Who Needs A Controversy Over The Inauguration? (Original Reporting by Chris Whipple)
Just after six a.m. on January 21, 2017, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Reince Priebus was watching the cable morning news shows, getting ready to leave for the White House. Suddenly his cell phone went off. It was Donald Trump. The new president, sworn in less than 24 hours earlier, had just seen The Washington Post, with photos showing Trump’s inaugural crowd dwarfed by that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The president was livid, screaming at his chief of staff. “He said, ‘This story is bullshit,’ ” recalled Priebus. “He said, ‘There’s more people there. There are people who couldn’t get in the gates. . . . There’s all kind of things that were going on that made it impossible for these people to get there.’ . . . The president said, ‘Call [Interior Secretary] Ryan Zinke. Find out from the Park Service. Tell him to get a picture and do some research right away.’ ” The president wanted his chief of staff to fix this story. Immediately.
Priebus tried to talk Trump off the ledge. “It doesn’t matter,” Priebus argued. “It’s Washington, D.C. We’re in an 85 percent Democrat area. Northern Virginia’s 60 percent. Maryland’s 65 percent. . . . This is a Democrat haven, and nobody cares.” But Trump was having none of it. Priebus thought, “Is this something that I really want to go to battle over on day one? Who needs a controversy over the inauguration?” Priebus realized he faced a decision: “Am I going to go to war over this with the president of the United States?”
Hours later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the White House briefing room. “What happened,” Priebus remembered, “was Spicer decided to say that actually, if you combine online and television, radio, and in-person, it was the most watched inauguration.” The trouble with that reasoning was that Spicer’s response—a belligerent, Orwellian performance beamed around the world—was a lie. From the very start, the credibility of the Trump presidency became a laughingstock, immortalized by actress Melissa McCarthy in her devastating parody of Spicer on Saturday Night Live.
On day one, instead of going to war with Donald Trump, Priebus had gone along.
Priebus cannot say he wasn’t warned. Just a month before the inauguration, he had been invited to lunch by Barack Obama’s outgoing chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Following the example of a memorable breakfast hosted eight years earlier by George W. Bush’s chief Josh Bolten—when 12 former White House chiefs had come to give advice to Obama’s incoming chief, Rahm Emanuel—McDonough was joined by 10 chiefs, Republicans and Democrats, in his West Wing office. And as they gathered around a long table, none doubted the enormity of the challenge facing Priebus. “We wanted to help Reince in any way we could,” said Jack Watson, who served President Jimmy Carter. “But I don’t think there was a chief in the room that thought he was going to be able to do the job, given Trump as his president.” Most of the former chiefs believed Trump was intellectually and temperamentally unfit for office—and few thought Priebus could rein him in or tell him hard truths. “We were thinking, God bless him. Godspeed. Good luck,” said Watson. “But he doesn’t have a prayer.”
Priebus was hobbled by two other factors. A former Republican National Committee chairman from Kenosha, Wisconsin, he barely knew his new boss, and he was part of the establishment that Trump had vilified. Moreover, during the campaign, the two men had been known to feud. Trump had been especially resentful of Priebus’s reaction to the campaign’s existential crisis just a month before Election Day: the release of the tawdry Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump had made graphic misogynist comments that were caught by an open microphone.
The morning after the video surfaced, Trump’s candidacy had been pronounced all but dead in the media. In response, the beleaguered nominee’s top aides—campaign C.E.O. Stephen Bannon, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump—gathered at Trump Tower for a war council to advise the candidate on whether he should stay in the race or quit.
The nominee, sleep-deprived, surly, his jaw clenched, posed the crucial question: in light of the videotape, what were his chances of winning? Priebus went first: “If you decide to stay in, you will lose in the biggest landslide in American political history.” One by one, Trump’s other advisers danced around the question—until finally it was Bannon’s turn. “One hundred percent,” he declared. “One hundred percent you’re going to win this thing. Metaphysical.” (Priebus recalled things differently, saying no one was that emphatic.)
