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‘Don’t call Trump stupid – or his supporters’

Anthony Scaramucci briefs the media outside the West Wing during his 11-day spell as White House communications director in 2017 - Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Former Trump aide turned foe Anthony Scaramucci tells editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL that the key to defeating the president is in understanding, not condemning, his voters.

Well, that was a strange and unexpected surprise, an email out of the blue from someone I would never have had down to be on my side in a fight, but who felt on one particular upcoming fight, that was exactly where we needed to be; on the same side against Donald J. Trump. Hello and welcome, Anthony Scaramucci.

Scaramucci, known in tabloid-land as ‘The Mooch’, made a brief but noisy appearance in the hopefully-soon-to-end narcissistic s**t-show that is Trump’s White House; noisy because that is the chosen style of this brash banker, hedge-funder and broadcaster; brief, so the story goes, because he made the mistake of saying that the self-styled ‘guru’ of the far right, Steve Bannon “likes to suck his own d**k”. “Nonsense,” Scaramucci told me when finally we met over Zoom. “I got sacked because Mr Trump didn’t like the way I did my press conference. I made too much news. In Trump’s world, there can only be one star. There can only be one spotlight, and it has to be on Trump, all day, all night. Nobody else. The thing you have to know about Trump is this… the first thing he googles each day is spelled T-R-U-M-P. It is not U-S-A. And it is certainly not Y-O-U the people of America. He could not give a damn about them. They are there for him. He is not there for them.”

Trump is the first in line to say that his former communications man, who is campaigning actively for Joe Biden to become president, has turned against him out of sour grapes, pique that he was dismissed after just 11 days. He is a “nutjob,” says Trump, charming as ever about people he has previously described as geniuses, wizards and all manner of the superlatives in which he trades.

So why the sudden reach-out to me, you’re wondering? I must admit, I was wondering too, and checked out with a few US contacts whether to take the call. “Worth talking, but aim off for bulls**t,” said one. “Count your fingers,” said another. “Make sure it’s really him,” said a third. “How will I know?” I asked. “You’ll know.” So I did take the call, and yes, I knew – that torrent of words and energy was no Fake Sheikh effort to take me in.

Scaramucci said he had been told by someone close to the Clintons that I, not he, am a strategic genius – flattery taken, false modesty expressed – and that if he has any ideas on how to defeat Trump, and wants them fed to the Biden campaign, maybe I am the man. This somewhat overstates any influence I might have with the Biden camp, who seem to be doing a pretty good job right now. 

But it does at least speak to some self-awareness in this 56-year-old son of a New York crane operator. “I think they like having me take on Trump in the media, but I’m not sure they would have me giving counsel to the campaign.”
It is, however, always good to get insight from people who are not naturally on your own side, but who have been driven there by circumstances. It is why I always so enjoyed handling defectors from the Tories to Labour in the Blair years, and they were useful analysts of the Tory mindset ever after. In Scaramucci’s case, the defection from Trump to Biden was driven, he says, by the realisation that “Mr Trump is a real and present danger, a malevolent threat to the lives and livelihoods of Americans, a threat to world peace and stability, a threat to democracy, a threat to all the things you and I were raised to think Americans hold dear. He is a fraud and a crook, using the White House for his own ends, selling us out to the Russians, and not for a very high price at that.” Mmm, don’t hold back, Mooch.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference – Credit: AFP via Getty Images

So what is it, I ask, that he thinks Biden should be doing, which he’s not? “OK, well first, I’ve got to say he is doing a lot of the right things. He is not letting Trump get inside his head, not over-reacting to the crazy stuff and the insults. I think he will more than hold his own in the debates. He is much better one on one than in the big groups, which is why Obama and Hillary beat him. One on one v Trump, he will be fine. But he has to get more inside Trump’s head. And he has to speak more directly to the reasons why those who like Trump do so. He has to understand and appreciate their reasons.”
For many, he accepts, it is a lost cause. “There is something that might not be as clear on your side of the Atlantic, Alastair, as it is here, and that is that there is a cult element to all this. Trump could be filmed raping a 10-year-old, boy or girl, makes no difference, and for not far off a third of Americans, if Trump said the film was faked by Barack Obama, they would believe him. He has made sure those people see and hear nothing but the Trump word, from him direct, or via Fox News.

