The abrupt departure of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus came after a doozy of a week for President Donald Trump – even by his standards.
The president unleashed scathing attacks on his own attorney general, delivered a raucous political speech at a Boy Scout jamboree that forced the group to later issue an apology, implemented a hasty ban on transgender people in the military that surprised some Pentagon and West Wing officials, oversaw profane fights and resignation rumors among senior staff and, finally, told police officers they should be rough with suspects when arresting them, drawing rebukes from police groups.
All of that took place as Trump’s signature campaign promise, health care reform, was falling apart on Capitol Hill. He punctuated the week with repeated insistence that the ongoing Russia investigations are a “witch hunt,” his favorite phrase, even at one point suggesting on Twitter that his 11-year-old son would be investigated as part of a plot against him.
The question remains whether replacing Priebus, who will be succeeded by Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly, will calm the chaotic West Wing—or simply shift the storyline in a new direction.
“He has a lot of people talking to him, and he hasn’t been listening,” said Louise Sunshine, a longtime friend who worked for him at the Trump Organization. “He marches to the tune of his own drummer.”
“It’s going to take him a year to work this out,” Sunshine added.
Senior West Wing officials said they believe Kelly would be far better at imposing some discipline on Trump, who never much listened to Priebus and even mocked him as “not a five-star general” to the New York Times.
Officials said late Friday they hoped Kelly would also have more respect from Trump because of his military background. And they say Trump behaves differently when he’s around people he trusts. But they also feared that Kelly possesses limited political instincts—but “he’s now in a very political job,” one White House official said.
For the White House, there was uncertainty on how to move forward in the wake of the failed health care reform – and what the mercurial Trump would do next. Rumors circulated on whether other aides would go – and whether Kelly would influence the president’s political agenda. Several people close to Priebus noted they only serve “at the pleasure of the president.”
In recent weeks, White House aides have huddled quietly behind the scenes to secure support from influential conservative groups, like the Koch-backed network, on tax reform. Trump has shown interest in the issue. On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and legislative affairs head Marc Short are holding an event with Americans for Prosperity.
“Even though there are constant distractions in the press about the White House, they are squarely focused on tax reform. we know that firsthand because of the coalition-building, the efforts they’ve made, the talks we’ve had, the meetings we’ve had,” said Andrew Roth, who heads up government relations for Club for Growth.
One activist who frequently speaks to White House officials said they want to make a “hard pivot” away from health care and into tax reform and that conservative activists said donors are willing to look past their frustrations if the White House “can just get something big for us done,” one of these people said.
“The party needs to start anew with a level of coordination that we haven’t seen up until this point,” said Josh Holmes, a political strategist and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It requires some White House leadership. You can’t be doing tech week in the middle of the unveiling of your legislative agenda.”
The president is pushing back a fight over its debt limit bill for two months, and White House aides are trying to decide to resuscitate the health care fight later this year, senior officials said. They are also leaning towards signing Russian sanctions, one senior administration official said, though another cautioned “no final decision had been made.”
There is no firm infrastructure plan, and various foreign policy officials remain dissatisfied with the president’s ad hoc management style and veering foreign policy decisions. Plus, developments in the Russia collusion investigation – and the president’s reactions to them – often overtake the agenda.
What is most frustrating, West Wing officials and advisers say, is that there never seems to be a week that goes without major hiccups or controversies. Hill aides say it is perplexing how much drama the White House can create. “So much drama every day,” one person said. “Can you even imagine them having an on-topic press conference and making the headlines they wanted?”
The arrival of Anthony Scaramucci was expected to invigorate Trump and seemingly worked for a few days. But it created what may have been the most combustible staff blowup yet.
By calling the White House chief of staff a “f—— paranoid schizophrenic” and suggesting that chief strategist Steve Bannon goes through acrobatics to try and give himself self-love, he gave many people a public, on-the-record dose of the building’s internal dynamics.
Scaramucci didn’t respond to a request for comment. He told reporters on Air Force One that the interview wasn’t fair and it didn’t make sense to say anything else.
His comments created other problems for the White House. Ethics groups urged an investigation because he said he held evidence – or would get evidence from the Department of Justice and the FBI and had called to complain about leaks and spoken to top officials. That would seem to violate prohibitions on interference from elected officials into law enforcement.
“He said that he talked to the FBI and has forensic information. I think that’s a bluff. I’d be shocked if anybody at the FBI provided that to him,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush. “Anthony is right to be concerned about leaks, but you need to follow proper channels. The irony is, if he found out a crime was committed, a defense attorney could use political pressure to help get his client off the hook.”
Just as serious, Fleischer said, was the damage done to Scaramucci’s ability to work with his new colleagues.
“I just don’t know how you build a cohesive team if everyone is infighting this badly – a cohesive team is helpful to the president,” said Fleischer, who said he supports much of the president’s agenda. “He likes a dog eat dog world, and that makes it harder to get anything done.”
Trump has long seemed happiest on the road, away from the hothouse environment of the West Wing, making promises and basking in the glow of applause. On Friday, he joked about his childhood growing up in New York in front of a backdrop of Long Island police officers.
Then, on the way home, he announced that he’d given Priebus the boot. If nothing else, the decision brought a welcome finality to a drama that has gone on too long, said one senior administration official: “Everyone was really tired of Reince.”