Trump and Priebus: How to lose a chief of staff in 189 days

The exit of Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff means that Donald Trump loses a Washington insider with key congressional contacts, at a time when the U.S. president’s politically inexperienced administration is starving for a legislative win.

Trump also loses a “sycophant” whose failure to tell the president “hard truths” probably doomed him, says Chris Whipple, an American political historian who has interviewed all 17 living White House chiefs of staff.

Never was Whipple more convinced of that than during a Friday night CNN interview, when Priebus appeared on live TV after his resignation just 189 days on the job. Priebus gamely cheered on the president.

“I’m always going to be a Donald Trump fan,” he told news presenter Wolf Blitzer, a tight smile on his face.

Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, groaned. In his mind, this was precisely the problem.

“This is a guy who could not walk in and close the door behind him and tell Trump what he didn’t want to hear,” Whipple said. “I saw him as another sycophant. The West Wing is just full of them.”


Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chair, had been picked for his political know-how. But there has been little legislative progress. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Replacing Priebus will be former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly, a retired four-star marine general not known for tolerating the kind of infighting and shenanigans that have distracted from the president’s policy goals.

Kelly is expected to bring in a serviceman’s discipline and a chain-of-command management style into a chaotic West Wing. What that means as far as dealing with Trump’s new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, who went on an unhinged and crude tirade to a New Yorker reporter last week, is likely outlined in a set of pre-conditions to accepting the job, said military historian Richard Kohn.

“Kelly is going to have to — how should I put this — school the president in his behaviours and his staff’s behaviours,” Kohn said. “He has no patience for foolishness.”


Trump has picked Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a no-nonsense former marine general, as his new chief of staff. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Referring to Scaramucci, Kohn said Kelly will command authority over him.

“Kelly will bring him to heel. Because if he doesn’t, Kelly won’t last very long,” he said. “And I don’t think Trump can afford to lose him for at least a few months.”

Kohn believes the general’s second major challenge will be his lack of political experience, something Priebus previously brought to Trump’s inner circle, having close Republican contacts, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. He was viewed as having considerable pull in Congress.


White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci is quickly developing a reputation as a ‘loose cannon.’ (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

“You get rid of these RNC establishment types and it becomes increasingly harder for the president to accomplish what he needs to, and this is a president who desperately needs to put his agenda forward,” said Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich.

A major part of Priebus’s appeal was his insider’s knowledge, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed the 2004 presidential campaign for Howard Dean.

“People felt you needed someone like Priebus who knows the members of Congress as RNC chairman, who understands how committees move a bill through and which members you have to get on board.”


‘I’m always going to be a Donald Trump fan,’ Priebus said after his resignation. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trippi said that Priebus served as a “bridge” between the “establishment wing” of the White House and the more extreme right wing represented by chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“Now you blow up the bridge and replace that with a general,” someone who lacks the same political know-how.

Trump’s reported displeasure with Priebus came into sharper focus in March, when he reportedly took blame over the initial failure to pass a repeal and replace bill for the Affordable Care Act.

Priebus resigned on Thursday, when the Senate began a last-ditch vote on a health-care bill that stretched into the early morning and ultimately failed.

The resignation also came on the same day The New Yorker published crude remarks by Scaramucci calling Priebus a “paranoiac” and accusing him of leaking a damning — but public — financial disclosure document.

Political strategists believed it was only a matter of time before Trump would fire Priebus. On Wednesday, Priebus’s pick for press secretary, Sean Spicer, also called it quits.

“Look, Priebus never had a chance,” said John Weaver, the former Republican campaign strategist who worked for presidential candidates John McCain and John Kasich. “He was marginalized from the very beginning, never had any strength. He certainly never had the president’s respect.”

Between Scaramucci’s recent antics, the Trump family’s expectations of loyalty, and the introduction of a general accustomed to discipline, Weaver compared the changing dynamics in Trump’s inner circle to a clash of film genres. Expect discord, he said.

“Imagine merging Dumb and Dumber, The Godfather and Patton together, and you have a movie nobody’s going to want to participate in or watch, because it just doesn’t make any sense.”

As for Kelly’s chances of lasting in his new role, Whipple said a chief of staff’s success not only depends on the president’s willingness to “empower” that person, but for the key aide to feel free to challenge the commander-in-chief.

“It’s the most important part of the job; it’s the part of the job that I think Reince Priebus failed at,” he said.

“He’s walking into an unbelievably tough situation where you have a loose cannon in the form of Scaramucci rolling around on the deck, and the first thing he has to do is tie that down.”

Unless Kelly, who starts work on Monday, can win assurances he’ll be first among equals, that Scaramucci reports to him and not the other way around, and that Kelly will oversee White House staffing decisions, Whipple sees the position as being untenable.

There is one condition that Whipple said Kelly must insist on, and it involves the president’s favourite micro-blogging service.

“This cannot work unless Kelly gets an advance look to clear all of Trump’s tweets,” he said. “That should be the first non-negotiable condition he can set.”

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