It has taken a Herculean effort to pin down Anthony Scaramucci. Our lunch was originally scheduled for last November. Then Scaramucci stumbled on an old tweet by the FT’s editor, Lionel Barber, which compared the language he used to that in The Sopranos — the renowned TV drama about a New Jersey mafia family. He took offence and promptly canceled our appointment.
I had been hoping to ask him what happened in July that year, when "the Mooch" — as most people call Scaramucci — had phoned a reporter on The New Yorker magazine to rant about his White House rivals: Steve Bannon, then US President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Reince Priebus, then White House chief of staff. Bannon practised a highly acrobatic form of onanism, Scaramucci told The New Yorker. Priebus, meanwhile, was a "f***ing paranoid schizophrenic".
The media storm was instant. Four days later, Scaramucci was out as White House communications director. He had lasted just 10 days in the job, which was a record. Shortly before our first lunch appointment, Scaramucci had found Barber’s tweet: "Sopranos on the Potomac, Season Two. The Mooch promises no more foul rants against White House colleagues, for now," it said. Scaramucci e-mailed me to say that our lunch could not go ahead unless my boss apologised for being racist about Italian-Americans. I said this was not going to happen and that I did not think the tweet was remotely racist. "OK, be well," Scaramucci replied. And that was that.
Four months and several coaxing e-mails later, I am seated at a booth table awaiting Scaramucci’s arrival. He is 15 minutes late. I am at the Hunt & Fish Club, a midtown Manhattan steak house that happens to be part-owned by Scaramucci. The decor is a little garish — monsoons of glassy chandeliers and gilted mirrors wherever you look. Since I am at Scaramucci’s special booth, the staff is highly attentive.
"I can tell this is going to be a bloody nightmare," Scaramucci says as he strides in. He is dressed casually in green slacks and a dark sweater. Not at all, I protest. We will have a conversation and I will write it up. "Which part of England are you from?" Scaramucci asks me. Originally from near Brighton, I reply. "Are you gay?" he asks. Somewhat thrown by the question, I start to mumble that I am not but that some of my best friends are, and... "I don’t give a shit," he interrupts. "I’m just curious. There are a lot of gays in Brighton, right?" I have little chance to weigh up Brighton’s sexual demographics before he interrupts again: "That’s something I get no credit for, by the way," he says. "I have been for equal opportunity in gay marriage for the last 12 or 13 years."
We haven’t even ordered, but I am already losing control over the conversation. I jog it back on to Scaramucci’s life. Since his very public firing last July — one of the more pyrotechnical exits in a White House that has cornered the market in fireworks — Scaramucci has been anything but absent from public view. Most days he is out there on cable TV defending whatever Trump has said or done. He seems to have no interest in returning to his previous role as a financial investor and owner of SkyBridge Capital, which hosted a popular annual gathering of big hedge-fund names.
He put SkyBridge on the market when he was first under consideration for a Trump role. The sale, to a Chinese company, HNA, has been held up by a US federal national security assessment. Having caught the Trump bug, Scaramucci now cannot shake it. It is as though he is finally doing the job he was fired from last summer — minus the salty vocabulary. But his animus towards Washington has only deepened. Scaramucci, who is a youthful and evidently fit 54, picks up a steak knife. "See this? These are front-stabbing knives. You only use these in New York. In Washington you use a shiv, or mechanisms in the press, back-stabbing, subterfuge, opposition research... Not in New York. We come at you right from the front."
Keeping a wary eye on the knife, I suggest it is time to order. Scaramucci gets into a banter with one of the other partners — the one who runs the restaurant full-time. "This is my joint," Scaramucci says, after introducing me. "But he’s paying. Can you believe that? Never happened before." He orders unsweetened iced tea. Before I can choose for myself, Scaramucci adds: "Give him a warm glass of white wine. He’s British." I end up with a chilled Pinot Grigio.
Scaramucci orders chopped salad to start. I choose beetroot salad. Scaramucci has a light-hearted, politically incorrect exchange about the fact that his partner is Jewish and he is Italian, which he requests be off the record. "Are you a British Jew?" he asks me. No, I reply. "Presbyterian?" No, I reply. "Well, I guess you can’t have everything," he says. Sensing I am losing control of the thread again, I launch into a question about the future of Trump. "Are you married?" Scaramucci interrupts. Yes, I reply. "So am I," he says. "I’ve got three kids from my first marriage and two from my second. My youngest is seven months."
