The Ides of Mooch: Eleven Days in America
Letter from America #6
I spent summer away from the US in England, where the incompetence and venality of modern politics has a slightly tweedier feel. As I saw it, the UK’s primary political issue goes something like this:
NARRATOR: So. You’re leaving the EU huh?
GOVERNMENT: [brightly] Huzzah.
NARRATOR: And why is that again?
GOVERNMENT: [mutter something about warm beer, Spitfires, and “foreigns”]
NARRATOR: Going to be complex, isn’t it? What’s the plan?
GOVERNMENT: … [mutter something about warm beer, Spitfires, and “foreigns”].
NARRATOR: … Alright, who’ve you got to represent the UK’s new face to the world?
GOVERNMENT: [brightly] Boris Johnson.
NARRATOR: … the man who got stuck on a wire waving a Union Jack flag?
GOVERNMENT: [two thumbs up] Strong and stable.
Meanwhile back in the States, it’s like democracy’s being shot out of a t-shirt cannon while fireworks burst and a rock band plays. Case in point, the past 11 days – or, “The Short, but Notable, Reign of Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci”.
In all of the internet merriment that greeted the appointment of this brash financier as Trump’s Communications Director, Tim Hogan’s summation seemed most apt:
Scaramucci first came to notice in Washington back in January, with this comment to New York Magazine:
“The thing I have learned about these people in Washington is they have no money. So what happens when they have no fucking money is they write about what seat they are in and what the title is. Fucking congressmen act like that. They are fucking jackasses.”
Surprisingly (for this White House) his appointment was held up for six months. But when The Mooch was appointed to run White House communications on Friday July 21, Trump’s downtrodden Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned, refusing to work for a man who, in the words of Kumail Nanjiani, “looks like if cocaine was a person.” Spicey will be best remembered for swallowing an entire packet of cinnamon gum before lunch like an alien learning to eat candy, screaming the obvious lie that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period”, and hiding in the bushes to avoid talking to reporters. That, and being aggressively lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. Spicer’s short tenure as Press Secretary and Trump’s hiring of the Mooch would have driven an ordinary news cycle into a spiral of “FUCKING WHAT?” for a week. But we’re a loooong way from there.
Let’s take a walk through 11 days in America.
On Monday July 24, President Trump addressed thousands of uniformed Boy Scouts at their jamboree – something, you might imagine, that even Trump could do without rhetorically kicking himself in the face. Nope! Trump turned the jamboree into political rally – which, as commentators pointed out, felt a bit too 1930s for comfort. Instead of cheering the scouts with a few phrases on civic duty, Trump boasted about his electoral college victory, derided Washington as a “cesspool” and a “sewer”, thanked a group of teenagers under the voting age for voting for him, attacked the media, Obamacare, former President Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and then began to tell a salacious story about a real estate developer who made “a tremendous amount of money and he went out and bought a big yacht and he had a very interesting life. I won’t go any more than that because you’re Boy Scouts, I’m not going to tell you what he did — should I tell you? Should I tell you? Oh, you’re Boy Scouts, but you know life, you know life.” Yes. Because teenagers who choose to spend their time camping “know life”. The President’s vulgarity was later condemned by the head of the Boy Scouts. Because this is 2017.
But we’re not done for Monday! That day also saw Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and notional (and I do mean, notional) Middle East peace czar testify to the House Intelligence Committee that he didn’t collude with Russia to swing the election to President Trump. Meanwhile Texas Representative Blake Farenthold – a less cheery version of the Stay-Puft man – suggested he’d like to duel Senators Susan Collins (R, ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R, AK) for failing to agree with him on healthcare. A hot mic later captured Senator Jack Reed (D, R.I.) assuring the 64-year-old Collins she “could beat the shit out of him” – a comment that followed the Senators discussing fears that the President is “crazy…I mean, I don’t say that lightly and as a kind of a goofy guy”.
