Politics

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus Is Out

Trump announces that he has named Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as successor

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is out as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By STEPHANIE AKIN and JOHN T. BENNETTUpdated at 7:20 p.m. President Donald Trump has named Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly as his new White House chief of staff, replacing an embattled Reince Priebus.

Trump’s announcement came after a week of turmoil in the White House that had prompted fervent speculation Priebus would be the next to go. But Priebus’s job has been in question almost since the beginning when he was given the almost impossible goal of uniting disparate ideological factions within the Trump administration and serving as a bridge to establishment Republicans.  

Priebus told CNN on Friday evening that he formally resigned as chief of staff the previous day, after a few days of discussions with the president about needing to make a change in the White House. In a statement, he called his tenure as chief of staff “one of the greatest honors of my life to serve this President and our country.”

I will continue to serve as a strong supporter of the President’s agenda and policies,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person than General John Kelly to succeed me and I wish him God’s blessings and great success.”

“The president wanted to go a different direction. I support him in that,” Priebus told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “He intuitively determined that it was time to do something differently, and I think he’s right.”

The former Republican National Committee chairman said he remains on “Team Trump” and expects to maintain a good relationship with the president.

“This is not like a situation where there’s a bunch of ill-will feelings,” he said.

Priebus said he just had a good conversation with Trump and Kelly, and that he will continue working with them on a transition over the next few weeks. He called Kelly a “brilliant pick.”

In his short tenure as chief of staff, Priebus said he and Trump had committed to talking to one another whenever one of them felt a change was needed and they would figure out how to get it done.

“The president has a right to change directions, the president has a right to hit the reset button,” he said, adding that the White House needs to hit reset now. “It’s healthy.”

In Kelly, Trump is installing a military man — he is a retired four-star Marine Corps general. The move again reveals Trump’s affinity for generals — though he sharply criticized their collective running of America's post-9/11 wars as a candidate.

“Gen. John Kelly is one of the true stars of the administration. He has helped seal the border and reduced illegal immigration by 70 percent. He is respected by everyone, especially the people at the Department of Homeland Security,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “The entire administration loves him and no one is comparable.” She said he will start Monday morning, with a Cabinet meeting following his swearing-in.

Kelly said in a statement he was “honored” to be named the new chief of staff and thanked DHS staffers “for the opportunity to serve as your Secretary.”

“When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic a group of individuals. I was wrong. You accomplish great things everyday defending our nation and I know your exceptional work will continue,” Kelly said.

During a speech earlier Friday in New York, Trump referred to Kelly as one of the “stars” of his Cabinet. He repeated that in a series of tweets announcing the chief of staff change, also dubbing Kelly a “Great American” and a “Great Leader.”

Priebus was a leading voice for the GOP establishment in the Trump administration, where he was pitted against a populist faction that aimed to disrupt the status quo. 

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan lauded praise on Priebus, his friend and fellow Wisconsinite, in a statement Friday, one day after the speaker expressed his belief that Trump had confidence in his chief of staff.

“Reince Priebus has left it all out on the field, for our party and our country,” Ryan said. “He has served the president and the American people capably and passionately. He has achieved so much, and he has done it all with class.”

Priebus’ fate appeared to be sealed in recent weeks. His closest allies in the West Wing had left or been pushed out. Those departures include deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Then Trump brought on Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci to serve as communications director, over Priebus' vehement objections.

[PODCAST: Trump and GOP Lawmakers at Odds]

Further undermining Priebus’ position, Scaramucci would report directly to Trump — an unusual arrangement that left the chief of staff with little real power.

Scaramucci last Friday stood at the White House podium and described Priebus as a “brother,” saying they merely sometimes rough up one another. But their power struggle ended Friday afternoon after Air Force One landed at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Washington, D.C. As the news spread among reporters traveling with Trump, a car carrying the former chief of staff moved out of the president's motorcade.

“We didn’t even know it. We were sitting right across from him and he kept a poker face,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who was on Air Force One, told pool reporters about the president after Priebus departed. Trump informed King of the chief change as they were about to deplane at Andrews.

“Good poker face, showed nothing.” said King, whom pool reporters said did not directly address the staffing change or the circumstances around it.

Priebus’s ouster came about 24 hours after the New Yorker published an explosive first-person essay from reporter Ryan Lizza detailing a Wednesday night phone call from Scaramucci in which he attacked Priebus.

