My point is, all of the information isn’t on the table yet.”

“You are making a lot of assertions here,” replied Tapper. “I don’t know who this anonymous person is who said that if the Russians had actually done it we wouldn’t be able to detect it.”

“How about it was the president?” said Scaramucci. “He called me from Air Force One and he basically said to me, ‘Hey, you know, this is — maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it.’”

Scaramucci also contradicted statements made by Sanders on ABC News regarding the White House’s stance on signing a bill reinforcing sanctions on Russia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Washington news conference, July 20, 2017. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Trump continued his public attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday, this time for not investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails and her campaign’s possible connections to Russia.


The president later went after Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., for his participation in the House Intelligence Committee’s own Russia investigation.


Schiff quickly fired back.


Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Jared Kushner released a 3,700-word statement in preparation for his closed testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday regarding last summer’s Russia meeting.

Later that evening, President Trump delivered a rambling, highly political speech in front of 40,000 Boy Scouts at their annual jamboree. The event was criticized by both politicians and former Boy Scouts, with former acting CIA director John McLaughlin saying that it “had the feel of a Third World authoritarian’s youth rally.”


The Boy Scouts, a nonpartisan organization, defending its invitation to the president, said it was part of “a long-standing tradition and is in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific policies.”

 

Trump’s rage at Sessions continued on Tuesday, as he raised the question of why he did not fire acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.



The money Trump was referring to was given to McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, in her failed bid for a Virginia State Senate seat in 2015 from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee. It did not come directly from Hillary Clinton.

Later that morning, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci threatened to fire every staffer in the communications office in order to stop leaks of administration secrets to the press.

“I’m going to fire everybody, that’s how I’m going to do it,” Scaramucci said. “You’re either going to stop leaking or you’re going to get fired.”

Scaramucci said he was upset “as a human being and as a Roman Catholic” after, he said, assistant press secretary Michael Short found out about his impending firing from Politico before Scaramucci could inform him personally. The source for the Politico story was Scaramucci himself.

“Do you want to sell postcards to the tourists outside the gate or do you want to work in the West Wing? What do you want to do?” Scaramucci said, referring to his own staffers. “I’m gonna put ’em out on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Meanwhile, reports surfaced late Tuesday evening that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry had spent 22 minutes on the phone with Russian pranksters discussing using cow manure as an energy source. Perry was under the impression he was speaking with the prime minister of Ukraine.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry during a White House daily briefing, June 27, 2017. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The State Department announced that Secretary Rex Tillerson is on vacation, but a spokesperson refuses to confirm whether he’s happy in his role amid rumors that he planned to quit by the end of the year.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Vice President Pence broke a tie in the Senate to allow debate to begin on a bill to repeal Obamacare.

President Trump held a campaign rally in Ohio later that evening, appearing reenergized after a tough few days.

Trump announced that transgender Americans will not be allowed “to serve in any capacity” in the United States military, in an unexpected series of morning tweets.



Whether the approximately 15,000 transgender persons who are already serving in the armed forces will be allowed to remain is unclear. During the press briefing, incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that more details about the policy will be made public as they are decided but that the White House needed to work with the Pentagon to decide how to “lawfully” implement the policy. The announcement was made while Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on vacation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving at the Capitol, July 20, 2017. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The announcement was met with resistance from all fronts, with GOP Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, both veterans, and numerous human rights groups all strongly disapproving of the decision. Politico reported that Trump might have been attempting to secure funding for a Mexico border wall by ending a budget debate in Congress over funding transgender surgeries.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the Senate rejected a proposal to repeal Obamacare and replace it within two years with seven senators defecting from the GOP caucus.

Communications director Anthony Scaramucci called into CNN’s “New Day” Thursday morning and spent nearly half an hour addressing a cryptic overnight tweet in which he seemingly blamed chief of staff Reince Priebus for the ‘leak’ of his financial disclosures to Politico.

Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert, however, said that she obtained Scaramucci’s financial information after requesting it through official government channels.


Scaramucci confirmed the tension between himself and Priebus on “New Day,” saying that their relationship might not be “repairable,” and comparing it to that of Cain and Abel, the sons of the Biblical Adam and Eve. In Genesis, Cain murders Abel.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus arrives in the East Room of the White House, July 27, 2017. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

“When I put out a tweet and I put Reince’s name in a tweet, they all make the assumption that it’s him because journalists know who the leakers are,” Scaramucci said. “So if Reince wants to explain he’s not a leaker, let him do that. But let me tell you about myself. I’m a straight shooter and I’ll go right to the heart of the matter.”

Scaramucci later said that he did not blame Priebus for the leak but rather that he was among a group of senior administration officials working with him to help stop leaks.

It was revealed later in the afternoon that Scaramucci called Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker the night before to demand that Lizza say who revealed his plan to have dinner with the president, the first lady, Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine. When Lizza refused, Scaramucci proceeded to rant about both leaks and other staffers.

“Reince is a f***ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said, apparently still believing that Priebus had leaked his financial disclosures.

Scaramucci then turned his attention to chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own c***,” he said, accusing Bannon of pursuing too much media attention. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president. I’m here to serve the country.”

Later Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to Trump’s sharp criticisms of his performance, saying that the president’s insults are “hurtful.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Az., is pursued by reporters after casting a ‘no’ vote on a a measure to repeal parts of former President Barack Obama’s health care law, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans began to negotiate a “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, targeting only select aspects of the bill that all 52 Republicans can agree to end. McCain dramatically cast the deciding vote against the bill around 2 a.m. Friday morning, joining Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in opposition.

Christopher Wilson contributed to the reporting of this story.

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