“Oh my God, members of the press.”
This was the first thing Anthony Scaramucci said as he paused in the doorway of the Mountbatten Room at the Union, eyes scanning the student journalists waiting to interview him. For a second, it was silent. We didn’t know what to say.
Then he burst into laughter and sauntered into the room, arms outstretched as he came around and greeted us, shaking our hands.
The same vein of making light of what people expect of him was weaved throughout the rest of the evening. Later that night, just as his speakers event at the Union commenced, Union president Page Nyame-Satterthwaite introduced him as “an American businessperson who was appointed as the White House communications director by President Donald Trump in July 2017”. He replied, speaking of his time at the Oxford Union just two days before, “I’m already loving you people, and I’ll tell you why. The Oxford people introduced me as the shortest-serving tenured communications director.” He adds, “But they said it was ten days. And I’ll tell you, I have a very fragile ego, it was actually eleven days.” The chamber burst into laughter.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent about Scaramucci, known to some as The Mooch, is that he stares unflinchingly at you, eyes wide, unwavering, piercing. He sat at the head of the table, and occasionally, when either he or an interviewer was speaking, his gaze searched others around him, seemingly checking for a reaction.
With his appearance being one of the most, or, quite possibly, the most, highly-anticipated event in the Union term card this term, he has been the subject of a vast number of conversations in the past week. A friend told me, “I’d probably punch him”; another simply scoffed. Yet another, upon learning of this interview, texted, “Ask him what he achieved in 10 days as Trump’s mouthpiece, hehehe.”
An hour before he arrived, the Union was abuzz. We in the Mountbatten Room had time for just a question each before he was whisked away.
When I asked, “Is politics, for you, a platform for personal ambition?”, he answered almost immediately.
“I don’t know. I stumbled into politics accidentally. The first person I supported in a presidential election was Barack Obama.” He asked, “Do you know why I supported him?”, and I shook my head.
His voice quietened ever so slightly, then, “Because I went to law school with him.” He continued, “So we were at Harvard together, and I said, this would be the first time in my life that I’ll actually know somebody that’s running for President.
“So this has all been very accidental for me. I’ve seen myself as an American businessperson for the 28 years since I left law school, so… I don’t know.”
Then he asked, suddenly rapt with attention, “What do you think? Do you think I should be in politics?” He added, “Do you think I have the right personality for politics?” I mumbled something inconsequential about there not being a single, one-size-fits-all personality for politics.
“Well, I think that the problem in poli—“, he began, then stopped. “Well, maybe the world will change, we’ll have to see. I’m a very upfront person, so I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel about things, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it in that political, Orwellian-speak sort of way. So that leads to some level of anxiety.”
Later, during his speakers event, in which he engaged in a discussion with Nyame-Satterthwaite, perhaps one of the most momentous points came when, without being prodded, he acknowledged the elephant in the room — his conversation on the phone with Ryan Lizza from the New Yorker, which ended his career at the White House.
“I was supposed to say the conversation was off the record. I was supposed to know that he was recording the conversation even though he was recording it without my permission.
“Virginia, where I was talking to him from, is a one-party state, meaning that one of the two parties can record with or without the other person’s permission.
“Some of you may say, you’re the White House Communications Director, so you should have known that. That is a very fair comment, and I own that, and I own that mistake."
Eventually, he told us, “The truth of the matter is that I own it. And so I have no regrets.”
He gave us a fraction of context for his phone call with Ryan Lizza a while later, when Nyame-Satterthwaite asked, “Having been on the inside, do you think there’s a particular reason for such volatility in the Trump White House?” He responded by interpreting “volatility” as the number of leaks coming from the administration.
“I’ll take you guys back, it’s July 20th, it’s 4:30 in the afternoon. I’m called into the West Wing of the White House. The President has a small study off of the Oval Office, and I walk into the office with Ivanka, and we’re sitting there, and the President says okay, we’re going to make you the communications director, but you gotta help me stop the leaks. There’re a tremendous amount of leaks going on here, and we gotta figure out a way to stop the leaks.”
The phone call with Lizza had centred on Scaramucci’s inexplicable near-obsession with finding out who had leaked information to Lizza of his dinner at the White House with President Trump, the First Lady, Sean Hannity, and former Fox News executive Bill Shine.
It seems Scaramucci has a habit of giving people advice, often speaking in handy aphorisms one can take away from the conversation. At one point, he said, “One axiomatic fact about life, and the real secret to your happiness is that what other people think about you is none of your own business.” Later, he painted us a picture of politics so neat and memorable it seemed rehearsed, “What I found is that people take two pills when they get close to power. The first one is the anti-friendship pill.
“So I could’ve been friends with someone like Steve Bannon, and I could’ve been friends with someone like Reince Priebus for a very long time, but the anti-friendship pill goes in, and it doesn’t matter what your friendships were, or your loyalties — you’ll take the people out to the right of you, to the left, if you think it’s going to help you garner more power. I was absolutely repulsed by that.
“The second pill that people take is the aphrodisiac pill for power, and they wanna get super close to power, they wanna brag about the position that they have in power, and they get almost drunk off of the influence they have. And that’s why the press is so important, because you have to hold these people accountable, otherwise you will give them a license for absolute recklessness.”
Looking back on that evening, Scaramucci comes across as unexpectedly open about the reputation that precedes him. Speaking to people the following day, the word “noble” was used to describe how open he had been about the past. Others were simply confused. A gap had opened up between what we knew from reading about him and watching him on the news, and how he came across in person. It had become difficult to pin him down.
On the one hand, one thing he said over the course of the night comes to mind as something of an explanation. “What we do in American politics is we take three-dimensional people and we try to smash them down into two-dimensional caricatures. We do that in order to totally put them in disrepute for the rest of the society.”
On the other hand, some, the more sceptical amongst us, have said it must be a front. That remains a matter of speculation, hanging in the air of Cambridge in his wake.