J-Kush continued testifying about Russia on Tuesday July 25, this time to the Senate Intelligence Committee, as did Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Kushner later gave a statement in the Rose Garden about how he didn’t collude with Russia. So much winning. In the following days, audio leaked of Kushner telling White House interns the campaign couldn’t actually have colluded – because they were too incompetent. Meanwhile President Trump started a Twitter feud with his Attorney-General (because of course he did), and the House, in a staggering gesture of no confidence, passed a law 419-3 imposing sanctions on Russia and hamstringing Trump’s powers to lift them. Which is the legislative version of taking away toys from a high-chair and shouting “No Donald, that’s a bad Donald!”
In the Senate, Republicans narrowly passed a vote to debate a bill to repeal Obamacare with no consultation, no CBO score, and no clarity on which bill was to be debated. As Republican Senator Collins said:
“We don’t know whether we’re going to be voting on the House bill, the first version of the Senate bill, the second version of the Senate bill, a new version of the Senate bill, or a 2015 bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act…I don’t think that’s a good approach to replacing legislation that affects millions of people.”
Not content to end the day with that rolling shit-show, President Trump claimed that he was more presidential than any president except for Abraham Lincoln, to the amusement of essentially every American, living and dead – except for late night satirists, who he’s doing out of a job.
On Wednesday July 26 Trump announced via Twitter – without warning to the Pentagon – that all transgender servicemen and women are banned from US forces for being a “burden” and “disruption”. The military response to this act of cruel buffoonery was telling. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, in essence instructed officers to disregard the Tweet, stating in a memo that: “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense… In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” Admiral Paul Zukunft of the Coast Guard was more direct still, saying that his force would “not break faith” with its transgender servicemen and women. Even the 83-year-old Senate pro tempore, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, condemned Trump’s decision. And when you’ve lost the longest serving, octogenarian conservative white guy, you know that’s bad. The evening finished with the White House Communications Director starting a Twitter feud with (then) Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, erroneously accusing him of leaking a publicly available document, and apparently threatening to set the FBI on him. Fine-tuned machine indeed!
Thursday July 27 was the day of the Mooch. The Mooch spent the week at the White House podium with all of the tooth-whitened, gum smacking glee of a man happy to sell his soul for power – and, indeed, to miss the birth of his child to be with Trump. His wife promptly divorced him, presumably to polite applause from the hospital staff. Having repeatedly threatened to fire everyone in the Communications staff, the Mooch showed why he might actually need them, giving an interview to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that he didn’t realize was on the record. Here was the White House Communications Director on his colleagues: “Reince [Priebus] is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic” who “cock-blocked” Mooch’s appointment for six months. Differentiating his own approach to White House service from chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s, the Mooch said: “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock” or “build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President.” As to his policy on internal leaks, which vex every White House: “What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers”. Which is brief and to the point, channeling Shakespeare’s character “Dick the Butcher” – an apt comparison for Scaramucci.
DICK: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” – Henry VI Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2
Thursday didn’t get better for Trump. The Senate voted 98-2 to uphold the House’s bruising condemnation of Trump’s position on Russia and restrict his power to lift sanctions. That evening, things fell apart. After 7 years of bitching about Obamacare and with control of all branches of government, the GOP hadn’t managed to produce a bill to repeal and/or replace Obamacare that it could actually agree on. Enter the “skinny repeal” bill – the “Are you beach body ready?!” of legislation. This was, in essence, a placeholder, the “I totally did my homework I just forgot it today” of bills, to prompt a “conference” with the House, allowing legislators to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills and hash out the final law. Vote on the “skinny repeal” was a desperate political play to get something, anything, passed before Congress went out of session.
The bill was, apparently, still being drafted over lunch on Thursday. Democratic senators didn’t receive it until 2 hours before the vote. And Republican senators sought assurances from the House that they wouldn’t actually pass the bill that – after 7 years – the Senate was voting on.
