On paper, Reince Priebus was a logical chief of staff for Donald Trump, an experienced inside player who could help the biggest outsider who ever won the presidency navigate the complex byways of Washington, Congress and national politics. But their teaming only made sense if the new president was willing to listen – and learn.
On Friday, after six tumultuous months in which Trump often went out of his way to suggest that it was Priebus who needed remedial education, the president proved once and for all that he had no interest in anything Priebus had tried to teach him, and sent him packing. The move, which had been anticipated for months, came after the departure of his press secretary, communications director, F.B.I. director and national security adviser.
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It is a truism of White House management that presidents get the chiefs of staff they want, at least as often as the ones they need. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton chose his boyhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty, a pliable figurehead, because he wanted to function as his own chief of staff. Richard Nixon chose the crew-cut enforcer H.R. Haldeman to instill fear and deliver the bad news that Nixon himself often shrank from imparting.
In Priebus, Trump first tried the kind of low-key, steady hand that what’s left of the GOP establishment thought he needed as a novice politician. Surely the longest-serving national chairman in the Republican Party’s history, who had held the Republican Party together through fractious years and helped it reclaim the presidency, could be a calming, rational manager in the White House.
But from the beginning, the fit was awkward. During the 2016 campaign, Priebus had repeatedly beseeched Trump to modulate his message and play well with the other candidates in the crowded Republican field. Trump, who has always been his own chief strategist, communications guru and political director – and who was winning by running his way — saw that as a sign of weakness, and responded accordingly.
In retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, Trump has now turned to the kind of military strong man he thinks he wants, one he hopes will kick keisters and take names. But the president might want to be careful what he wishes for. There is a model for that kind of chief of staff, and it’s probably not one that Trump would be comfortable with. Dwight Eisenhower’s chief aide, former Governor Sherman Adams of New Hampshire wielded so much influence that he was known as “The Abominable No Man.”
After Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack, the perhaps apocryphal story made the rounds that one Democrat had said to another, “Wouldn’t it be awful if Eisenhower died and Nixon became president?” only to have his friend reply, “Wouldn’t it be awful if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president?” There will never be any doubt about who’s the real boss in the Trump White House.
If Kelly is really to bring order to the West Wing, reining in feuding advisers like Steve Bannon and the voluble new communications director Anthony Scaramucci – who have anything but the “passion for anonymity” that Franklin Roosevelt sought in his aides — may well be the least of his worries. Each day brings fresh evidence that the most unpredictable, undisciplined figure in this administration is the president himself. The very manner of Kelly’s surprise appointment – announced without warning in a presidential tweet – might give any new chief of staff pause.
A White House chief of staff has many functions, from cheerleader to flak catcher. But if he is to be an effective quarterback, his president has to give him the ball. It seems far from clear that Donald Trump is willing to share the football with anyone. Will Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump report to the president, or to Kelly? Scaramucci has already said he answers directly to Trump. What does that portend for Kelly’s authority before he even takes the job?
When Gerald Ford was president, he liked to say that his post-Watergate White House ran on a “spokes of the wheel” organizational model, with advice coming freely to the president from all quarters. But when Ford left office, his powerful chief of staff, Dick Cheney, got a going- away present from his own aides: A bicycle wheel mounted on a piece of plywood with every spoke between the hub and the rim broken – except one.
Of course, there is also only so much any chief of staff can do to impose order on a president who doesn’t really want it.
Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s predecessor as Ford’s chief of staff, once succinctly summed up the limits of the job. “A lot depends on how good a manager the president is,” Rumsfeld said at a 1986 conference of former chiefs of staff at the University of California San Diego. “How much turmoil goes down below and ends up disrupting things depends on how skillful a manager he is.”
Personal chemistry is also vitally important. James Baker had worked on Ford’s 1976 election campaign, but four years later, wound up as a highly effective White House chief of staff for Ford’s rival in that race, Ronald Reagan. Baker’s successor as chief of staff, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, swiftly ran afoul of Nancy Reagan and washed out of the job. William Daley, an experienced Washington and Chicago political hand, left after little more than a year as Barack Obama’s second White House chief of staff because he couldn’t compete for the president’s ear with the close circle of aides who had surrounded Obama since the 2008 campaign.
Donald Trump’s rise, if not his presidency, represents everything that Reince Priebus had argued against in the wake of his party’s 2012 electoral defeat, when he commissioned an autopsy for the Republican National Committee that concluded the party had to attract younger, more diverse swing voters if it were ever again to be competitive in presidential elections. “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report concluded, in pressing for comprehensive immigration reform.
“The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” the report noted. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue. Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us.”
Trump’s stunning victory upended that conventional wisdom, and Priebus went along for what he himself called on Friday a “wild ride.” In an exit interview with CNN, he declined to respond to questions about White House infighting or his standing with the president, but allowed that Trump had “intuitively determined that it was time to do something different, and I think he’s right.”
In choosing Kelly, who will be the first military officer to lead the White House staff since Alexander Haig worked for Nixon at the height of Watergate, Trump praised him as “a star,” while relegating Priebus to the status of “a good man.” It will be a nice question which quality will work better in a White House where there is, always, only one top-billed performer.
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