In every job, there are firing offenses.
For the White House communications czar – the biggest gig in the world for a spokesperson – here’s one that ought to qualify: Not having a clue how “off the record” works.
So when Anthony Scaramucci, President Donald Trump’s latest appointment to the White House circus staff, called the New Yorker magazine’s Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza and launched into a scathing and obscene tirade, he forgot to do one simple thing.
It goes like this. Person who is hoping to vent privately to a reporter, not to the entire universe: “So we’re off the record, OK?” Reporter: “OK.” (Or alternatively, reporter could demur: “No, we’re on the record.”)
Every reporter knows, and every source knows that off the record is an agreed-upon transaction, not something to take for granted, just because you’re the all-powerful, and super-smooth Mooch.
After Lizza did what any self-respecting reporter would do – published the contents of the outrageous conversation – here was Scaramucci’s response:
“I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again.”
That wasn’t his mistake, not by a long shot.
The mistake was either not knowing or not caring about the basic rules of communicating with the press.
And given that the New Yorker and its left-leaning audience could not be expected, under any circumstances, to be considered a friendly and cooperative part of the administration’s team, you have to wonder whether Scaramucci didn’t know, didn’t care, or – more likely – is so impressed with himself that he didn’t think he had to bother. (Lizza has made it clear than there was no upfront agreement that the conversation he quoted was off the record.)
There was plenty more in that conversation that was disturbing. Language, for example, that was later described both by Scaramucci himself and by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders as “colorful.”
No. Colorful is Dan Rather and his folksy metaphors about amphibians (“If a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun.”)
What Scaramucci had to say about his White House colleagues was way beyond colorful, way behind “inappropriate,” and all the way into territory that – even in this bizarre moment in history – had the power to shock.
I found myself wondering what the parents of 9-year-old Dylan, whose letter to the president was read aloud at a news briefing the other day, would think about this language, as Scaramucci spoke about Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff: “Reince is a [expletive] paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.’ … Let me leak the (expletive) thing and see if I can [expletive] these people the way I [explective] Scaramucci for six months.’ ”
(Dylan, despite plenty of speculation to the contrary, turns out to be a real kid, according to my Washington Post colleague Monica Hesse’s sleuthing.)
On or off the record, in this universe or any other, Scaramucci’s comments to Lizza were simply off-the-charts insane. They were also offensive in another way, as he tried to strong-arm Lizza into giving up the source of a leak by appealing to the reporter’s patriotism.
Beyond the obnoxiousness, that play shows absolutely no understanding of how journalists think or work.
Scaramucci, remarkably, wasn’t actually supposed to start his new job until Aug. 15.
In any other world, his gig should be over, right now, before it’s begun. But in Trump World, this makes perfect sense: Blame the media and move on.
Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist for the Washington Post.
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