Once again, the Trump White House might have to learn LBJ’s lesson on tents and the direction of micturation thereof. Reince Priebus had a ringside seat at the circus as Donald Trump’s first chief of staff, and circus apparently might not fully describe the experience. Forget what you’ve read about White House chaos, Priebus writes in a book that will get released in March — it’s far worse than we can imagine, “fifty times” more, Priebus insists.
For instance, there was the day that Jeff Sessions walked off the job. Er … what?
“Don McGahn came in my office pretty hot, red, out of breath, and said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we just got a special counsel, and (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions just resigned.’ I said, ‘What!? What the hell are you talking about?’?”
Priebus said he dashed out to the White House parking lot to coax Sessions back into the White House.
Preibus continued: “I said, ‘You cannot resign. It’s not possible. We are going to talk about this right now.’ So I dragged him back up to my office from the car. (Vice President Mike) Pence and (presidential adviser Steve) Bannon came in, and we started talking to him to the point where he decided that he would not resign right then and he would instead think about it.”
We’d heard before that Sessions offered to submit his resignation, but not that he’d actually quit. This would have taken place in May, at the time that James Comey got fired and Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation. That flowed from Sessions’ (correct) decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, which enraged Trump. Priebus had to talk both men down from the ledge — at least in his telling — and keep Trump from accepting Sessions’ subsequent offer to resign.
Trump’s public broadsides against his attorney general continued for the next two months, though. Sessions didn’t quit, but over the summer, that sure seemed to be what Trump wanted. Still, Sessions outlasted Priebus, who flamed out in a spectacular collision with Anthony Scaramucci (of the Eleven Days) that resulted in both of their departures. Sessions weathered those same storms and has reached at least a public detente with Trump, who still grumbles about Sessions’ recusal occasionally.
Speaking of Priebus’ departure, though, how much of this chaos still exists today? The book publishing cycle being what it is, this is about the earliest a major release could get pushed out. Until Portergate, one could have asked whether the chaotic nature of the White House had either eased or settled down entirely under John Kelly’s martial discipline. Priebus may well get a boost from the uncertainty now over Kelly’s status with Trump as various factions vie for his ouster and the opportunity to put an ally in his place.
But that’s not really Priebus’ point, at least in the AP’s telling from the excerpts available. After all, if Kelly solved the issue, then the chaos could well be blamed on Priebus himself for not being up to the job. (You can bet that the White House will make that argument, assuming they respond at all.) The point in the anecdotes shared is that the chaos starts at the top and reflects Trump’s personality as both a disruptor and as a man who sees himself as the smartest person in the room at all times. That’s why Trump wouldn’t cooperate with attempts by Priebus and others to move him away from Twitter, for instance, because Trump wanted “his own voice” on social media. If Kelly has been successful at all, it’s been in reducing the agitation that fuels Trump’s inclinations toward chaos, a discipline which Priebus lacked the political strength to impose.
And that has some implications for whoever chooses to replace Kelly. Short of Jim Mattis, who else can tell Trump’s inner circle to sit in the lobby? House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at one time appeared to be considering the opportunity, but has decided to take a pass:
On Wednesday, McCarthy denied repeatedly that’s he spoken with President Donald Trump about the job or is on the verge of taking it.
“I don’t answer hypotheticals,” McCarthy told CNN on Wednesday. “Gen. Kelly is there. I think he’s put a lot of structure in there.”
Yet when pressed on whether he wanted the job, McCarthy would not definitively rule it out. Instead, he would say only, “There is no job. I’m not interested in the job that isn’t there. I’m interested in being majority leader and getting the work done. That’s where my focus is.”
House Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows suggests that the best decision Trump could make would be to stick with Kelly. Meadows doesn’t want the job either:
“I think that he’s best served by keeping his current chief of staff,” Meadows said, adding that he hasn’t discussed the possibility with Trump, either. “I think he [Trump] is better served by having someone else as his chief of staff. I’ve got the best job in the world.”
Not too many people seem enthused about the prospect of being the second-most powerful person in the White House. That might go a long way toward corroborating Priebus’ take, in general if not in all specifics.