Scara­mucci’s fir­ing was a vic­tory for po­lit­i­cal norms

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Noah Feld­man

The short life of An­thony Scara­mucci as White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor will be re­mem­bered with joy by some, or at least by me. His un­bri­dled self-ex­pres­sion, in the grand­est tra­di­tions of the First Amend­ment and the New York street cor­ner, was more like a tor­nado of fresh air than a mere breath.

But the era of the Mooch was also guar­an­teed to be as brief as the life of a mayfly — for a se­ri­ous rea­son. Im­por­tant jobs like man­ag­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­la­tion­ship with the press come with norms and cus­toms: un­writ­ten rules that shape so­cial re­la­tions in ev­ery cul­ture, and that are based on cu­mu­la­tive wis­dom and many decades (some­times cen­turies) of trial and er­ror. In his mil­lisec­ond of pub­lic ser­vice, Scara­mucci vi­o­lated a stun­ning num­ber of those norms, vi­o­la­tions that could not be tol­er­ated, even by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The les­son of the Scara­mucci episode is there­fore cru­cial for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion going for­ward. Norms can be shifted, al­tered and changed; it’s al­ways a mis­take to as­sume they are in­vari­ant or in­flex-

ible. But well-es­tab­lished norms can’t be en­tirely flouted without se­ri­ous con­se­quences — like a White House in dis­ar­ray, de­spite protests to the con­trary.

It’s un­der­stand­able that Trump’s clos­est ad­vis­ers would con­sider them­selves ideal for chang­ing-mak­ing in the realm of un­writ­ten cus­toms. Af­ter all, they all took part in his his­to­ry­mak­ing cam­paign.

And that cam­paign was char­ac­ter­ized by break­ing the un­writ­ten rules. Trump re­peat­edly said more or less what­ever was on his mind, and didn’t just get away with it, but prof­ited. Ev­ery time he broke a rule that the news me­dia un­der­stood based on its own col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, it was news­wor­thy. The re­sult, we now know, was a gi­gan­tic quan­tum of free press — all of it ac­quired quite le­git­i­mately, by be­ing shock­ing.

Even when Trump got at­ten­tion for break­ing the rules un­in­ten­tion­ally, as when the au­dio of his lewd con­ver­sa­tion with Billy Bush sur­faced, he sur­vived and thrived, in di­rect con­tra­dic­tion to the con­ven­tional wis­dom. The last can­di­date to break the rules un­in­ten­tion­ally and get away with it was Bill Clin­ton; but even he bowed to con­ven­tion by ex­press­ing con­tri­tion and re­gret about his vi­o­la­tions. And it’s un­likely that Clin­ton ben­e­fited from the pub­lic­ity at­ten­dant on his lapses, as Trump seemed to do.

But run­ning the coun­try turns out to be markedly dif­fer­ent from win­ning a cam­paign — and un­writ­ten norms play a sub­tly dif­fer­ent part. I’m talk­ing about po­lit­i­cal rules of gov­er­nance that have emerged from past prac­tice.

The big dif­fer­ence is that the po­lit­i­cal rules al­most all in­volve ac­tors other than the pres­i­dent him­self. In a cam­paign, the ques­tion ul­ti­mately comes down to whether vot­ers will tick the box for the can­di­date. In gov­er­nance, the ques­tion is whether dif­fer­ent peo­ple hold­ing dif­fer­ent roles will co­op­er­ate on com­mon projects.

Trump’s health are de­ba­cle is a sim­ple ex­am­ple. In­stead of lead­ing with a plan, as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama did, Trump de­ferred to Congress — and was un­able (so far) to muster suf­fi­cient con­sen­sus within his own party to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Scara­mucci’s norm-break­ing was sim­i­lar, if more spec­tac­u­lar and a good deal more en­ter­tain­ing. At the risk of stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, the White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor can’t act as though he’s the king­maker for the en­tire ad­min­is­tra­tion.

That means, of course, that he can’t de­nounce other se­nior White House staff in any way — much less sca­to­log­i­cally, au­to­erot­i­cally and on the record.

The key point here isn’t so much the vul­gar­ity, which was kind of beau­ti­ful in its out­ra­geous way. Rather, it’s that the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor can’t be the one to tell the world that the pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, who out­ranks him, is about to be fired.

The moment Scara­mucci fore­told the fir­ing of Reince Priebus, he was writ­ing the chron­i­cle of an­other po­lit­i­cal death fore­told: his own.

No new chief of staff could con­ceiv­ably tol­er­ate a com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor who be­lieved he could out­flank a chief of staff. When it comes to hi­er­ar­chi­cal au­thor­ity, in the end, there can be only one chief. So long as the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor is a mem­ber of the White House staff, he has to fall un­der the chief.

So it wouldn’t have taken a re­tired gen­eral like John Kelly. Any new chief of staff was going to cut Scara­mucci loose. Those are the rules, whether you can find them in a book or not.

Part of Scara­mucci’s charm was his ap­par­ent be­lief that the rules didn’t ap­ply to him. When the vi­o­la­tion is se­ri­ous, we call this hubris, af­ter the Greek trage­di­ans. When the vi­o­la­tion is more mi­nor, we call it chutz­pah, af­ter the Jewish co­me­di­ans.

The take­away is that norms mat­ter, be­cause they con­strain and di­rect us to act in ways that en­able us to co­op­er­ate and get along. Left to their own de­vices, the Scara­muc­cis of the world — they are le­gion, and of all par­ties — would act out their own im­pulses, heed­less of con­se­quences. But get­ting things done re­quires lim­i­ta­tions, self-re­straints to fa­cil­i­tate work­ing to­gether.

Break­ing the rules is more fun than al­most any­thing. And there’s al­ways a price to pay.

Noah Feld­man is a pro­fes­sor of law at Har­vard. Email him at nfeld­man7@ bloomberg.net. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @Noahrfeld­man

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