I am pleased to hear his second marriage is back on track, I say. During last summer’s flame-out, it emerged that Scaramucci’s heavily pregnant wife, Deidre Ball, a Democrat, had disapproved of his move to Trump’s White House and filed for divorce. Since then, they have patched things up. They even appeared on Dr Phil, a daytime TV show that dispenses amateur psychology. It must have been quite a roller coaster, I suggest. No, he replies.
"It was a study in predictable unpredictability. Once the train left the station, you could predict all the unpredictability that followed: the dunking, the excoriation in the press, Washington’s spin and rinse cycle. What’s supposed to happen is that when you get hit that hard you’re meant to sit in the shame box that the media and the Washington establishment build for you, and put a dunce cap on and get away from us... You see what I’m saying?" Yes, I reply. "Well that’s not me."
What is it that draws him to Trump, I ask? Their backgrounds could hardly differ more. Unlike Trump, a Wasp who was born into considerable wealth in Queens, New York, Scaramucci comes from a working-class Italian neighbourhood in Long Island. His father was a construction worker. The household of five shared a single upstairs bathroom. "I respect my father’s work ethic too much to say we were poor. We grew up middle-class."
Scaramucci and his older brother were the first in their family to make it to college — and the only ones among roughly 40 cousins. Scaramucci did his undergraduate degree at Tufts University and was then accepted into Harvard Law School — the same intake as Barack Obama (they did not mix socially). "My parents thought it was Hartford law school, Connecticut — not Harvard. True story. They’re still alive — you can ask them. When I told them I was going to Goldman Sachs they didn’t know what that was, either. They wanted me to practise law. I never have."
LIFE BEFORE TRUMP
Our main courses land. Scaramucci is having a cheeseburger and fries. He has ordered a lemon-burned chicken for me. I had little say in the matter. By now the restaurant has hit a crescendo. Every table is full.
Scaramucci launches into a detailed history of his career while promising he will eventually answer my Trump question. To cut a long story short, he worked at Goldman Sachs for seven years. Then he left to form his own fund. That was bought up by Lehman Brothers, which he left before the 2008 financial meltdown hit. Then he set up SkyBridge Capital, which was a big hit. Until the then-Senator Obama came along, he took no interest in politics. But he liked Obama, whom he saw as a centrist, and agreed to raise money — to "bundle" other people’s contributions — for his 2008 campaign. "I am a New Yorker," Scaramucci says. "When someone asks for your help, you open your cheque book. I am a lot like Trump that way [sic]." But Obama disappointed him. "Too many regulations. Wall Street is a circulatory system for American capitalism. If its arterial flow is blocked, it blunts and slows down the economic engine for everyone else."
His sense of betrayal led him into Republican arms — first Mitt Romney’s losing 2012 campaign against Obama, then into the 2016 Republican primaries. Scaramucci started off as finance chair for Scott Walker, the conservative governor of Wisconsin, who quickly dropped out of the race. Then he switched to Jeb Bush’s campaign. "Trump calls me to ask for my help. I say I am already committed but I don’t believe he’s serious. He’s hinted at running before. I’ve been in his beautiful three-storey triplex apartment in Trump Tower. We know each other from New York Yankees games."
They shook on a deal that Scaramucci would work for Trump if the Mooch’s first choices dropped out. "If Jeb had won, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near the White House. There would have been layers and layers of establishment Republicans blocking my way."
What does he think Trump has that the others lacked, I ask? The short answer is that Trump understood that America’s "aspirational" working class had become "desperational". Even Scaramucci had failed to grasp this change in public mood. I express surprise at this, given that Scaramucci still lives 3.5km from where he grew up. His parents never moved. "I spent many of my decades in what I would call the salons of the wealthy ... Goldman Sachs, Lehman, etc, the media establishment, surrounded by wealth. I attended the last 10 or 12 World Economic Forums in Davos. I am picking up the unconscious biases of the wealthy and therefore missing these seismic changes."