Trump, of course, pulled off an astonishing upset. And a month later, McDonough met his successor as chief of staff in the West Wing lobby and escorted him to his office. As the former chiefs went around the table, giving Priebus advice, they were unanimous about one thing: Trump would be unable to govern unless Priebus was empowered as first among equals in the West Wing. Trump’s incoming chief dutifully took notes on a yellow pad.
Suddenly there was a commotion; Barack Obama was entering the room. Everyone stood and shook hands, then Obama motioned for them to sit. The 44th president’s own chiefs—Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew, McDonough, and Pete Rouse (who served unofficially)—were all present, and Obama nodded toward them. “Every one of these guys at different times told me something that pissed me off,” Obama said, flashing his familiar grin. “They weren’t always right; sometimes I was. But they were right to do that because they knew they had to tell me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear.” Obama looked at Priebus. “That’s the most important function of a chief of staff. Presidents need that. And I hope you will do that for President Trump.” With that, Obama said his good-byes and departed.
The chiefs were not sure Priebus got the message. “I caught the eye of several of the others and we exchanged worried expressions,” one Republican in attendance remembered. “He seemed much too relaxed about being able to navigate a difficult job. I think he struck a lot of us as clueless.” Another was even more blunt about Priebus’s nonchalance: “He was approaching the job like it was some combination of personal aide and cruise director.”
Dining alone with Priebus a few weeks earlier, Bush’s chief Josh Bolten had been alarmed: Priebus seemed to regard himself as Trump’s babysitter and had given little thought to governing. “I could tell that he was nervous about leaving Trump alone and was kind of candid about ‘If I’m not there, Lord knows what happens,’” Bolten recalled. In his view, Priebus seemed “neither focused on organizing his White House staff nor in control of his own life. He was just responding to the fire of the day.”
And there was another ominous sign. Obama’s staff had spent months preparing voluminous transition briefs, thick binders designed to help the next administration get up to speed on subjects ranging from Iran to Cuba to climate change. Every previous incoming team had studied such volumes with care. But as the inauguration drew near, McDonough realized that the binders had not even been opened: “All the paperwork, all the briefings that had been prepared for their transition team, went unused,” he said. “Unread. Unreviewed.”
The inept start of the Trump presidency—with the flagrant lying about crowd sizes—confirmed the ex-chiefs’ worst fears. “It told me that Reince wasn’t in control,” observed Jack Watson. “It told me Reince had no power to say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we can’t do that! We are going to get killed if we do that.’ ” George W. Bush’s first chief, Andrew Card, watched with a sinking feeling: “I said to myself, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no process. And they don’t have discipline. You must taste your words before you spit them out!’”
In late October 2017, almost three months after he resigned as chief of staff, Priebus met me for dinner at a posh but empty restaurant near the White House. Wearing a blazer, tieless, and without his usual American-flag pin, he had been off the radar and had given no extensive interviews since his abrupt departure six months into his job as Trump’s chief. Unlike his friend Sean Spicer, who had struggled to find employment after his turn as Trump’s disgraced White House spokesman, Priebus had landed back at his old Washington law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP—as president. He was drumming up paid engagements on the lecture circuit. And he was conferring frequently by phone with Donald J. Trump.
The president, Priebus said, speaks with him often on a phone that is unmonitored by John Kelly, who replaced him as Trump’s chief of staff—sometimes just to chat, sometimes for counsel. Trump often called Bannon too—at least before his excommunication following his comments in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. Priebus insisted, contrary to Wolff’s description, that he never called Trump an “idiot.” In fact, for all the humiliation he endured, he said, “I still love the guy. I want him to be successful.” While visiting South Korea last November to give a speech, Priebus made a side trip to the demilitarized zone between South and North, and recommended to Trump that he go there during his Asia trip. (The president and his party tried but were forced to turn back due to bad weather.)
