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November 18, 2017

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Gold rush: Spicer among Trump aides cashing in

Sean Spicer lasted a mere half-year as the White House press secretary, but that was plenty long enough to mortify himself. He began with that kooky, laughable lie about the unprecedented size of President Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd, and things didn’t pick up much from there. A punching bag for the administration, he became a punch line for much of America.

But who’s laughing now? Upon exiting his job he apparently had his pick of posh lecture-circuit agents, one of whom told Mike Allen of Axios that Spicer scoffed at the suggestion that he might be worth only $20,000 to $30,000 per speech, which is what other former press secretaries made. So going into his first speech, which was scheduled to take place Monday in front of an audience of investment bankers in Manhattan, he figured to make a lot more than that.

Oh, the juicy fruit of even an ephemeral fling with our fruitcake-in-chief. Ask Anthony Scaramucci. He was sent packing after just 10 profane and ignominious days as the White House communications director, and what do you suppose he did? Change his name and enter the political equivalent of witness protection? Retreat to a monastery for prayerful atonement until the shame dissipated?

No. The Mooch did not rechristen himself the Pooch, nor was there any penance. In lieu of a priest he found himself a publicist — a Hollywood bigwig whose list of clients includes the “Flip or Flop” star Tarek El Moussa, the singer Barry Manilow and the Jet Blue flight attendant who grabbed two frosty brews and waved a feisty adieu as he opened a mid-plane hatch and slid to freedom. Dignity lays little claim to many of the aides still in Trump’s employ. Why should it govern those in exile?

For decades, it has been customary for the former attendants of presidents and presidential candidates to cash in. The Clintons were a money train with no shortage of passengers, and Bill and Hillary themselves never shrank from turning political pain into financial gain. She’ll mint fresh millions from her new book, “What Happened,” and from engagements to promote it.

But the gold rush by some of the refugees from Trumplandia has a quickness and crassness all its own. I suppose that’s fitting. They got no loyalty from Trump, though he demanded it from them. They weren’t idealists in grateful thrall to some coherent vision or exalted principles that he was advancing. They were more or less flunkies for a bully whose top priorities have always been an immense fortune and immeasurable celebrity, though not necessarily in that order. Spicer and Scaramucci are paying their onetime boss the highest of compliments. They’re emulating him.

Corey Lewandowski too. He didn’t have a particularly luminous résumé before Trump, and his year at the helm of Trump’s campaign was filled with fits of temper. He was even brought up on charges — later dropped — of manhandling a female journalist. But none of that hampered the swagger with which he opened his access-peddling, swamp-situated venture, Avenue Strategies. “A typical boutique lobbying firm might charge $10,000 to $15,000 a month,” my colleague Nicholas Confessore wrote about Avenue in the New York Times Magazine recently. “Avenue sometimes asked for as much as $50,000 a month.”

And let us never forget Mike Flynn, the epitome of the kind of barnacle that affixes itself to Trump. Even as Flynn was advising the Trump campaign on foreign policy, he was taking payments to represent Turkish interests. Why wait for a post-presidency windfall if you can engineer a pre-presidency one? It’s good that he struck while the iron was hot, because he now dwells in a frigid limbo on the far side of his days of White House service, which numbered all of 24. He’s weighed down by actual scandal, while Spicer and Scaramucci are weighed down only by their volitional debasement, and that’s apparently no drag at all.

The ethos of enrichment in this administration starts at the very top, with Trump and his family, for whom the presidency represents the ultimate branding opportunity. This separates Trump from his predecessors, none of whom had or held onto the array of business interests that remain in his possession, managed by his flesh and blood. And he’s hardly shy about advertising that empire. He and members of his Cabinet swan and sup at the Trump International Hotel in Washington whose earnings since his inauguration have handily exceeded expectations. And according to a tally kept by NBC News, he has spent nearly one in every three days since he took office at a Trump-branded property, thereby bathing it in the brightest of spotlights.

Of course the initiation fee to join Mar-a-Loco doubled shortly after his election, to $200,000, and it wasn’t much later that Kellyanne Conway commanded patriotic Americans to buy Ivanka Trump handbags, shoes and jewels. Is this a presidency or a profit center? To judge by what has happened in only its first 7 1/2 months, the office’s degradations under Trump may well include its commercialization beyond anything seen before.

And the marketability of the Trump clan and those around them proves anew that visibility and notoriety are their own rewards, regardless of how they come about, and that the line between government business and show business can be awfully thin. Scaramucci sprinted from the White House grounds to the television studios and reaped huge ratings for Stephen Colbert when he appeared on his show. No matter what people thought of him, they wanted to ogle him, and he’ll be merrily monetizing that for some time to come.

So will Spicer, who at least had the good sense to turn down an offer from “Dancing With the Stars,” which is more than Energy Secretary Rick Perry can say. “His name ID is massive,” said the speaking agent who talked with Mike Allen, referring to Spicer. “He’s obsessed with that.” Spicer bragged to Allen about how his White House press briefings had been nightly prime-time viewing in parts of Europe. “I’m one of the most popular guys in Ireland,” he crowed.

So what if he trashed his previous reputation as a reasonably straight shooter? Who cares if he spread the lies of a serial fabulist? That’s entertainment! And it’s lucrative.

“I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money,” Scaramucci told reporters as Spicer left the White House. What a poignant farewell. And what a perfect tell.

Frank Bruni is a columist for The New York Times.

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