Today President Trump gave chief of staff Reince Priebus the heave-ho and replaced him with Homeland Security secretary, and retired USMC general, John Kelly. How does this play out? Since I have access to the front page, I’ll inflict my hot take on what happened, what it means, and where it goes.
1. Priebus was always a ‘dead man walking.’ He was not a Trump supporter in the beginning. His roots were in the GOP establishment. His presence in the White House can be seen as a genesis of a lot of the problems. He had no natural allies either in the Trump family or in the Bannonites who filled many staff positions. He brought with him people he knew, like Sean Spicer and Katie Walsh, and when they were perceived to be incompetent and disloyal, respectively, that stink stuck to Priebus. His personal relationship with Trump was never going to materialize because he had no accomplishments that Trump respects: he wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t a fellow billionaire CEO, he wasn’t a general officer. Trying to manage Trump when Trump obviously didn’t respect him and didn’t trust his people was impossible.
2. I have no doubt that a substantial number of the damaging political leaks originated from Priebus’s staff. They were fighting for survival, rather than influence, and the leaks were to Washington political reporters. In a White House that loathed the press, the people who had worked at the RNC were the media’s only real contacts.
3. The resignation of Sean Spicer, the announcement of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director and who only reported to Trump, and Scaramucci’s bizarre rant on Priebus and his people yesterday made Priebus’s departure inevitable.
4. Given the chaotic mess that is the Trump White House, one certainly can’t call Priebus a successful chief of staff. He might have been dealt a crappy hand and he might even have, arguably, played that crappy hand well, but the result was crap and six months of lost time. The things that have gotten done have happened because of the initiatives taken by cabinet secretaries. One has the feeling that even the people who liked Priebus were not afraid of ignoring him.
5. John Kelly is an immensely experienced and talented guy. The question is whether his experience and talent will be wasted in a no-win job.
6. The confirmation battle to replace him will be ugly and Trump’s entire immigration regime will be in jeopardy if the Democrats can extract the right promises from his successor.
7. Kelly is, like Priebus, an outsider going into what is essentially a small, family-run business. His advantages are that Trump respects him, that he’s survived worse working environments, he’s not allied with the RNC and therefore possibly disloyal, he has been a chief of staff of large organizations. On the other side of the ledger, he doesn’t have a power base in the White House. I can’t imagine him and Bannon being buddies. Likewise, I suspect that Scaramucci knows that Kelly knows that he’s a poseur and he already resents Kelly. Right now, the White House is confirming that Scaramucci and the communications operation still report directly to Trump. Will Kelly accept that in the long run? He might because the colossal f***-ups are going to be with communications and if Kelly isn’t putting fires out there he can focus on other things.
8. A short term metric for Kelly will be what happens to White House leaks. If he can’t turn the spigot off it means two things. First, his staff doesn’t respect him enough to help him out. Second, Trump will be tweeting about Kelly being weak before Christmas.
9. H. R. McMaster now firmly controls the National Security Council and I bet we see a lot of the Flynn hires vanish. Fast. Look for the McMaster-Mattis-Tillerson alliance to start steamrolling everything in its path as it will have a strong ally in the White House.
10. Kelly, as far as I know, was not active in partisan politics before coming to work in the Trump administration. I don’t know what his relationships are on the Hill with the GOP but he’s burned a lot of bridges with the Democrats. He’s not, as far as I know, a conservative so I’m not sure what we will see from him in the way of policy.
11. The big question is can he manage Trump? If he can keep Trump on message and off Twitter he could be successful. That will be hard. If he can’t do that, Kelly might run a tighter ship than Priebus but it won’t be any more successful.
A final thought. In Milton’s Pardise Lost, as Satan is cast out of Heaven he makes this famous statement, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Kelly is, ironically, flipping that on its head. He’s opting to serve in Hell. Let’s see how it works out for him.