President Trump’s most colorful foreign policy critic, Eliot Cohen, reacting to appearances by chief of staff Reince Priebus on the Sunday shows, tweeted that Priebus reminds him “of the colorless, beliefless, spineless functionaries of 20th century totalitarians.” Well, Priebus, who happily turned over the GOP to Trump, has as much experience as anyone from his job as the Republican National Committee chairman in the “colorless, beliefless, spineless” functionary department.
At the RNC, Priebus was in charge of getting rich people to cough up money and running a political shop that over the years has been overshadowed by the Republican Governors Association, the House and Senate election committees, the Koch brothers, American Crossroads and other entities. To the extent he believes in anything — reaching out to minorities and pursuing comprehensive immigration reform, for example, were his aims from the 2013 GOP autopsy report — it is only for the moment.
What is obvious both from his appearances and from recent events is how small and unimpressive Priebus is. He willingly parrots any Trump line no matter how loathsome, as he did in facing Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday“:
WALLACE: This is what he wrote, “The fake news media (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.”
Reince, the president believes that a free and independent press is a threat to the country?
PRIEBUS: No, I think — I think for the most part — and I understand where he’s coming from — is that there are certain things that are happening in the news that just aren’t honest. And we’re not talking about everyone, Chris. We’re not talking about all news, but we’re talking about something that I guess he’s termed as fake news. . . .
WALLACE: Here’s the problem, when the president says we’re the enemy of the American people, it makes it sounds like if you are going against him, you are going against the country.
PRIEBUS: Here is the problem, Chris — the problem is you’re right. Some of these things were covered, but you get about 10 percent coverage on the fact that you get a very successful meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of the U.K., the prime minister of Canada —
WALLACE: We covered all of those news conference live. Everybody did.
PRIEBUS: Right. Sure, yes, for about — yes, right. But then as soon as it was over, the next 20 hours is all about Russian spies —
WALLACE: But you don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince.
PRIEBUS: — nothing is happening. Give me a break.
WALLACE: You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did. Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but I got to say, he never said that we were an enemy of the people.
PRIEBUS: Let me tell you something, he said a lot of things about Fox News, Chris. I thought you ought to go check the tape. He blamed you for a lot of things. And I’m surprised, as someone from Fox, that you forget all of the shots that he took —
WALLACE: No, he took the shots. And we didn’t like it. And, frankly, we don’t like this either, because, you know — but he never went as far as President Trump has and that’s what’s concerning because it seems like he crosses a line when he talks about that we’re an enemy of the people. That is concerning.
Lacking Trump’s confidence and bravado, Priebus comes across as bitter and whiny.
Meanwhile, Priebus isn’t doing his actual job very well, which is to make the White House run smoothly and to establish a clear chain of command. Instead, Stephen K. Bannon pulls a fast one on the president, getting himself put on the principals committee of the National Security Council. Apparently, Trump allies entirely outside the government are ready to negotiate with Russia over Ukraine (!).
White House aide Stephen Miller reportedly contacted a U.S. attorney directly to instruct him on the arguments (losing ones, it turned out) to defend the travel ban, running way outside his “lane,” as they say. Perhaps next time Miller should let lawyers advise other lawyers. (“The Eastern District declined to comment on any contact between [U.S. attorney Robert] Capers and Miller, the 31-year-old former Jeff Sessions aide and America First true believer with no legal background of his own, who a few months ago was warming up Trump’s campaign crowds and is now writing executive orders for the President to sign.”). Multiple former White House veterans weighed in on Twitter to remark that an aide bypassing the White House counsel and entire Justice Department leadership would have been a fireable offense under the presidents whom they served.
Whether it is the travel ban rollout, Bannon’s repeated vetoes of Cabinet secretaries’ deputy picks (so that major departments still do not have a No. 2, let alone lower-level political appointees), the botched phone calls with foreign leaders or the Michael T. Flynn fiasco, Priebus is not performing the key, critical functions of a chief of staff — providing the president with all the information he needs, setting a clear process for decision-making and actually executing the president’s directives in a clear and timely fashion. Priebus is outmaneuvered and outmuscled by Bannon, leaving him to clean up messes rather than set up a structure to avoid blunders.
The Boston Globe reports:
The president’s impulsiveness and reliance on his own gut reactions don’t appear to have any real check within the system he’s created. He continues to fire off bizarre tweets, including one that he deleted and then reposted Friday evening where he labeled the news media as “the enemy of the American people.”
The White House declined to comment for this story, though on Saturday Trump posted on Twitter his own view: “The White House is running VERY WELL.”
There’s little to suggest he is right or that the situation will change: None of the power centers in the White House has demonstrated an ability to have a deliberate, tempering effect on Trump. And, up until this point, no one knows how the West Wing will react to the many unpredictable parts of the job.
Priebus is the chief of staff Trump wants, for now. Priebus’s weakness promotes chaos and impulsiveness, which Trump enjoys. Since discipline, order and chain of command are designed to minimize chaos and conflict, a less assertive and respected gatekeeper is essential for Trump. At some point — and we hope it’s not by virtue of a national security crisis induced by White House dysfunction — the president may see that government chaos breeds gridlock, legislative stalemate and policy blunders. When he does, Priebus will be a useful sacrificial lamb.