Even so, Priebus’s account of his tenure as Trump’s chief confirms the portrayal of a White House in disarray, riven by conflict. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus said as we sat down. Being White House chief had been even more arduous than it looked from the outside. “No president has ever had to deal with so much so fast: a special counsel and an investigation into Russia and then subpoenas immediately, the media insanity—not to mention we were pushing out executive orders at record pace and trying to repeal and replace Obamacare right out of the gate.” Priebus was nervous, repeatedly asking, “This is all off the record, right?” (He later agreed to be quoted.)
“People mistake me for a laid-back guy from the Midwest,” he continued. “I’m much more aggressive, and much more of a knife fighter. Playing the inside game is what I do.” Before Priebus, 45, accepted the job, he had had an impressive, if modest, track record. “I took the R.N.C. from oblivion,” he explained. “Our team raised a ton of money, built the biggest full-time political-party operation ever, ran two conventions, won more races than anyone else, and hit all the marks—without drama, mistakes, or infighting.”
“One of the things all [the chiefs] told me,” Priebus said, “was: don’t take the job unless you’re designated A number 1, in charge of everything, beginning to end.” All of that was right for a typical president, Priebus thought, but Trump wasn’t typical; he was one of a kind.
As it turned out, there was a moment on Election Night when it looked as though the chief’s job might go to Bannon, who eventually became Priebus’s ally in the West Wing. (Others would be considered as well.) But he didn’t look the part. “Trump looked around and I remember I had a combat jacket on and I hadn’t shaved in a week,” said Bannon, who spoke with me at length just before the release of Fire and Fury. “I had the greasy hair [hanging] down. . . . I’m the senior guy—but look, it was obvious Reince had to be chief of staff.” Priebus, however, would be chief in name only: Trump, instead, anointed Bannon as Priebus’s co-equal, with Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, getting top billing.
From the beginning, Priebus would face a challenge unique to this presidency: how to curb the commander in chief’s tweets. “We can get thrown off our message by tweeting things that aren’t the issues of the day,” he told Trump. At first Priebus thought he had succeeded in wresting Trump’s phone from him. “I talked about the security threat of having your own cell in the West Wing and got the Secret Service to go along with me to mothball his phone.” Priebus had managed to silence one device. But it turned out Trump had another.
Early on, the staff wrote daily tweets for him: “The team would give the president five or six tweets every day to choose from,” said Priebus, “and some of them would really push the envelope. The idea would be at least they would be tweets that we could see and understand and control. But that didn’t allow the president to be fully in control of his own voice. Everybody tried at different times to cool down the Twitter habit—but no one could do it. . . . After [last year’s] joint session [of Congress] we all talked to him, and Melania said, ‘No tweeting.’ And he said, ‘O.K.—for the next few days.’ We had many discussions involving this issue. We had meetings in the residence. I couldn’t stop it. [But] it’s now part of the American culture and the American presidency. And you know what? In many ways, the president was right. And all of us so-called experts might be totally wrong.
“[Trump] is a man who fears no one and nothing,” continued Priebus, “and there is absolutely nothing he’s intimidated by. . . . And that’s very rare in politics. Most people in politics are people who have sort of an approval addiction. Now, granted, President Trump does too, but he’s willing to weather one storm after the next to get to an end result that most people are not willing to weather. . . . He doesn’t mind the craziness, the drama, or the difficulty, as long as an end goal is in sight. He will endure it.”
Soon after the inauguration, the president began to lash out wildly at members of the Justice Department who were poised to open probes into possible misconduct or overreach by members of his administration. On his 11th day in office, he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce his controversial travel ban. Then Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District. Next up: F.B.I. director James Comey.
Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGahn tried to stall the freight train coming toward them, sensing that sacking Comey would be a fateful political mistake. But Jared Kushner supported Trump’s decision, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo—criticizing the F.B.I. director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation—gave Trump the pretext. On May 9, Trump fired Comey. It would trigger the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel and would prove to be among the most politically disastrous decisions since Richard Nixon fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
While Priebus and Bannon watched the fiasco explode as the pundits excoriated the Trump White House on every cable news show, Kushner did a slow burn. He was livid, furious that the communications team could not defend Comey’s firing. Bannon blew his stack. “There’s not a fucking thing you can do to sell this!,” he shouted at Kushner. “Nobody can sell this! P. T. Barnum couldn’t sell this! People aren’t stupid! This is a terrible, stupid decision that’s going to have massive implications. It may have shortened Trump’s presidency—and it’s because of you, Jared Kushner!”
The screaming matches and white-knuckle showdowns continued. Eight days later, Priebus got an unexpected visit from the White House counsel—a story he has not told publicly before. “Don McGahn came in my office pretty hot, red, out of breath, and said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we just got a special counsel, and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions just resigned.’ I said, ‘What!? What the hell are you talking about?’ ”
It was bad enough that Trump, having fired Comey, would now be the target of a special prosecutor. Even worse, unbeknownst to Priebus, the president, only moments before, had subjected Sessions to a withering tirade in the Oval Office, calling him an “idiot” and blaming Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation for the whole mess. Humiliated, Sessions said he would resign.
Priebus was incredulous: “I said, ‘That can’t happen.’” He bolted down the stairway to the West Wing parking lot. He found Sessions in the backseat of a black sedan, with the engine running. “I knocked on the door of the car, and Jeff was sitting there,” Priebus said, “and I just jumped in and shut the door, and I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’ And then he told me that he was going to resign. I said, ‘You cannot resign. It’s not possible. We are going to talk about this right now.’ So I dragged him back up to my office from the car. [Vice President Mike] Pence and Bannon came in, and we started talking to him to the point where he decided that he would not resign right then and he would instead think about it.” Later that night, Sessions delivered a resignation letter to the Oval Office, but, Priebus claimed, he ultimately persuaded the president to give it back.
In June, Trump was still on a tear. He considered dumping special counsel Mueller, according to The New York Times, but was dissuaded from doing so. And by July, Trump was back on Sessions’s case, tweeting insults and calling him “weak.” “Priebus was told to get Sessions’s resignation flat out,” said a White House insider. “The president told him, ‘Don’t give me any bullshit. Don’t try to slow me down like you always do. Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.’ ”
Once more, Priebus stalled Trump, recalled a White House insider. “He told the president, ‘If I get this resignation, you are in for a spiral of calamity that makes Comey look like a picnic.’ Rosenstein’s going to resign. [Associate Attorney General] Rachel Brand, the number three, will say, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to be involved with this.’ And it is going to be a total mess.” The president agreed to hold off. (Sessions didn’t comment on the resignation letter and last July publicly stated that he planned to stay on the job “as long as that is appropriate.” Brand, in fact, resigned this month.)
The Trump presidency’s first six months were the most incompetent and least accomplished in modern history. And its very survival was clouded by the gathering storm of the special prosecutor’s probe.
When it came to Mueller’s investigation, Priebus insisted he personally had nothing to worry about. But Bannon warned that the hounds had been loosed. “You’ve got Mueller’s team, which has got 19 killers who are all experts in wire fraud, money-laundering, and tax evasion,” Bannon said. “Doesn’t sound like collusion to me. But they’ve got unlimited budgets and subpoena power. And here’s what we’ve got on our side: two guys who’ve got legal pads and Post-Its.
“It’s like [certain members of the administration think that] no one took down the Gambino family,” Bannon continued. “Mueller’s doing a roll-up just like he did with the Gambinos. [Former campaign manager Paul] Manafort’s the caporegime, right? And [Rick] Gates [Manafort’s deputy] is a made man! [George] Papadopoulos is equivalent to a wiseguy out in a social club in Brooklyn. This is like a Wagner opera. In the overture you get all the strands of the music you’re going to hear for three hours. Well, Mueller opened with a bang. He totally caught these guys by surprise. So if you’re not going to fight, you’re going to get rolled over.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign to eradicate Obamacare went nowhere. “Repeal and replace” crashed and burned—not once but twice, the second time when John McCain delivered a dramatic 1:30 a.m. thumbs-down on the Senate floor. The debacle proved that Priebus could not count—or deliver—votes. “When McCain voted against it,” Bannon recalled, “I said to myself, Reince is gone. This is going to be so bad. The president is going to get so lit up.”
