WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump replaced long-embattled chief of staff Reince Priebus on Friday, replacing the former Republican operative with retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, who had been serving as his secretary of homeland security.
Trump announced the decision on Twitter, calling Kelly a “great American and a great leader” and a “true star of my Administration.”
Priebus’s departure is another indication of the turmoil roiling an administration plagued by infighting between its competing centres of influence. It leaves the executive branch even more firmly in the hands of people without conventional experience in politics.
Priebus is the second top Trump official to depart in a week. Like press secretary Sean Spicer, who announced his resignation last Friday, Priebus is a veteran of the Republican National Committee.
“I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to his country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!” Trump said on Twitter.
Priebus’s ouster was long in the making: the former RNC chairman had been rumoured to be hanging by a thread since the first month of Trump’s presidency. He was regularly disempowered and embarrassed by Trump and other senior officials, and he departed with almost no internal allies left.
Trump had appeared to authorize a highly unusual public campaign by new communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall St. financier who was hired just a week ago, to humiliate Priebus into quitting. In an interview published Thursday, Scaramucci mocked Priebus as a “paranoid schizophrenic.”
Further damaging Priebus, Trump announced that Scaramucci would report directly to the president, not the chief of staff. And then Scaramucci began lobbing public accusations at Priebus with the president’s apparent blessing.
On Wednesday, after a dinner with Trump and Fox News host Sean Hannity, Scaramucci tweeted to say he would be contacting the FBI about the supposed “leak” of his financial disclosure form, which was actually a public document. He tagged Priebus in the tweet, suggesting that he wanted the FBI to probe Priebus.
Scaramucci then claimed he was not suggesting Priebus should be investigated. But in a remarkable phone call to a CNN show on Thursday morning, he changed his tune again — suggesting that he did think Priebus was leaking. Later in the day, the New Yorker magazine published a Wednesday interview in which Scaramucci said he had reported Priebus to the FBI and Department of Justice for an alleged “felony.”
Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders would not offer a direct answer on Thursday when asked if the president had confidence in Priebus.
Scaramucci was far from Priebus’s only foe in the administration. Priebus had clashed at the beginning of Trump’s term with chief strategist Steve Bannon and more recently with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s influential family members and senior advisers. The president himself had never seemed fond of Priebus, frequently scolding him and undermining him behind the scenes.
The New York Times and other outlets reported that Trump had blamed Priebus for their initial failure to get their health-reform bill passed in the House and for the general White House dysfunction that others believe has been caused by the president himself. At one point, according to Politico, Trump gave Priebus a deadline of July 4 to clean up the administration.
The Times reported that Trump regularly and scornfully reminded Priebus that he had advised Trump to drop out of the presidential election after the release of a tape in which Trump appeared to boast about groping women. One “outside adviser” to Trump told Politico in June: “Trump will literally ask anyone who will listen, ‘Do you think Reince is doing a good job?’ or ‘Do you think that I should get rid of him?’”
“If you’ve lost the confidence of the president, people smell it, feel it, know it within seconds — and you become an overblown scheduler,” Erskine Bowles, one of Bill Clinton’s chiefs of staff, told author Chris Whipple for his book on the men who have held the job, The Gatekeepers.
Chiefs of staff generally do not last long; the average tenure is less than two years. At just a week and six months, Priebus’s term was especially brief. Only the widely respected James Baker’s second tenure in the job was shorter, at five months, and he was covering off the end of George H.W. Bush’s administration.
It’s “the toughest job in government,” Baker told NPR in April. Priebus, he said, was being undercut by Trump’s decision to give various aides “broad and rather undefined responsibilities that cut across both domestic and foreign policy.”
“It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a co-ordinated, single, focused message, and that’s something that’s very important to the success of an administration,” Baker said.
The administration’s main problem has been Trump, Whipple said in an interview, but “Priebus has made rookie mistake after rookie mistake” — the main being his reluctance to stand up to Trump.
“God knows this guy, this president, more than any of his predecessors, needs a grown-up in the room: an empowered chief of staff to execute his agenda and tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. None of that has happened,” he said.
Trump’s allies outside the White House, such as political operative Roger Stone and Newsmax chief executive Chris Ruddy, had been calling for Priebus’s ouster since February, when Stone said “it’s time for the little man to go.”
Priebus’s power had waned further in the subsequent months. His hand-picked deputy, former RNC official Katie Walsh, was pressured out of the White House in March, and another ally, communications director Mike Dube, quit in May after just three months. One of Scaramucci’s first acts was forcing out yet another ally, assistant press secretary Michael Short.