In a prediction that would come true less than 48 hours later, he told Lizza the embattled White House chief of staff would be out “very shortly.”

“I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus — if you want to leak something — he’ll be asked to resign very shortly,” Scaramucci told Lizza, referring to a private dinner he attended with the first family, Fox News host Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine.

Scaramucci also alleged Priebus might have leaked details about the dinner because he was not invited, delivering this broadside: “Reince is a f------ paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.”

In his interview with CNN on Friday, Priebus avoided questions about Scaramucci and any internal feud they may have, saying he would not get into “personal stuff.”

“It doesn’t honor the president,” he said. “It’s over. I’m moving on.”

Sanders denied Priebus’ firing had anything to do with Scaramucci’s hire as communications director, and said Priebus and Trump began discussing a change about two weeks ago. She said Trump and Kelly have been talking about him taking the post “for a while.”

Priebus’ departure appears, on its face, a blow for White House-congressional GOP relations. On that, Sanders said this: “We’ve got a good relationship. We’re going to continue working with the party and we’re going to continue doing what we came here to do.”

Despite Scaramucci's vulgar language in his phone call with Lizza — he also had lewd things to say about Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief White House strategist — it was Priebus who was let go. In a tweet, Trump thanked Priebus “for his service and dedication to his country,” saying the duo “achieved a lot together.”

The former RNC chairman was among the first prominent party figures to urge others in the GOP to rally behind Trump last spring, when the billionaire businessman’s nomination was far from certain. He served as a bridge between Trump and Ryan.  

Kelly, the new chief of staff, is no stranger to Capitol Hill via his senior military positions and stint at DHS — but it is unclear just how effective he will be at helping push Trump’s domestic agenda in Washington. He has commanded and led large organizations, meaning he could help bring some military-style order and discipline to a chaotic West Wing. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told CNN that Kelly “came before us many times in the Senate,” calling the retired general “forthright, straight-talking and [someone who] told us what to expect.”

“He’s going to be received well [on the Hill] from both sides,” Manchin said. “He’s starting out in a pretty good place, bipartisan place.”

Asked if Kelly could bring some order to the White House, Manchin said, “Well, if a general can’t do it, I don’t know who can.”

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Priebus had sought to temper Trump, both as a candidate, then as president. But sources and lawmakers often wondered just how invested he was in Trump’s presidency, and some openly speculated he was more worried about the Republican Party and himself. 

Early in Trump’s candidacy, Priebus notoriously called Trump in a futile effort to convince him to tone down his rhetoric on immigration.

As the election drew closer, Priebus insisted that Trump was about to shift from his brash campaign style to something more presidential, telling an audience at a political breakfast that he had seen a side of Trump that was “far more gracious and personable than I think you see at rallies.”

And when Trump's campaign threatened to implode after the October 2016 release of a video in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Priebus was among Trump’s few defenders

The loyalty initially paid off. When Trump picked him as the chief of staff in the days after the election, it was seen as a nod to party stalwarts. Priebus, it was assumed, would build bridges between the White Hose newcomers and Washington insiders. To do that, he brought with him a bevy of staffers from the RNC.

But his position was destabilized from the start. On the day that Priebus was named, Trump also appointed populist Stephen Bannon to be his chief strategist and senior counselor. In a highly unusual arrangement, Bannon and Priebus were meant to be “equal partners,” though the campaign statement that announced the appointments listed Bannon's name first. 

From then on, it was downhill for Priebus. In Trump’s second month in office, his longtime friend Christopher Ruddy — after meeting the president for drinks — said Priebus was “the problem” with the Trump administration, that he was in “way over his head,” and should be replaced.

And despite his key role in the rollout of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — one of the highest-profile successes of the Trump presidency so far — so many Trump insiders fumed about his performance to reporters that there was an almost constant barrage of news stories predicting Priebus’ demise. 

Meanwhile, Priebus’ relationship with Trump faltered. Trump blamed Reince for the failure to get the administration’s policy goals — including the repeal of the 2010 health care law — through Congress. The president mockingly called Priebus “Reincy,” and joked about sending him packing to Greece, where he could serve as the U.S. ambassador. 

Lindsey McPherson and John Helton contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.