As Donald Trump’s presidency careens wildly from accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower to backing an unpopular Obamacare replacement plan, a new scapegoat is needed pronto. A recent Politico piece about how the knives are out for Chief of Staff Reince Priebus foreshadows a possible shake-up.
Priebus’s political enemies are no doubt responsible for spreading some of this negative speculation. On the heels of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ouster, Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy suggested Priebus was in over his head—and Breitbart started hinting that Priebus was about to be fired.
They presumably wanted not only to avenge Flynn but also to shift the balance of power away from the mainstream/establishment wing—and toward the nationalistic/populist wing. But once you jettison the hidden agendas, you are essentially left with two opposing theories with which to judge Priebus’s brief tenure:
1) Priebus was supposed to tame the circus, and he isn’t getting the job done, or
2) Holy crap! This presidency would be a shit show without Reince Priebus.
The first theory—that he hasn’t been able to tame the circus—simply holds Priebus to unrealistic expectations.
Trump is a 70-year-old billionaire who has gotten to the top by doing things his way and damn the consequences. To enable his behavior, he has constructed a flat organization that discourages a clear chain of command, hierarchy, clarity, or sanity.
Of course, whether it’s The Donald or The Gipper in charge, West Wing staffers always want unlimited presidential access, and they resent any gatekeeper who tries to limit it. There’s another line in that Politico piece that resonated for me: “They described a micromanager [Priebus] who sprints from one West Wing meeting to another, inserting himself into conversations big and small and leaving many staffers with the impression that he’s trying to block their access to Trump.”
Well, golly gee whiz, boys and girls: that’s what Chiefs of Staff do! That’s their job! The war against Priebus is an explicit pushback against any kind of adult supervision in the West Wing. It’s firing the mean teacher and letting the four-year-olds take over the preschool.
Another anonymous complaint in that piece: “There’s a real frustration among many—including from the president—that things aren’t going as smoothly as one had hoped.”
Yes, things aren’t going as “smoothly” as anyone might have hoped. Although who, besides Sean Hannity, might have guessed that this White House would run smoothly? But ask yourself: Might other factors besides Reince Priebus be at work? Might the confusion stem, at least in part, from Donald Trump tweeting an accusation about Barack Obama bugging Trump Tower? Or from Jeff Sessions not remembering meeting with the Russian ambassador… twice? Or because the congressional Republican plan to replace Obamacare will likely cover fewer people?
Or is it none of the above and instead simply because Reince Priebus hasn’t made the trains run on time?
No, that’s not the answer at all: this presidency would be much worse without Priebus.
Priebus’ biography helps explain why. He not only converted Wisconsin’s Republican Party into a model for state parties, but he also assisted Governor Scott Walker in overcoming one liberal assault after another. He then assumed command of the Republican National Committee at a time when it might easily have imploded from infighting. Instead, the GOP miraculously emerged with the presidency, the House, and the Senate.
His reputation hinges on keeping things from devolving into chaos. He’s like Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon―the hyper-drive may not always work, and there’s always a risk of everything falling apart, but he’s going to get everyone where they need to go.
Aside from excelling at the thankless (and damn hard) task of keeping things together while others try to tear them apart, Priebus serves as an indispensable bridge to his friend, Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as to establishment Republican leaders. Moreover, Priebus’s very presence in the White House comforts both establishment Republicans and mainstream conservatives.
There are probably fair amounts of “hold-your-nose” Trump supporters among elected Republicans who won’t be as forgiving of Trump’s behavior if Reince is canned—especially if he’s replaced by someone from the Steve Bannon wing.
Yet, despite all of his positive qualities, Priebus could still be in trouble. Firing the guy who is ostensibly “in charge” is the most obvious and simplistic knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t going well (ask any head football coach).
But ditching Priebus amounts to firing an experienced and competent coach because his general manager stocked his roster with has-beens, walking-woundeds, head cases, and 82nd-round draft picks.
But, hell, that’s what bad teams do.