Lots of stories circulating this weekend about Trump flying into a rage over Jeff Sessions’s recusal, with Reince coming off as the main scapegoat. Why?
Back at the White House on Friday morning, Trump summoned his senior aides into the Oval Office, where he simmered with rage, according to several White House officials. He upbraided them over Sessions’s decision to recuse himself, believing that Sessions had succumbed to pressure from the media and other critics instead of fighting with the full defenses of the White House.
In a huff, Trump departed for Mar-a-Lago, taking with him from his inner circle only his daughter and Kushner, who is a White House senior adviser. His top two aides, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Bannon, stayed behind in Washington.
As reporters began to hear about the Oval Office meeting, Priebus interrupted his Friday afternoon schedule to dedicate more than an hour to calling reporters off the record to deny that the outburst had actually happened, according to a senior White House official.
Bannon ultimately flew down to Florida to have dinner with Trump and work with him on the new travel ban order. Reince … did not. The official story is that he had to stay behind to work on ObamaCare, but initially Priebus “was expected by some aides to go on this weekend’s trip to Florida.” Hmmmm. Fast-forward 48 hours and here was Politico dropping a splashy new story last night about how the “knives are out for Reince” in the West Wing. Among his many supposed sins: Being unable to run a tight shop for a guy who woke up on Saturday morning and decided to start tweeting, seemingly out of the blue, about how Barack Obama might have been tapping his phones during the campaign.
They described a micromanager who sprints from one West Wing meeting to another, inserting himself into conversations big and small and leaving many staffers with the impression that he’s trying to block their access to Trump. They vented about his determination to fill the administration with his political allies. And they expressed alarm at what they say are directionless morning staff meetings Priebus oversees that could otherwise be used to rigorously set the day’s agenda and counterbalance the president’s own unpredictability…
“There’s a real frustration among many — including from the president — that things aren’t going as smoothly as one had hoped,” said one senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Reince, fairly or not, is likely to take the blame and take the fault for that.”…
Some contended that, in such a free-wheeling atmosphere, Priebus has struggled to provide structure. Several aides expressed unhappiness with the daily 8 a.m. senior staff meeting that he runs out of his office. With three flat-screen TVs usually on, the agenda is sometimes driven by that day’s news programs. The gatherings, which often last only 15 to 20 minutes, are typically organized round-robin style, with department heads giving 30-second updates on whatever it is they’re working on.
What, precisely, was Reince supposed to do about Jeff Sessions’s recusal? If you want to knock him for not coordinating the administration’s message better — e.g., Sean Spicer was on TV hours before Sessions’s announcement insisting there was no reason for him to step back from the Russia probe — okay, but it sounds like that’s not what was bothering Trump. What bothered him was the fact that Sessions recused himself at all, which is goofy. If it’s true that Sessions’s own communications with Russians had been looked at during the investigation then obviously he had to exclude himself from overseeing it. And the fact that he did so is good news for Trump politically. Now, if/when the FBI concludes that there was no wrongdoing by Trump or his aides during the campaign, Trump’s critics can’t claim that Sessions pressured investigators to come to that conclusion. Unless Trump actually expected Sessions to interfere with the probe to protect the White House, which would be a Category Five scandal, it’s only to Trump’s benefit to have Sessions off the case — and if that was going to happen inevitably, which it was, it’s better that it happened ASAP so as to deny the left days of “When will Sessions cave?” media coverage. If Trump is annoyed at him and Priebus for the recusal, he’s annoyed at them seemingly for nothing more consequential than “optics.” Trump’s a fighter (well, not really) and he wants his top people to be fighters too, and in this case Sessions folded. Bad, bigly! Maybe that’s why Sessions got roped into playing greeter at Mar-a-Lago for a few minutes on Saturday night. Reince should offer to be bellhop there next weekend if it’ll get him back in Trump’s good graces.
I wonder if optics are also driving the White House’s annoyance with Reince. If it’s true, per the excerpt, that his morning meetings are unstructured, that’s a legitimate problem. But him running to meetings to be in the loop on everything and carefully guarding access to Trump aren’t flaws. That’s the job description of the chief of staff. Imposing a chain of command beneath the president with the COS as chief gatekeeper is what a meaningful structure requires. And in Priebus’s case, the pressure is probably three times as strong as it would be under a different president. He has an undisciplined boss who’s apt to upend the news cycle at a moment’s notice, just as he did this weekend, and he has a rival for power in Steve Bannon who clearly has more of the president’s ear than Priebus does. (If you believe WaPo, it was Bannon whispering to Trump about the “deep state” that may have inspired the Saturday tweets about Obama and wiretapping. It was also Bannon’s old website, Breitbart, that published the story that allegedly grabbed Trump’s attention.) Priebus’s problem is that he’s an establishment apparatchik inside a White House whose ideological engine is revolutionary and populist in spirit. He may not be enough of a “wartime consigliere” to suit Trump’s tastes. Result: He gets scapegoated when top Trumpers show “weakness” even when weakness is the appropriate call, as it was in Sessions’s case, and he gets blamed for running a chaotic White House even when it’s Trump himself who’s the main agent of the chaos Reince is trying to control. When in doubt, blame the shlub from the RNC.
But hey. In the end, it’s Trump’s game to play. If he wants someone more pugnacious, who knows how to run an administration, and who’ll obviously rule by fear rather than by trying to win people over, I’m sure Chris Christie would jump at the chance to be chief of staff. I don’t know how eager Bannon or Jared Kushner would be to have a strong personality competing for influence over Trump (er, especially one who sent Kushner’s father to prison), but if Trump wants a guy whose first instinct is to fight, that’s the obvious pick.
Exit question: Did the media ever once air through-the-window footage like this of an Oval Office meeting during Obama’s administration? Worse, did they ever jump to conclusions about what that footage showed the way they do here? Supposedly this is proof of how heated Friday’s Oval Office meeting got, and all they have is Bannon gesturing in an animated way. Actual quote: “Now, we don’t know exactly what was being discussed at this particular moment.” Keen journalism there, CNN.