Reports of chaos and disorganization inside the White House through the first months of President Donald Trump’s administration are accurate, former chief of staff Reince Priebus said. In fact, Priebus said, those reports understated the truth of the Trump administration’s beginnings.
“Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus told author Chris Whipple, whose book on White House chiefs of staff, “The Gatekeepers,” will be released in paperback next month with a new chapter on the Trump administration. Excerpts of the new chapter were published Wednesday by Vanity Fair.
Priebus, a former head of the Republican National Committee who oversaw the party’s seizure of both chambers of Congress and the White House, lasted just six months as Trump’s chief of staff, a period that ranked among the most tumultuous times of any modern American presidency. Reports of infighting and confusion during Priebus’ tenure as chief of staff were ubiquitous, which Priebus himself blamed on outside forces, the president’s unique personality and his ambitious agenda.
“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,” Priebus said. “Not to mention we were pushing out executive orders at record pace and trying to repeal and replace Obamacare right out of the gate.”
The former chief of staff recalled the blistering 6 a.m. phone call he received from Trump on the morning after the inauguration, wherein the president demanded Priebus begin his first full day in the West Wing pushing back against reports that Trump’s swearing-in had not been as well-attended as his predecessor’s. That day, which culminated with then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s much-ridiculed declaration from the briefing room podium that the president’s inauguration had featured the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period,” cost the Trump administration precious credibility and set the tone for a combative first year in office.
Priebus, though, said that the administration’s early struggles were growing pains brought on by a norm-shattering president who was resistant to the traditional shackles of the presidency. Priebus recalled that early in Trump’s administration, staffers would write out tweets for the president to use, including some that “would really push the envelope,” in an ultimately fruitless effort to stay ahead of his social media messaging.
Priebus also told Whipple that he had managed to talk Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of resigning last spring on the same day that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed special counselor Robert Mueller to oversee an investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Sessions, fresh off an excoriation by Trump, had decided to resign, Priebus recalled, until the then-chief of staff cajoled him out of his waiting car and convinced him, with the help of Vice President Mike Pence and then-chief strategist Steve Bannon, to reconsider.
“You have to remember: the president was the Trump campaign. The R.N.C. was the organization — but he accomplished almost everything in his life by himself,” Priebus said. “The idea that he was suddenly going to accept an immediate and elaborate staff structure regulating every minute of his life was never in the cards.”