To move the session into conference, the GOP needed 50 votes rather than the usual 60. Republican Senators Lisa Murkowsi and Susan Collins were brave and early “nays”, meaning the GOP were relying on 80-year-old Senator John McCain, who earlier in the week had flown from his hospital bed, where he’s being treated for brain cancer, and voted to debate the motion. That, it seemed, was a good sign for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. At 1:29 Eastern, McCain walked to the floor to vote on the bill itself. The chamber held its breath as the Maverick raised his hand, held for a moment… and BANG! turned down his thumb like a stone-cold emperor, throwing McConnell’s career to the fucking wolves. The Obamacare repeal – the Republicans’ signature campaign promise – was dead. For the moment.
After Thursday’s late-night drama, on Friday July 28 the political press was looking forward to a lunch-time martini and a bit of a cry / lie-down. Nope! At a speech to police in Long Island, President Trump encouraged officers to be “rough” with suspects under arrest:
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon – you see them thrown in rough – I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice’…Like when you put somebody in the car and you are protecting their head, you know?…I said, ‘You can take the hand away, O.K.’”.
Trump’s comments were swiftly condemned by police chiefs across the nation. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later explained that the president was just “making a joke”, which surely brought a chortle to the lips of police brutality victims. “Hit my head against the top of a squad car while I’m handcuffed and presumed innocent? Hilarious!”
After lunch, the President fired Chief of Staff Reince Priebus by Tweet, because of course he did. Priebus was replaced by well-respected Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a Marine general who apparently “won’t suffer idiots and fools”. Which begs the question as to how he’ll function in this White House.
Over the weekend Trump played golf and trashed Republican senators on Twitter as “fools”. And on Monday 31 July, after 11 tempestuous days in which, as commentators pointed out, the Mooch sold his company, got a job, had a baby, got divorced, and used the term “suck my own cock” on the record as White House Communications Director, Mooch was fired before his contract began. Reportedly this was partly because Ivanka and Melania Trump were appalled at how crass he was – after which irony broke, never to be repaired.
The day continued with the Washington Post‘s report that President Trump had dictated Donald Trump Jr’s misleading statement about his campaign meeting with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer to discuss opposition research on Hillary Clinton. This, as George W. Bush’s former ethics counsel Richard Painter pointed out, is a legal no-no:
On a political level, it was another ham-fisted attempt to make the Russia thing “go away”, which only serves to make the Russia thing very much not go away. Trump’s lawyers must be literally fucking bald from ripping out their hair.
Tuesday August 1 had just a couple of things: a lawsuit alleging that the White House and Fox News collaborated with a debunked hoax painting murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich’s death as a Democratic conspiracy. And Congress left town with a debt ceiling crisis looming, 12 days to fix it when they return, and no solution in sight. As I write on Wednesday August 2, White House adviser and alleged white nationalist Stephen Miller is defending Donald Trump’s plan to drastically cut immigration and give preference to English speakers, arguing that the Statue of Liberty’s poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” doesn’t actually mean anything.
So where to from here? There are early signs that the GOP’s piss-drunk-at-the-wheel-doing-150-the-wrong-way-down-the-highway-screaming-WOOOO approach to governance is changing. Last week’s overwhelming Republican support for legislation curtailing President Trump’s ability to lift sanctions on Russia, combined with Republican Senators Murkowski, Collins, and McCain’s defeat of the botched Obamacare repeal, suggest the legislature beginning to take a tighter grip on an executive behaving like a clown with a fire-cracker. Similarly, senators’ defense of Attorney-General Jeff Sessions suggests Republicans’ unwillingness to let Trump prompt a constitutional crisis by firing Sessions to install an AG more inclined to protect him from the Russia probe. The appointment of General Kelly as White House Chief of Staff – Nixonian resonances aside – has the potential to damp down some of the crazy (although the fact that we’re relying on two generals, Kelly and Mattis, to keep the lights on is a troubling development for a civilian-led democracy). And finally, the publication this week of Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s excoriating critique of his own party for supporting Trump and Trumpism, The Conscience of a Conservative, shows a stiffening of spine in the GOP. Of course, it’s a transparently political move to set up a 2020 run veiled as an act of conscience.
But in modern politics, that’s as close as you get.