President Donald Trump drove out his chief of staff on Friday, replacing Reince Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in an explosive move that ends a turbulent six-month tenure.
“The President wanted to go a different direction,” Priebus told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Friday evening. “A president has a right to hit a reset button. I think it’s a good time to hit the reset button. I think he was right to hit the reset button.”
“I’m always going to be a Trump fan,” Priebus said. “I’m on Team Trump and I look forward to helping him achieve his goals and his agenda for the American people.”
In his interview with CNN, Priebus repeatedly said he submitted his resignation to the President privately on Thursday. Yet throughout the day on Friday, sources close to him insisted that he was not resigning.
But around 5 p.m. ET, Trump made the announcement on Twitter just after landing on Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
“I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” Trump tweeted. “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.”
It wasn’t until after the President named Kelly as his new chief of staff on Friday afternoon that sources close to Priebus reached out to reporters to say that he had resigned the day before. Other White House officials questioned that version of events, suggesting Priebus and his allies were trying to put a positive spin on the President’s abrupt decision to bring on Kelly.
The move followed months of on-again, off-again speculation that Priebus would soon be ousted from an administration where he has consistently drawn heavy criticism for failing to stem the flow of leaks and struggled to impose a sense of order in a chaotic White House beset by controversies.
Priebus, who was brought on by the outsider President in large part because of his Washington relationships, also wound up carrying a hefty share of the blame for the White House’s legislative stumbles, including the latest failure to pass a health care replacement bill.
Rumors of infighting among Trump’s staff eventually devolved into all-out warfare, bursting dramatically into the open late Thursday with a vulgar screed from incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Priebus also lacked strong support from key members of Trump’s inner circle. Two sources familiar with the situation said Trump’s family — including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, among the President’s most trusted advisers — had lost faith in Priebus. One of those sources says Trump’s kin urged the President to finally execute a long-pondered shake-up.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is expected to stay, at least for now, sources told CNN.
Priebus, who had traveled with Trump to Long Island for an event on gang violence, was seated inside a Secret Service van on the tarmac when the message came down. His vehicle split away from the motorcade and departed for Washington before Trump himself got off the plane.
New York Rep. Peter King, who traveled with Priebus and Trump to Long Island, said there was no hint of the impending shake-up during the flight, recalling Priebus’ “poker face” aboard Air Force One.
Later, the outed chief of staff told CNN he had offered his resignation on Thursday.
“I think General (John) Kelly is a brilliant pick,” Priebus said in the interview, conducted from the White House Roosevelt Room. “We’ll be working on a transition here for a couple weeks together with General Kelly starting on Monday morning. So this is not like a situation where there are a bunch of ill will feelings.”
Kelly takes over
Trump sent a message of thanks to Priebus after his initial announcement, and told reporters at the air base that Priebus was a “good man.”
“John Kelly will do a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters. “General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody. He’s a great great American. Reince is a good man.”
Kelly is due to begin his tenure as Trump’s chief of staff on Monday when he’ll participate in a meeting of Trump’s cabinet, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Conversations between Trump and Kelly about the role began two weeks ago, Sanders said.
Trump tapped Kelly after last November’s election to run his Department of Homeland Security, a position that put Kelly in charge of the administration’s policies on issues including immigration, cybersecurity, countering domestic terrorism and aviation security.
A Marine, Kelly served in the military for nearly five decades and served in positions including chief of Southern Command and senior assistant to the secretary of defense. He also worked as a legislative liaison to Congress and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His son, Robert Michael Kelly, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010.
Unusual White House power structure
Priebus’ 189-day tenure as chief of staff is the shortest in modern presidential history, according to David Cohen, a University of Akron professor who studies the position.
The former Republican National Committee chairman faced a difficult task from the outset as he attempted to wrangle a hodgepodge of rival staff factions divided by ideology and allegiance, his influence supplanted by several other top advisers — including the President’s own kin — who reported directly to Trump and not to the chief of staff.
Priebus’ appointment was announced alongside Bannon’s, the former Breitbart editor in chief who was appointed chief strategist. The President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was named senior adviser and soon thereafter his wife — the President’s eldest daughter — Ivanka Trump was as well.
Week of drama with Scaramucci
But it was the appointment of Scaramucci to communications director last Friday that set off Priebus’ final unraveling. Within days of his appointment, Scaramucci, who was added to the roster of top aides who circumvent the chief of staff and report directly to the President, took to the airwaves and suggested Priebus was responsible for leaks coming out of the White House. He leveled those charges on CNN moments after speaking with Trump.
Priebus had worked against Scaramucci joining the administration when the New York hedge fund manager was first considered for a post and, while the two attempted to put on a show of unity in Scaramucci’s first days at the White House, it quickly became clear the two men would continue to be at odds with each other.
The rivalry came to an explosive head on Thursday evening, when vulgar comments Scaramucci made about Priebus were published in the New Yorker.
Scaramucci called Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and offered no apology. Trump did not defend his top aide against the remarks.
In his CNN interview, Priebus repeatedly declined to respond to the comments.
“I’m not going to get into this personal stuff,” he said.
Republican Party stalwart
Priebus, a Wisconsin native, joined the administration as chief of staff after a nearly six-year tenure as chairman of the RNC, the final months of which he spent in a dual role as a top adviser to Trump’s campaign.
Priebus was tapped for the post at the urging of top congressional Republicans — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite and close friend — who advised Trump that he needed a Washington insider to help him shepherd his legislative agenda.
That left Priebus with the blame for many of the administration’s legislative stumbles, including the arduous attempts at passing a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare — which Priebus had advised Trump to make his first legislative priority, promising him swift victory.
On Friday, Ryan was not given a heads-up about the announcement.
In a statement, the speaker said Priebus “has left it all out on the field, for our party and our country.”
The pick was unexpected for many in the Trump campaign who saw Priebus as the embodiment of the Washington Republican establishment Trump had defeated in the primaries, and Trump and Priebus did not always see eye-to eye.
Still, Priebus helped Trump bridge the divide with many establishment Republicans during the general election and into Trump’s tenure as president, serving as a key bridge between the outsider President and the insider politics he found himself at the center of.
Priebus is just the latest former RNC official to leave the administration, following the departure of White House press secretary Sean Spicer — who resigned in protest over Scaramucci’s hire — and the ouster of deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, a key Priebus ally who exited the administration after just two months on the job.