Reince Priebus spent his last day as White House chief of staff like nothing was out of the ordinary.
He held his regular morning meeting, where he talked about the failure of the GOP health care reform to pass the Senate early Friday morning, after a fatal no vote from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
On Air Force One up to Long Island, where President Donald Trump gave a speech about the MS-13 gang, Priebus sat at the conference room table going over the top issues of the day. “We were talking about the speech in New York, North Korea, health care, tax reform,” said New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who accompanied Trump. “He was talking, we were talking.”
By 4:49 p.m., it was over. “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” Trump tweeted from the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, where Priebus still sat waiting in a black SUV. Other aides riding with him hopped into a different car once the tweet posted. His SUV separated from the motorcade and went on a rainy ride through Washington alone.
Priebus, in an interview on CNN Friday evening, tried to downplay his tensions with Trump, while saying it was his decision to resign. “This isn’t a situation with a bunch of ill-will,” he said. “I think the president wanted to go in a different direction. I support him in that.”
It was an ignominious close to an operatic six months during which Priebus was sidelined from the outset, first by chief strategist Steve Bannon, then by Trump’s children and finally by Anthony Scaramucci, whose arrival last week as communications director heralded the imminent end of Priebus’ tenure.
But finally it was the absence of progress on Trump’s legislative agenda—health care, taxes, infrastructure—that prompted the president, in consultation with his family, to finally tell people around him it was time “to try a different approach,” said one senior administration official.
“It’s hard to overstate how much the family had to do with this,” this person added.
Over the past week, multiple West Wing aides and people close to the White House have described new levels of dysfunction.
The day Scaramucci was named, Priebus tried to convince others the two men were friends, but no one in the West Wing believed it. Press secretary Sean Spicer quit, but Priebus stayed, determined to make it a year. Other senior officials said Trump wanted Priebus to get the hint and leave on his own.
After Scaramucci shredded Priebus in a vulgar rant to the New Yorker, published Thursday just as the health care debate was coming to its fruitless end, Priebus expressed his frustrations inside the White House. But the president took Scaramucci’s side—and Spicer’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, went on television to excuse the comments.
One White House official said Priebus had become so marginalized in the West Wing that people had started questioning his ability “to even perform basic tasks.”
The official said Priebus’ departure wasn’t about any one issue, but a pile-up of sorts. “It was only a matter of time but Trump just wouldn’t pull the trigger,” the official said.
An aide said Priebus wasn’t available for comment.
Trump thrived on rivalry and drama in his campaign, and he guaranteed it would continue into his administration when he decided last November to jointly announce that Priebus and Bannon would be joining his West Wing.
From the start, Priebus—whose presence was intended to give the Establishment wing of the Republican Party a line into the White House, and to smooth Trump’s relations with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill—was hemmed in, with senior advisers like Bannon, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway reporting directly to the president.
Known for being a well-organized taskmaster at the Republican National Committee, Priebus was perplexed by his famously mercurial boss, who can make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on hallway conversations, associates say.
The unpredictable nature of the information flow in the White House made him uneasy, several administration officials say. He lost his cool when other West Wing staffers knew things that he didn’t, and he would call people who had spoken to the president to ask them what Trump had told them. He would run from meeting to meeting trying not to miss anything. He would corner people who criticized him publicly and ask them to stop – but admit the criticisms were close to accurate.
He would rarely leave Trump’s side and rush into the Oval Office when he saw others were in the room. “He would literally sprint,” one West Wing official said back in the spring.
He also tried to control some of the president’s media consumption, to little effect.
Trump never seemed to fully trust Priebus, who called for him to drop out of the presidential race after the Access Hollywood tape emerged in October, even recalling the episode in front of senators at the White House in March. And he never fully empowered him, softly undermining him by calling him “Reince-y” and making strange asides, officials said. At one point, he told associates that Priebus would make a good car salesman. At another, he mocked him for expressing excitement when he spotted his house from Air Force One, flying over Wisconsin.
Trump exacerbated Priebus’ status by frequently complaining about him to other staffers and outside advisers to whom he would ask, “What do you think of Reince?”
As Priebus’ stock fell, Trump was growing increasingly enamored of Kelly, his secretary of Homeland Security, a retired general who first landed on the administration’s radar after Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who has a friendly relationship not only with Priebus but also with Bannon and Kushner, recommended him early in the transition “for any high-level cabinet role,” according to a Cotton aide.
Kelly stepped up to implement the president’s controversial travel ban executive order in January, despite the chaos it created at airports around the country, and has praised Trump for his efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico.
In May, when Trump was under fire for his abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey amid the growing investigation into whether any Trump campaign associates played a role in Russian meddling during the 2016 election, Kelly signaled his support for the president against the media during a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy. “Use that on the press, sir,” Kelly told Trump, who was given a ceremonial saber.
Priebus’ failure to smooth passage of health care legislation through the GOP-led House in March infuriated the president, according to people close to him, and may have made his departure inevitable.
After that first health care bill failed to get a vote, his deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh was ousted. She was never replaced. Communications director Mike Dubke quietly resigned following Trump’s first foreign trip, after Trump criticized him for not fiercely defending the firing of former FBI director James Comey.
Spicer, who led a communications and press shop of former RNC staffers, was the most high-profile aide to leave, a move that came last Friday after it was clear Scaramucci would be above Spicer in the White House pecking order. His press shop was criticized for fighting for protecting Priebus in the press over other staffers and the president.
For some, defending him was just an old habit. One senior administration official even called the communications office’s fixation with defending Priebus an “inappropriate use of government funds.”
Priebus, who has always been obsessed with his media coverage, grew even more attentive to the press in the months after joining the White House. He would ask Spicer to scream about negative tweets, and whenever he caught wind that a negative story about him might be coming, “the whole West Wing practically shuts down,” said one senior administration official.
Another senior administration official said in June: “If Reince spent as much time worrying about his job as what you all write about his job, we’d all be better off.”
Earlier in the week, Priebus was bracing for the worst as the Senate struggled to pass its version of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill. He was left out of crucial meetings on Capitol Hill, according to aides,
and left much of the arm-twisting to get votes to Vice President Mike Pence and the legislative affairs shop, as well as to former campaign staffers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.
GOP aides on the Senate side said that they didn’t want to deal with Priebus because he was considered weak and lacking in influence. “He doesn’t get much respect on the Hill, because we know he doesn’t have power in the White House,” said one senior aide.
By the end, senior staffers stopped taking Priebus seriously – and often skipped his morning meetings. He would beg staffers not to leak, only to find himself accused by Scaramucci of being a leaker.
Josh Gerstein, Alex Isenstadt, Annie Karni and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.