Trump announced Friday afternoon that he is replacing Priebus with retired Gen. John Kelly, currently the homeland security secretary.
With every staff move, Trump seems to be moving ever further away from the Republican establishment and building a much more insular team that fits his narrow worldview. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Priebus-Kelly switch.
Kelly isn’t a traditional choice for such a political job. He’s a retired Marine Corps general who has expressed no nuance about the war on terrorism. He has described terrorists as a “savage” enemy and publicly clashed with former president Barack Obama on whether to close Guantanamo Bay.
Kelly and Trump don’t agree on everything. During his confirmation hearing, Kelly distanced himself from Trump’s border wall (“a physical barrier in and of itself … will not do the job”) and torture (“Absolutely not,” he said about whether he would carry out a hypothetical Trump order to bring back waterboarding.) The Senate approved him 88-11, with all Republicans voting for his nomination.
By contrast, Priebus is the very definition of the Republican establishment. He ran the Republican National Committee during the election. He’s buddies with that other Republican establishment figure, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — they’re both from Wisconsin — and has been a GOP operative for years.
Actually, it’s not much of an overstatement to say that Priebus, along with Vice President Pence, was Trump’s connection to Capitol Hill insiders. On Thursday, Ryan defended Priebus: “Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House, and I believe he has the president's confidence.”
Smoothing Trump’s relationship with the establishment was arguably the reason Trump picked Priebus in the first place. It was an olive branch to the very people he had assailed on the campaign trail, as The Washington Post reported at the time.
No more olive branches, it seems. Sean Spicer, another Republican establishment figure, is out after Trump hired New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director.
Trump hasn’t completely severed his ties with Congress. Key GOP lawmakers didn’t outright criticize the staffing change, and some applauded Kelly’s promotion.
“Secretary Kelly is one of the strongest and most natural leaders I’ve ever known,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in a statement.
“I congratulate Secretary Kelly on his appointment and look forward to working with him to advance our agenda,” said Ryan, after devoting a paragraph to singing Priebus’s praises.
Priebus’s dismissal is also an admission by the president of how tumultuous these first six-plus months have been. Trump has yet to have a major policy victory. He’s under investigation by a special counsel for potential obstruction of justice. His team cannot get out from under a barrage of Russia-connection revelations. His approval rating is the lowest any modern president has had at this point in his tenure (36 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll). His relationship with Congress is fraught and hasn’t been fruitful.
“No!!” replied Robert David Johnson, a presidential scholar at Brooklyn College, to my email asking whether any other presidency has experienced this much staffing turmoil in its first few months. Bill Clinton had some inexperienced staffers who left their job early on, and Lyndon B. Johnson had a lot of palace intrigue. “It’s almost as if Trump has managed to combine the two — inexperience and lack of knowledge about Washington from Clinton with the palace intrigue of early LBJ,” he said.
Trump clearly hasn’t liked the results. He’s tried to play nice with the Republican Party establishment and appears to have concluded that is what has plagued his presidency.