Reince Priebus is out as White House chief of staff, after struggling for months to bring a sense of order to the West Wing or advance President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda. Trump announced in a tweet on Friday that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will replace him.
Two senior White House officials said Priebus had resigned on Thursday, but another senior West Wing aide said he was ousted from the position.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to directly answer whether Priebus or Trump made the decision for Priebus to go. “We all serve at the pleasure of the president. The conversations about this started with the president and Reince about two weeks ago,” Sanders told reporters.
Priebus, in an interview on CNN Friday evening, tried to downplay his tensions with Trump, while saying it was his decision to resign. “This isn’t a situation with a bunch of ill-will feelings,” he said.
He added that the president accepted his resignation without drama. “I think the president wanted to go in a different direction. I support him in that,” Priebus said.
While there were growing signs that Priebus might soon be leaving the West Wing, the timing of Trump’s announcement on Friday evening was not telegraphed. “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American and a Great Leader. John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
He added, “I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to his country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!”
Priebus’ exit marks the most dramatic shakeup yet in Trump’s West Wing, which has been plagued by infighting and anonymous leaks, as aides also struggled to rein in Trump and his Twitter habit. Priebus especially failed to form a strong bond with the president, and found it difficult to keep the White House focused as it became consumed by the intensifying Russia probes and inability to push through Trump’s big agenda items.
Priebus’ resignation follows a sustained attack campaign from new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who went on an expletive laden rant against Priebus to the New Yorker earlier this week, calling the chief of staff a “f—— paranoid schizophrenic” and accusing him of trying to “c— block” him and keep him out of the West Wing. Scaramucci had also accused Priebus of leaking to the presss to undermine him.
A Priebus ally said Scaramucci’s comments to the New Yorker made it clear the writing was on the wall for him, particularly when Trump didn’t appear to be aggrieved by the profane attacks.
His exit also follows the latest collapse of the congressional effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, one of Trump’s top legislative priorities. Priebus had played a large role shepherding the repeal effort, and had shouldered blame for previous major setbacks.
Even though his departure had already been decided, Priebus still accompanied the president on his trip to Long Island on Friday for an afternoon speech. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was also on the flight and said there was no indication of the impending news.
“We didn’t even know it. We were sitting right across from him and he kept a poker face,” King told reporters, referring to Priebus. When asked what Priebus said during the flight, King said, “Good poker face, showed nothing.”
In a statement on Friday evening, Priebus said it was “one of the greatest honors of my life” to serve Trump and the country. “I want to thank the President for giving me this very special opportunity. I will continue to serve as a strong supporter of the President’s agenda and policies,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person than General John Kelly to succeed me and I wish him God’s blessings and great success.”
The former Republican National Committee chairman had endured months of reports that the president was weighing replacing him, but he had hung on, hoping to make it until the one-year mark.
One White House official said Priebus had become so marginalized in the West Wing that people had started questioning his ability “to even perform basic tasks.”
The official said Priebus’ departure wasn’t about any one issue, but a pile-up of sorts. “It was only a matter of time but Trump just wouldn’t pull the trigger,” the official said.
Kelly, who was confirmed as DHS secretary on inauguration day, is a retired Marine Corps general and the former commander of the U.S. Southern Command. Trump has long talked up his love of generals, stocking his administration with military leaders, but it’s unclear if Kelly will be more successful at bringing order to an increasingly chaotic West Wing. He starts the new job on Monday.
Sanders offered glowing praise for Kelly in a statement. “General John Kelly is one of the true stars of the Administration. He has helped seal the border and reduced illegal immigration by 70 percent. He is respected by everyone, especially the people at the Department of Homeland Security,” she said, adding, “The entire Administration loves him and no one is comparable.”
She also said Trump and Priebus had “accomplished a lot together.”
“The President thanks him and his family for his great service to the country, and he will always be a member of the Trump Team,” she said.
Trump had threatened to replace Priebus at multiple points throughout his early presidency, especially after losses during the legislative battle to pass the repeal and replace of Obamacare.
A source close to the president said that Trump often lashed out at Priebus after legislative failures related to the health care bill because Priebus insisted that that it should be first on his agenda since he could push the bill through with his connection to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Trump had also reportedly regularly reminded Priebus that his support had wavered after the release shortly before the election of the “Access Hollywood” tape that caught Trump bragging about how he could sexually assault women without consequence.
Outgoing White House press secretary Spicer was the third of Priebus’ allies to resign, leaving him in a weakened position in a White House that is highly fragmented with senior staffers who have built silos of supporting staffers.
After the first health care bill failed to get a vote, his deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh was ousted. She was never replaced. Communications director Mike Dubke quietly resigned following Trump’s first foreign trip, after Trump criticized him for not fiercely defending the firing of former FBI director James Comey.
Spicer, who led a communications and press shop of former RNC staffers, was the most high-profile staffer to leave, a move that came last Friday after it was clear Scaramucci would be above Spicer in the White House pecking order. His press shop was criticized for fighting for protecting Priebus in the press over other staffers and the president.
Priebus was set up to be a weak chief of staff due to the White House organizational chart that split the power between him, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
When Scaramucci was brought into the White House last week, he notably stated during a news conference that he reports directly to the president rather than the chief of staff. Director of social media Dan Scavino followed suit, tweeting that he also reports directly to the president, which many interpreted as a public dig at Priebus.
Priebus had a hard time restricting access to the Oval Office, and reining in Trump’s freewheeling style. He also failed at controlling the messaging coming out of the White House, mainly due to the president’s frequent tweeting.
Before news of his departure, Priebus was bracing for the worst as the Senate struggled to pass its version of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill. The effort collapsed early Friday morning. On the Senate side, he’s seen as a “House guy,” and left much of the arm-twisting to get votes to the legislative affairs shop, Vice President Mike Pence and former campaign staffers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.
Many GOP aides on the Senate side said that they did not deal with Priebus because he’s considered weak and lacking in influence.
“He doesn’t get much respect on the Hill, because we know he doesn’t have power in the White House,” said a senior GOP aide.
Trump exacerbated Priebus’ weakened status by frequently complaining about him to other staffers, and outside advisers to whom he would ask, “What do you think of Reince?”
Priebus started his tenure in a difficult position, since he represented the Republican establishment, as the former chairman of the RNC. Many in Trump’s orbit from the populist faction, like Bannon, were initially opposed to his appointment because they saw him as one of the Washington “swamp creatures” that Trump promised to avoid. While Priebus was viewed as light on policy know-how, his asset was his connection to Ryan, also from Wisconsin.
Ryan on Friday said Priebus “left it all out on the field” for the Republican Party and for the country. “He has achieved so much, and he has done it all with class. I could not be more proud to call Reince a dear friend,” Ryan said in a statement.
While Priebus’ tenure started out rocky with the unveiling of the travel ban, which did not include informing relevant agencies ahead of the announcement, he’s been given credit for the successful rollout and confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Although Priebus and Bannon had a rough start, Bannon became aligned with Priebus as his own status weakened because of an onslaught of media attention. Sources close to Bannon said that he saw Priebus as someone he could “railroad,” and did not prefer a strong chief of staff.
Josh Gerstein, Annie Karni and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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