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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Abrupt resignation of Trump's press secretary a 'symptom of an administration in crisis'

The departure of Sean Spicer suggests his ally Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, and others who came up through the mainstream of the Republican Party may also be vulnerable to appointments from outside

Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer gives a cheery wave as he enters the White House in Washington after resigning on July 21, 2017. Carlos Barria  / Reuters
Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer gives a cheery wave as he enters the White House in Washington after resigning on July 21, 2017. Carlos Barria / Reuters

Sean Spicer’s abrupt resignation as White House press secretary on Friday followed months of uncertainty about his future as Donald Trump struggled with low popularity ratings, an all-consuming Russia investigation and factional infighting.

It finally arrived amid a major shake-up of Mr Trump’s press and legal teams in the latest attempt at a reset.

Insiders said Mr Spicer’s departure was triggered by the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci, a smooth-talking New York financier, as White House communications director.

Although he was asked to stay on as press secretary, he reportedly told Mr Trump the new appointment was a mistake and that he wanted to leave.

It brings to a close long-running speculation that the gaffe-prone spokesman had fallen from favour and suggests his ally Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, and others who came up through the mainstream of the Republican Party may also be vulnerable to appointments from outside.

Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst, said Mr Spicer’s departure was yet another symptom of an administration in crisis, suffering a malaise that emanates from the very top.

Read more: The southern belle with a tough streak takes over as Trump's press chief

“We know what the problem is. It’s not Sean Spicer, it’s not Reince Priebus, it’s not HR McMaster [national security adviser] — who all have flaws and weaknesses,” Mr Rothenberg said. “It’s Donald Trump.”

The new communications director may bring a slicker persona, he added, but would struggle to stem the negative headlines.

For his part, Mr Spice said he would stay in his post until August.

“It’s been an unbelievable honour and privilege,” he said. “This is something you dream of. I can’t thank the president enough.”

Mr Spicer had been the public face of the White House for most of its first six months. He became a figure of ridicule from day one, when he was forced to defend outlandish claims about Mr Trump’s inauguration crowd.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” he told an incredulous press corps who had seen photographs that showed otherwise. It was not the last time Mr Spicer would be obliged to exaggerate, overstate or even outright lie for the president.

Worse followed. In April, he argued that even Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons during World War Two as he made a point about Bashar Al Assad’s use of sarin gas against civilians in Syria, overlooking how millions of Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

As a result he became the butt of late-night TV comedians, parodied on Saturday Night Live by Melissa McCarthy as a combative figure desperate for his president's affection.

Read more: The slick charmer now in charge of getting Donald Trump's message out

His appearances in the briefing room made for compelling television as he tried to defend an administration struggling to cope with the pressure of a federal investigation and failing to advance its legislative agenda.

At the same time, his background as a typical Republican apparatchik put him out of step with the political outsiders who populated much of Mr Trump’s administration.

And at times he was undermined and contradicted by his own president’s tweets. When pressed to explain the president's thinking, on several occasions Mr Spicer could only reply, "The president's tweets speak for themselves."

For much of his tenure he doubled up as communications director but on Friday the White House announced the appointment of Mr Scaramucci, a long-standing New York friend of Mr Trump, to fill the role.

Quite how a hedge fund owner with little former communications experience can turn around Mr Trump’s fortunes and historically low approval ratings is unclear.

Appearing in the White House briefing room for the first time, he said he had discussed a strategy with the president earlier in the day.

“We were talking about letting him be himself, letting himself express his full identify. I think he's got some of the best political instincts in the world and perhaps in history,” Mr Scaramucci said.

The president relayed his thoughts on Mr Spicer's departure as usual via Twitter.

"I am grateful for Sean's work on behalf of my administration and the American people. I wish him continued success as he moves on to pursue new opportunities. Just look at his great relevision ratings," he tweeted, referring to reports that Mr Spicer's televised press briefings got more viewers than daytime soap operas.

In an interview hours after his resignation, Mr Spicer played down reports of division.

"I just thought it was in the best interest of our communications department, of our press organisation, to not have too many cooks in the kitchen," he said. "Without me in the way, they have a fresh start, so that I'm not lurking over them."

Meanwhile the negative headlines continue.

American news organisations reported on Friday that Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election, has asked White House officials to preserve any records of a meeting last year between the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, and a Russian lawyer.

And, according to the latest Washington Post story, Russia’s ambassador to Washington told superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign matters with Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, during the 2016 race, apparently contradicting the attorney general’s account of their meetings.

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