“But there are plenty, maybe three, four, five per cent of the whole country, who voted Trump, who wanted to believe in him, who don’t feel their lives have improved, and don’t feel he can keep blaming everyone else; who don’t like
the way he trashes everything and everybody, who don’t like the feeling that there are no moral limits. They are not happy with Trump, but Biden needs to speak to them direct. He needs to say to them, ‘I get why you liked the guy. You felt we left you behind, and I get that too. And we’ve got to learn the lessons from that. But in the end, who you think’s gonna fight for you and your family now … Trump with his background, or me with mine?’”

There is a disarming honesty and self-awareness, too, in how Scaramucci answers my question, “if Trump is so bad, how the hell did you end up working for him?” “It’s the old, old story, Alastair, I am sure you have seen it many times in politics – ego. Having your ego stroked by a president is quite a thing. I spent time with him on the campaign, and in the transition, and suddenly he’s telling you he’s in a spot and he thinks only you can help him. So yeah, old story, I was sucked into it by flattery, I guess. I thought I could do a job for him, but here’s the thing, nobody can. It’s all happening inside his head. That’s why that is the place Biden has got to get to.”

In admitting he made a big mistake, both in backing Trump and thinking he could work for him, Scaramucci says he is doing something human beings don’t like doing, namely “admitting we were wrong”. And that, he says, is why Biden has to target soft Trump voters carefully. “Don’t say Trump is stupid – two reasons. One, he’s not; he doesn’t read, but he assimilates information and he has strong instincts. Two, it makes them think you’re saying they are stupid. Biden’s got to tell them they’re not, and he can only do that if he says, straight up, ‘I get why you backed him’. You’ve got to let them make their own journey to changing their vote. They’re not gonna do that if you say they’re dumb. That’s why secretary Clinton calling them ‘deplorables’ was so bad. Biden is so much closer to these people in terms of background, beliefs, patriotism, but they’ve got to see that.”

All Trump has left, says Scaramucci, having failed badly on Covid, and with the economy now heading in the wrong direction, is the culture wars. “He will play that for all it’s worth. And Biden so far has done well to avoid all the obvious traps. But it will get harder as the date gets closer. I honestly never thought I would hear myself say this, but I worry we have a president who wants violence as the backdrop to the election. But Biden just has to keep talking to those people… ‘I get where you’re coming from, I get your worries, I get what you want for the future’.

“The more he doesn’t play Trump’s game, the more he will play with Trump’s mind. Trump is scaring people with the idea Biden is some kind of radical left wing guy. You know it’s nonsense, I know it’s nonsense, but he has to show those people it is nonsense. And that means speak to them, avoid all the radical left stuff, avoid transgender, avoid anti-police, avoid the stuff that helps Trump tell his lies about you.”

Scaramucci is a backer of the Lincoln Project, former Republicans who have been producing some brilliant attack ads on the Trump record. “You’ll love this story,” he says. “They have been placing local ads on Fox, just in DC, for the times we know Trump is watching, just to give him the direct message that thanks to him, Americans are weaker, sicker, poorer. He hates it. He absolutely hates it. But he doesn’t hate the Biden attacks, because he doesn’t think they are hitting his side of the field.”

Scaramucci also worries, he tells me, that it is in part because of fears over culture wars that Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris is not more high profile. He shares my view that New York governor Andrew Cuomo would have been an outstanding running-mate – now there is someone who gets inside Trump’s head – but “Biden boxed himself in by saying he would pick a woman, and then when George Floyd died, I think he felt he had to have a black woman. And let me say this, I like Kamala Harris and I think a lot of Americans do. But Trump’s people are pumping out the message off radar that ‘Biden is old, he’ll die in office, and do you really want a black woman running the country?’ It’s an out and out pitch to racism. He is saying ‘I am the last guy standing before these black socialists come in and destroy your lives’.”’

So what would his advice be regarding Harris then? “Get her out there. I can see her getting inside Trump’s head.”
Asked to call the outcome, he says he thinks Biden will win. But he adds that unless Biden wins big, Trump will pull “every dirty trick in the book to hang on. Trying to make it hard for blacks and the poor to vote. Trying to say a vote on the day is the only vote that really counts. There is nothing he won’t do to try to hang on. I want Biden to win so big that no decent White House official, or no decent Republican can do anything other than say, ‘on your way, Mr Trump, your time is done’. It has to happen. It is bad for America if he wins, it is bad for Britain, bad for Europe, bad for the world. He has to lose, and every patriotic bone in my body tells me I have to do what I can to make that happen.”

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