As for the Mooch’s parents, they no longer have to worry, he says. "I have luxed up their house... They have two beautiful Mercedes in the driveway. I take care of them. They are now insulated. So I have lost the voice of that neighbourhood."
But how was it that Trump picked up on that "desperational" mood shift, I ask? I remind Scaramucci of what Trump said when a group of potential foreign investors in one of his Atlantic City casinos asked what he meant by "white trash". Trump replied: "They’re people just like me, only they’re poor." We are interrupted by the waiter, who asks whether we want dessert. Before I can say no, Scaramucci says: "Bring him some desserts. You pick them. I don’t give a shit." He gets back on to Trump. "He would tweet during the campaign and he would say to us: ‘That tweet’s not for you. You’re probably offended by it. I don’t care. That tweet is for the guy in the flyover states, at the steel plant... If I lose some of the effete Republican elite, what difference does it make?’"
A couple of minutes later, a towering chocolate cake arrives. Also an enormous sponge cake layered with custard. "All yours," says Scaramucci. "You look like you could put on some weight." I carve a polite teaspoon out of each and drain my double espresso. The Mooch asks for his iced tea to be refilled.
Mindful of Scaramucci’s Italian-American sensitivities, I say that Trump consciously stokes racial bias. This brings us back to Bannon, who Scaramucci evidently still detests. "You have to understand that Bannon is a racist — he has a screw loose. I have got a limited skill set but I can evaluate talent. Bannon only cares about his brand. Take out the curse words [that Scaramucci used with The New Yorker] and I was right about Bannon. When you have a messianic complex, your last move is nihilism. Trump is not like that. Trump has a family. He is a grandfather. He has people in his life. He cares about these people."
Scaramucci senses that I am nonplussed. In my view Trump’s race-baiting precedes and post-dates Bannon’s employment. "I don’t think that Trump is a racist," Scaramucci insists. "I tell him: ‘You’ve got so many things intuitively right. Don’t let your ire at some of the people in the media get the better of you... Take a step back. Dial back a little bit on style. Make more fun of your hairline and hiding your bald spot, then your approval ratings will go into the mid-60s’."
I find it impossible to imagine a self-deprecating Trump. But I am warming to Scaramucci’s conversational style. I tell him that I remain puzzled how such a loyal Trumpian — and a communications director at that — could have spoken so crudely on the phone to a journalist and not expected instant nemesis. Even Trump avoids public swearing. Scaramucci explains that The New Yorker writer, Ryan Lizza, was from the same Long Island neighbourhood. Their respective fathers had known each other for 50 years. "I incorrectly thought my family’s tie to him and the Italian-American community would mean our conversation was off the record. I make a mistake, which cost me my job. I own it. If he’s saying I don’t really know him, he’s correct. But he can’t say the Lizzas and Scarramuccis don’t go back 50 years on Long Island. I said: ‘Why would you even do that to me?’ It was very transactional what he did."
Our lunch is almost over. It has been a staccato 90 minutes. The bill arrives. It is almost as large as our multi-storeyed desserts. "No one has ever sat at this table and paid before!" Scaramucci tells the waiter grinning broadly. I have a train to catch but Scaramucci wants to carry on talking. I ask him what it is about the liberal elites that people so detest.
"How many miles do you live from your parents?" he asks rhetorically. "Most people live where they grew up." I tell him that I do not define myself as liberal. "No, I don’t think you are," he said. It turns out he has read two books I have written, which startles me. "I have done my homework. You need to understand there is a difference between America First and nationalism. When people hear the word ‘nationalism’ they think ‘Guns of August’ [a classic book about the first world war]. That isn’t Trump."
But what differentiates Trump, or Scaramucci for that matter, from the gilded elites? "There’s different strands of liberalism and different strands of collective guilt. I had no guilt about the success I’ve had. I can understand why some people might have guilt... They have built that into their politics. There’s a little bit of hypocrisy in how they operate."
By now the restaurant is empty. We wander into the light rain outside. A large car is waiting for Scaramucci. I order an Uber. "What we are talking about is a culture of snobbishness," he says, as we shake hands. "They are obsessed with Trump’s style. If someone like Jeff Bezos is president of America 10 years from now, then Trump will have succeeded." Leaving that thought in the air, Scaramucci zooms off in his black car.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
The Financial Times Limited 2018.