by Seung Min Kim · February 16, 2017
Reince Priebus has turned to a group of former chiefs of staff who have briefed him on how previous administrations functioned. | Getty
Reince Priebus, facing growing criticism and calls for his ouster, is racing to bring order to a White House that looks to be spiraling out of control.
After weeks of West Wing turmoil and critiques from President Donald Trump himself, the chief of staff is scrambling to impose a more traditional approach on a White House that is anything but, according to more than a dozen administration aides and others close to Priebus.
Priebus, who arrives at the White House by 6:30 a.m. and often doesn’t leave until midnight, has launched an early-morning staff meeting aimed at streamlining each day. He spends hours on the phone with Capitol Hill Republicans, who have been left confused and flat-footed by the administration’s stormy opening days. He’s trying to reshape an overwhelmed communications office that has had its share of fumbles. And, along with several others, he guided the search for a replacement for scandal-ridden national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose dismissal an infuriated Priebus helped to engineer.
The maneuvers paint a picture of an embattled aide frantically trying to corral a White House that has been swamped by division and dysfunction. Whether he succeeds could determine his political future — and determine the administration’s path as it moves beyond its tumultuous first month.
Priebus, a 44-year-old lawyer-turned-Republican National Committee chairman new to the federal government, has turned to a group of former chiefs of staff who have briefed him on how previous administrations functioned. They include Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging Chicago mayor and former top Barack Obama aide, whom he met with this week. He has also leaned on Andy Card and Josh Bolten, who navigated the fires of the George W. Bush years.
It all comes at a time of mounting urgency for Priebus, who has become a favorite target for those unhappy with the rocky start — some of whom are demanding he get the hook. Breitbart, a conservative website deeply influential in Trump world, published an article Tuesday hyping the possibility of a Priebus firing. Over the past week, two longtime Trump friends, Republican strategist Roger Stone and NewsMax chief executive Christopher Ruddy, have called for his removal — though Ruddy changed his position after a pledge from Priebus that he’d improve.
“I had this quaint idea that the chief of staff would know what he was doing,” Stone said in an interview, adding that many of the president’s longtime supporters were losing faith in Priebus. “There will be more revelations about things he’s done in this job that don’t serve the president well. I promise you there will be more revelations.”
Although many chiefs of staff become subjects of shakeup rumors, the earliness and intensity of those confronting Priebus are unusual.
Trump himself in recent days has burned up his phone line to sound out friends in the business world about how they think his chief of staff is performing, something he has done in the past when he’s not happy with an employee. The president, ever the fan of theater, has stoked speculation about a shakeup, meeting Tuesday for lunch in the White House with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat. Christie has long been rumored for a top job in the administration.
For now, the president is waving off talk of a change — telling reporters this week that Priebus is doing “great.”
During Trump’s press conference on Thursday, the president defended his chief of staff and rejected reports of “chaos” inside the White House.
“I won. And … zero chaos,” Trump said. “We are running — this is a fine-tuned machine and Reince happens to be doing a good job but half of his job is putting out lies by the press.”
He also praised Priebus for his performance in the 2016 campaign, a topic he returned to throughout the news conference.
In private conversations over the past week, Priebus has expressed confidence in his standing and shrugged off reports that he could be in trouble. In one phone call with an associate, the chief of staff conveyed frustration over internal turf battles, described as a level of franticness that was hard to manage, and hinted at a rising degree of fatigue.
Amid the fury, Priebus has adopted a low-profile approach, quietly embracing his role as the guy whose job it is to keep an unruly White House running and granting few interviews. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
For Priebus — a Washington Republican who has long been close to mainstream party figures like Haley Barbour and Karl Rove — the Trump wilderness has at times been hard to navigate. He has been trying to closely manage staffing across Cabinet agencies. Yet he often feels a need to be at Trump’s side throughout the day to make sure the easy-to-distract president stays on track. During meetings, when his boss veers into a tangent, Priebus is often the one trying to get him in line.
“Trump is nothing like Reince has ever dealt with,” said one person who knows Priebus well. “Would you want the job of trying to control him and getting him to focus?”
The president can be nearly impossible to staff. His whims, moods and insatiable appetite for TV can throw off plans. Priebus, along with others, often briefs him extensively before meetings, telling him about the audience’s makeup and offering guidance for what he should say. Yet Trump has veered off on tangents, like repeating his unsubstantiated claim during meetings with senators that voter fraud was committed in the election. It has often fallen upon Priebus to change the subject — sometimes with success, sometimes not.
“The staff has to assume that Donald Trump is going to do things in unconventional ways and that he’s not going to change,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican. “They have to learn to work around that.”
In order to be with Trump nearly all of the time, Priebus has largely handed off oversight of White House operations to deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, one of his top lieutenants.
Priebus has had to confront obstacles beyond Trump. The president, who is fond of creating decentralized leadership structures where power is split among multiple aides with different viewpoints, has empowered not just his chief of staff, but also a handful of top advisers — chief strategist Steve Bannon, senior adviser Jared Kushner and counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Some White House aides say they’ve seen Bannon or Conway in conversation with Trump — and then observed Priebus rushing to insert himself into the discussion.
At times, he has seemed determined to convince others of his influence. After the botched travel ban rollout, Priebus made a round of calls to senior Republicans to relay that the president had made clear that Priebus’ team, and no one else, was in charge of day-to-day operations.
“He’s not been set up to be a very strong chief of staff,” said one staffer. “I think there’s an insecurity there.”
Trump’s mercurial nature has only heightened the sense of anxiety. “You’re working for a president where no one really knows where they stand,” the staffer said.
Priebus has been deeply frustrated by reports he and Bannon do not get along — something both of them adamantly deny. While Priebus has come to view Bannon as the architect of Trump’s nationalist vision, Bannon regards Priebus as the operational vehicle that will carry the president’s agenda. Staffers have grown used to entering the building early in the morning and seeing the two already deep in discussion.
Bannon, who rarely speaks on the record, said in a text message: “Reince is doing a great job.”
Priebus has grown particularly close with policy adviser Stephen Miller, a populist flamethrower who is Bannon’s ally. While in New York City during the transition, the two met for in-depth conversations over meals. Last week, Priebus was heavily involved in Miller’s preparation for a series of Sunday show interviews.
Bannon and Miller have insisted they did not have a hand in this week’s anti-Priebus story that appeared in Breitbart; Bannon was formerly an executive of the conservative website, and Miller has been previously linked to it.
“Reince is exemplary,” Miller wrote in an email. “He is a close friend, and his leadership has been stellar in every way.”
Priebus’ job, many staffers are convinced, is safe — at least for now. And some of those who’ve worked for him in the past point to one early move as a primary reason why that’s the case: his decision to line the White House with a number of his loyalists — chief among them Walsh and press secretary Sean Spicer.
“If Reince goes,” said one former Priebus aide, “everyone else goes that he brought in.”