Cohen: After a rocky start Trump, Reince Priebus is needed more than ever
The chief of staff has historically been the person who intervenes
Editor’s Note: David B. Cohen is a professor of political science and a fellow at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. The views expressed here are his own.
After a brutal first several days for the Trump administration, one has to ask: Where was the White House chief of staff?
Traditionally, the chief of staff performs a number of valuable roles for a president, from advising him on policy and politics, to representing him to the media and Congress, to making sure the administrative and policy processes run efficiently.
It’s still very early, and things obviously could change, but so far, during this difficult first week for the Trump White House, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has been largely AWOL.
In some ways, this should not be a big surprise. When Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Commitee and a Johnny-come-lately to the Trump team, was announced as chief of staff on November 13, his name was positioned after counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon.
During the campaign and continuing through the start of the administration, a quadrumvirate of advisers emerged to vie for Trump’s ear. It consisted of Bannon, Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Senior Adviser (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, and Priebus.
When Ronald Reagan utilized a system of multiple close advisers during his first term, Chief of Staff James Baker’s behind-the-scenes machinations resulted in Baker becoming the first among equals in a relatively short period of time. It was a good thing too – many view Baker as the most effective chief of staff in history much to Reagan’s benefit. But in Trump’s inner circle, it is evident that Priebus must share power.
At a time when a new president (particularly one whose party also holds Congress) should be basking in the glow of a successful transition of power, Trump and his staff got off to the worst start in the modern era; their Gallup approval rating of 45% is the lowest post-inaugural rating any president has received since polling was invented. The day after his swearing-in, President Trump delivered a cringeworthy performance in remarks made during a visit to the CIA.
Later that day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a meltdown for the ages in what observers likened to a “hostage video,”chastised the press and made numerous misstatements leaving many to observe that Spicer intentionally lied.
It seemed obvious to at least one observer, former press secretary Ari Fleischer, that Spicer was following orders directly from the President himself. On Sunday, Conway inflamed things when she hit the morning talk show circuit to explain combatively that Spicer was simply relaying “alternative facts” during his briefing – and not lying. She also dropped the bombshell that President Trump would not be releasing his taxes, period, despite Trump’s promises that he would release his taxes to the public once the IRS audit was complete.
When President Trump traveled to the CIA to mend fences, Priebus should have insisted that Trump not make any public remarks and made arrangements with Secret Service to escort him out of the building as quickly as possible.
When Spicer was ordered to speak to the media relaying several factual misstatements, Priebus should have insisted that Spicer not go. Instead, Spicer, his longtime colleague from the RNC, lost a golden opportunity to make a good impression in his first official appearance in the briefing room and, more importantly, lost credibility with the press. First impressions are hard to change and it is unclear if he can ever fully recover. Finally, Conway’s Sunday media tour should have been vastly different – contrition was in order, not incrimination.
Worse still, the blunders haven’t ended with the weekend. On Monday, President Trump provided yet another example of how the White House will need to rein him in when he told a bipartisan group of congressional members that he would have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” despite the fact that there is no evidence of this.
The unsubstantiated claim, which he has repeated multiple times since the election, has dominated most of the news cycle since it was uttered despite a number of presidential events having taken place and administrative orders being signed.
There is little doubt that the chief of staff position is the most challenging in the White House and Priebus may be in the most difficult situation a chief of staff has faced since the days of Nixon. But so far, Priebus has failed at his most important job – to protect the President. That includes protecting the President from himself. In fact, given Trump’s lack of political and policy experience, often flawed political intuition, and inability to learn from past mistakes, Priebus may have to protect the President from himself several times a day, especially given Trump’s love of, and access to, social media.
If, in fact, Priebus tried to intercede with the President and was rebuffed, Priebus may not be long for the job, or will be a chief of staff in name only – relegated to the status of a political eunuch in the West Wing. If, on the other hand, Priebus simply failed to foresee the fallout, his political instincts may not be as vaunted as first advertised and a conspicuous lack of White House experience will exacerbate this.
Either way, a chief of staff who fails to protect the president or is utterly ineffective in his job, poorly serves the White House and president. He can recover, but must do so in a hurry. Reince Priebus is discovering that the glare of the Klieg lights in the White House are an order of magnitude brighter and hotter than anywhere else on Earth – and it is easy for staff, even the chief, to wither under them.