Priebus soon became a target of Trump’s ritual belittling as the president took to referring to him as “Reincey.” At one point, he summoned Priebus—to swat a fly. Priebus seemed to have been willing to endure almost any indignity to stay in Trump’s favor. There was that scene right out of The Manchurian Candidate when, at a Cabinet meeting, the president’s most powerful advisers virtually competed to see who could be more obsequious; Priebus won hands down, declaring what a “blessing” it was to serve the president.
By the summer, however, Priebus knew that his job hung by a thread. According to insiders, he was already in the crosshairs of “Javanka/Jarvanka”—as Bannon would take to calling the president’s daughter and son-in-law—for refusing to help Kushner in his efforts to oust Bannon. And then came the last straw: the sudden arrival of a new, flamboyant communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. Priebus had opposed his hiring. Scaramucci immediately turned the West Wing into a circular firing squad, calling Trump’s chief of staff a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” in an interview with The New Yorker. He went on, in a tweet, to all but accuse Priebus of leaking classified information about Scaramucci’s finances (which were publicly available). “When he accused me of a felony,” recalled Priebus, “I thought, What am I doing here? . . . I went in to the president and said, ‘I gotta go.’ ” Trump would say nothing publicly in Priebus’s defense. The president accepted his resignation.
Priebus had hoped to exit gracefully within a week or two, but the next day, as Air Force One sat on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Trump tweeted, “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American. . . . ” The sudden shake-up was vintage Trump; the timing blindsided Priebus, who stepped off the plane into a drenching rain and was whisked away by car.
John Kelly, a four-star Marine general who had run the Southern Command, was 22 years Priebus’s senior. At the start, he had the president’s full confidence and wasted no time transforming the West Wing into a tighter ship. All visitors to the Oval Office—including Bannon, Kushner, and even the president’s adviser-daughter, Ivanka—were now vetted by the chief. Kelly also started heaving loose cannons over the side: Scaramucci was fired within 72 hours of Kelly’s appointment; Sebastian Gorka, another overzealous White House staffer, would soon follow; even Bannon himself would be gone within a month. Kelly declared that he was not put on earth to manage the president; instead, he would impose discipline on the staff and streamline the flow of information to the Oval Office.
Still, expectations were high that Kelly would be the “grown-up in the room,” who would smooth over Trump’s authoritarian edges. And yet, week after week—during the president’s fulminations against “fake news,” his sympathetic comments toward white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, his taunting of “Rocket Man” before the U.N. General Assembly, and his racist slurs against “shithole countries”—Kelly stood at Trump’s side. He not only reinforced the president’s worst instincts; he doubled down on them. He maligned Congresswoman Frederica Wilson from the White House Press Briefing Room with a false story after she criticized Trump’s handling of a Gold Star widow. In early February, the news broke that Kelly’s deputy Rob Porter—accused of beating both of his ex-wives (Porter denied the allegations)—had served in the sensitive post of staff secretary for more than a year without a permanent security clearance. The debacle surrounding his abrupt resignation showed that Kelly could not manage the West Wing, let alone Trump.
Suddenly Kelly’s future looked uncertain. And Priebus looked more effective in hindsight. “Reince was better than his press,” said Bannon. “If Reince had the exact track record that Kelly has, he would be deemed the worst chief of staff in the history of politics—and that’s not a slam on Kelly. . . . Folks felt [Priebus] didn’t have the gravitas. He’s always the little guy from Kenosha, right?”