This isn’t any random friend. It’s Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, who turned up on CNN yesterday to badmouth Priebus — coincidentally after meeting with the president just 48 hours before. Would Ruddy really freelance criticism of Trump’s chief of staff without his approval or was he doing Trump’s bidding in warning Reince publicly that he’s on thin ice?
His CNN remarks, in which he said “I think there’s a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff,” are embedded below. After that segment aired, WaPo dialed him up to see if he’d slam Priebus again. Ruddy was happy to oblige.
“A lot of people have been saying, ‘Look, Donald has some problems,’ and I think he realizes that he’s got to make some changes going forward,” Ruddy said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Ruddy went on to detail his critique of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus: “It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff — and Donald trusted him — but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head. He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.”…
“Since the [CNN] show, I’ve gotten three text messages from sitting Cabinet members praising my appearance,” Ruddy said. “They realize this whole government depends on this chief of staff.”
Ruddy claims he was speaking only for himself, not for Trump, but again: How likely is it that a buddy who’s tight enough with POTUS to have been at Mar-a-Lago with him and Shinzo Abe on Friday would turn around and knife Trump’s right-hand man two days later without Trump’s consent? Coincidentally, two different publications are reporting today that Trump and his team are already beginning to think about who might succeed Reince as chief of staff. “Several Trump campaign aides have begun to draft lists of possible Priebus replacements,” claims Politico, “with senior White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Rick Dearborn and lobbyist David Urban among those mentioned.” At Axios, Mike Allen alleges that “Trump has already consulted friends about his next chief of staff. I’m told that to avoid admitting error, Trump plans a smooth transition from Priebus (could be a year), perhaps by making him a Cabinet secretary!” In an even more interesting “coincidence,” Politico reported just yesterday that Kellyanne Conway wants to be chief of staff someday and that her bizarre endorsement of Ivanka’s clothing line last week was actually a canny play to further ingratiate herself to Trump. Conway understands that Trump values loyalty and effective promotion of his interests; the ethics of doing what she did mattered less than showing Trump how far she’d go to be a team player.
It could be, then, that Ruddy is merely helping Trump and/or Conway prepare the political battle space for replacing Priebus. Tear him down in public and then, when the axe falls and Conway takes the job, it won’t seem so shocking. That’s one theory, at least — but there are problems with it. For instance, it was less than 10 days ago that WaPo reported that Trump wanted Priebus to have more authority, not less:
At a senior staff meeting last Monday, according to one adviser in attendance, the president delivered an unmistakable decree: “Reince [Priebus] is in charge. He’s the chief of staff. Everything has to go through him.”
That directive included setting clearer boundaries among the various departments and assertively tamping down reports of staff infighting, which aides said personally angered the president.
Over the rest of the week, Priebus sought to assert control over the policy process and interagency communications, slowed the assembly line of executive orders to avoid errors and tried to organize the daily rhythms in the White House.
“If there is a single issue where the president feels his aides have let him down, it was the controversial executive order on immigration,” Politico claims today in its story about a potential shake-up coming to Trump’s staff. But that doesn’t add up either. It was, allegedly, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who quarterbacked the chaotic rollout of the travel-ban order, not Priebus; that’s why, it seemed, Trump took to emphasizing Reince’s ultimate authority in the aftermath, because he didn’t want other aides screwing up an orderly process overseen by Priebus for reviewing and approving executive orders by trying to rush things out.
So the question is, if the knives are out for Reince, why exactly are they out? Is he truly bad at his job, as Ruddy suggests, or is he a fall guy? Or, maybe more likely still, is he a looming casualty of conflict in the strange bifurcated policy world that Trump has created? Most presidents bring with them a team of like-minded ideologues when they take office, which helps minimize internal clashes over the administration’s broader “vision,” but Trump is different. His administration is schizophrenic in that it’s a hodgepodge of populist-nationalists like him, Bannon, and Miller and a collection of more traditional Republicans like Priebus, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, etc. (There are others, like Conway and Jared Kushner, who don’t fit easily into either camp.) Everyone is publicly lovey-dovey with each other but there are destined to be tensions between the two camps as time goes on. Is the nationalist camp trying to increase its power by nudging Priebus out or is there something more specific to Reince’s performance that’s going on? That’s the hidden drama in all of this.
For what it’s worth, Ruddy tweeted last night that he’d spoken to Priebus after the CNN segment and that Reince had told him of “impressive” plans for a smoother-running administration. Kushner also called Ruddy to make the case for Reince. Stay tuned.