Sean Spicer came to the White House on Thursday completely unaware President Donald Trump was planning to meet with Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Wall Street friend, and offer him the job of communications director. Other top aides, including Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, also had no clue.
But in Trump’s White House, where rumors of staff shake-ups loom for months, it all happened quickly. By Friday morning, over the strenuous objections of senior aides, Trump had a new communications director. And Spicer had made a spontaneous decision to resign, offended by the whole turn of events. He had been blindsided by Trump before, but he took particular umbrage at this one.
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The wham-bam events of the past 24 hours were exceptional even by Trump’s standards: the dismissal of his top lawyer and the lawyer’s spokesman, West Wing blowups between the president and his top aides, a press secretary fending off rumors about his possible demise without knowing the entire truth, all while new reports landed about Trump going on the attack against the special counsel investigating his White House.
What struck one adviser who speaks to Trump frequently is that the president seemed calm — like he had a plan in mind all along — but just hadn’t shared it with many others.
“In the president’s business, you don’t have the luxury of time,” said Vincent Pitta, a longtime Trump friend from New York. “And marketing and communications has always been very important to him.”
The outgoing press secretary — who became a national celebrity for his contentious news briefings, inspiring Melissa McCarthy’s “Saturday Night Live” impressions with a mobile podium — had tried to lower his profile, wary he was getting too close to the sun. Random passersby would honk and scream at him outside his house in Virginia while he talked on the phone.
“Just look at his great television ratings,” Trump wrote in a statement, praising him upon his departure, even though Spicer had not delivered an on-camera briefing since June 20.
Spicer thought he had succeeded in reducing his public footprint. One friend said he seemed to be returning to a more normal version of himself, with less stress and more positive things to say about other people. He had told friends he liked being away from the podium and working on longer-term issues, like tax reform, and had told others how well the White House was going to handle the issue under his stead. And he was coping relatively well with the stress of serving as both press secretary and communications director after Mike Dubke resigned in May.
Spicer had been spotted laughing and drinking with friends, colleagues and reporters at various events such as embassy parties and the Trump International Hotel. He seemed at peace with Trump’s erratic behavior. “He just kind of said, it is what it is, it is what it is,” said one person who spoke to him recently. “I think he felt like he was getting to a place where he was going to take a lower profile and be successful and actually think about things long term.”
Meanwhile, Trump had complained that TV coverage of his White House was getting worse and worse, aides and advisers said. He repeatedly said to friends that his communications operation was a problem, even if he didn’t always refer to Spicer by name. The briefings would make him upset every day — one reason the White House sharply cut them back. “We need new faces,” Trump told one adviser.
The president had watched Scaramucci act as a surrogate for him on TV and heaped lavish praise on him to advisers. Two people who spoke to Trump said he particularly relished that Scaramucci forced CNN to issue a retraction on a story about the businessman’s Russian ties — and considered him almost a “white knight” for it, one of these people said. When Scaramucci visited the Oval Office two weeks ago, Trump reminded others repeatedly of the retraction, one senior official said.
Trump had told others that it might make sense to bring in Scaramucci to improve his TV coverage, said a person who spoke to Trump recently. But he didn’t want to fire Spicer. He would just make Scaramucci the communications director and give him power to fix some of the problems in the shop.
By Thursday, Trump had basically made up his mind and invited Scaramucci back into the West Wing on Thursday afternoon. Trump blocked aides who might oppose the move from the meeting, keeping it largely to family, administration officials and advisers said. Spicer had no idea that Scaramucci was in talks for the job — or that he was being offered it, according to administration officials. He learned later that evening, along with senior officials including Priebus and Bannon.
Spicer was soon being bombarded Thursday evening with media reports that he was getting a new boss in title — even though he didn’t know exactly what to say. There were efforts from Priebus and Bannon to slow or block the move. Administration officials and advisers said they had various reasons for their opposition, including fears that Scaramucci lacked the political or communications experience necessary for the high-profile job, and personal tensions between Priebus and Scaramucci.
After he found out about Scaramucci’s appointment, Bannon had a very “aggressive” confrontation with Trump that some in the West Wing viewed as remarkable, people with direct knowledge of the encounter said. Another person familiar with the encounter said Bannon’s behavior was “embarrassing.”
“There were a lot of people in the White House that didn’t want this,” one senior White House official said. “It happened because the family wanted it and because Trump wanted it.”
Spicer agonized Thursday night and thought Scaramucci might still be kept out. Putting Scaramucci over Spicer would diminish his standing in the West Wing and prove another humiliation.
He went into the White House on Friday morning, saying he needed to see the president — who was also talking to Scaramucci. Spicer was weighing his options and wanted to see what job Scaramucci would get before deciding whether to resign. After Scaramucci’s position as communications director was announced in a larger senior staff meeting, Spicer returned to the Oval Office separately, told the president he disagreed with the pick and quickly resigned, people briefed on the encounter said.
Trump was taken aback and told Spicer to stay on board. Scaramucci and Spicer could work together, Trump said. “It would all work out, we’ll all be on the same team,” said a person who was told of Trump’s comments. But Scaramucci was going to be in charge and report directly to the president.
Spicer saw it as a personal affront to work for Scaramucci and told the president that it couldn’t work. Spicer had expected to evolve into more of a full-time communications director role because he was essentially no longer the public-facing press secretary, having turned over the podium.
Spicer returned angrily to the press office, but put on a happy face for a brief resignation meeting, convened by Priebus. He even gave Scaramucci a half-hug.
Spicer had suffered other indignities: He was left out of a papal visit, and criticized by his boss for being played by a woman on TV and for his suits, and he was mocked for huddling with his team near some bushes as reporters demanded answers about FBI Director James Comey’s firing. But even some of Spicer’s sharpest critics said he would land on his feet because he had good instincts as a strategist and was well connected in Washington, after serving years as a top official at the Republican National Committee.
Aides sympathetic to Spicer said he had an impossible job. It was difficult to respond to Trump’s misstatements without contradicting him. No communications plan could stay on track because of the president’s Twitter finger. And the warring factions of the White House made it impossible to ever know exactly what was going on.
But Spicer never was going to fully understand Trump. Trump wanted him to be combative — but then would say he was too combative. And at the end of the day, several White House officials said, Spicer could never get past that first day’s briefing, when Trump forced him to falsely boast about the inauguration crowd size. Other embarrassing moments included being kept out of the loop on why Trump fired Comey, and then giving an explanation the president later contradicted.
For months, Spicer had repeatedly faced stories that his job was on the line — only to be reassured by Trump, in late night or early morning phone calls, that it wasn’t, people familiar with the conversations say.
Bannon, people who spoke to the chief strategist said, was still unhappy after the official announcement of Scaramucci’s hiring. Priebus spent the day trying to convince others that he and Scaramucci are close friends and that Spicer’s departure wasn’t bad for his own embattled position in the White House. Scaramucci was heading back to New York for the weekend.
By the afternoon, people who spoke to Spicer said he seemed calmer and happier and ready to head home, even though he would return next week, as he plans to stay on until August. He was caught on camera smiling and waving. Another person said he was laughing in the White House.
As for Spicer’s future, Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, doubts that he will meet the test of history given the brevity of his tenure.
“Can you name Kennedy’s press secretary?” Grossman asked, highlighting the wit and humor of then-press secretary Pierre Salinger. “It could be that Melissa McCarthy’s brilliance will survive on YouTube, but not much else.”
And on Friday, for the first time in three weeks, the news briefing was on camera — with Scaramucci at the podium.
Jake Lahut contributed to this report.