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A New Veneer: Inside the White House Communications Shakeup

Hallie Jackson takes readers inside the White House communications shakeup that led Sean Spicer to turn in his resignation.
Image: Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waves beside a U.S. Marine as he enters the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, July 21, 2017.
Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waves beside a U.S. Marine as he enters the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, July 21, 2017.Michael Reynolds / EPA

WASHINGTON — Friday’s most enduring image belongs to Sean Spicer, strolling down the White House driveway shortly before 5 p.m., grinning ear-to-ear and waving to a throng of cameras as he walked through the doorway of the West Wing.

Six hours earlier, he’d been standing in the Oval Office handing his resignation letter to the president, ending his six-month tenure as White House press secretary.

Image: Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer smiles as he walks into the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2017.
Outgoing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer smiles as he walks into the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2017.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

A well-placed administration source familiar with how the events unfolded describes a process that began yesterday, when President Donald Trump told his staff he wanted them to incorporate a former campaign adviser, Anthony Scaramucci, into the communications team. Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, put up a fight, and so did Spicer.

A source familiar with Spicer's thinking said the resistance had less to do with Scaramucci himself and more to do with the idea of suddenly installing an incoming communications director with no experience in government or communications.

But the president's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were “involved and supportive,” according to another source, and the president got his way. He gathered senior staff members in his office and formally told them Scaramucci would be leading the comms team.

Related: How Sean Spicer Went Horribly Wrong

Pointing to Scaramucci and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — and saying he loved them both — he emphasized the need for a breath of fresh air and told the staff to simply figure it out. After the meeting ended, the president began his daily intelligence briefing.

Spicer walked out of the Oval Office and into his office, where he printed out his resignation letter. When the daily intel briefing ended, he walked back into the Oval and handed the letter to the president. Spicer told him privately, according to one source, what he later told several news outlets publicly: the team needed a “clean slate.”

After some back-and-forth, the president accepted the resignation — but with one question: Would Spicer come to see him now and then? Spicer apparently assured the president he would visit frequently, and they discussed Spicer staying in his role through August to handle the transition to Scaramucci.

Priebus was in the room for most, if not all, of the conversation; word quickly began to trickle out in the West Wing. Spicer, after submitting his letter of resignation to the staff secretary, gathered the communications team in his office, along with Priebus and Scaramucci. Roughly 40 people listened as Spicer told them he was leaving, and a few staffers were visibly taken aback by the news.

Related: Meet Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s New Communications Director

Sanders, by this point, had already learned she would be promoted to Spicer's job as press secretary. Her performances on the podium had impressed the president, as he made clear. Her first on-camera briefing was the day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey — arguably one of the most pressure-packed days in this administration.

Down in the press briefing room, news of Spicer’s resignation had started to break. Reporters hustled to the hallway outside Spicer’s office, and were eventually corralled back to the door of the briefing room — but not before spotting Scaramucci and Priebus together upstairs. Photographers staked out every doorway to the White House. Reuters live-streamed a shot outside Spicer’s home in Virginia.

Staffers put together a plan for Sanders and Scaramucci to brief the press at 2 p.m. The energy in the briefing room in the moments before it began felt like the early days of this administration: standing-room-only; every seat full; networks breaking in for special coverage.

When Scaramucci walked out with Sanders, the noise of the camera shutters threatened to drown out the first few words of the briefing. His first appearance was memorable for many reasons (among them: the Mooch smooch of Sanders), but this stands out: in a break with usual procedure, it was Scaramucci, and not the president, who announced that Sanders would be the new press secretary. (Think back to Barack Obama introducing Josh Earnest, George W. Bush with Dana Perino, Bill Clinton with Dee Dee Myers.)

After the briefing, one source said the president was pleased with Scaramucci’s first official briefing and thought he did well. Another predicted the president probably loved Scaramucci’s “look” — sharp-suited and well-coiffed, in contrast to Spicer’s rumpled initial outings. (Scaramucci, by the way, will be moving full-time to Washington.)

Spicer arrived back at the West Wing in the early evening, all smiles and from this reporter's perspective, looking more energized. Some in the White House thought Spicer looked 10 years younger.

But the troubles of this White House aren't going away, and now they will fall on new shoulders. Elsewhere in the building, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was “quietly resigned” to Scaramucci’s new role, according to one source. Kushner was focused on his upcoming interviews next week with the House and Senate intelligence committees.

And at 6:51 p.m. Friday, the Washington Post posted its latest bombshell related to Russia: Intelligence intercepts showed that Jeff Sessions, now attorney general, discussed matters relating to the Trump campaign with the Russian ambassador last year.