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Story highlights

David B. Cohen: Reince Priebus was never in a position to succeed as chief of staff, but Anthony Scaramucci lacks needed experience, too

Scaramucci has publicly and humiliatingly criticized Priebus, calling him a "paranoid schizophrenic" who will be pushed out soon, Cohen writes

Editor’s Note: David B. Cohen is a Professor of Political Science and Assistant Director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN) —  

In an unprecedented move, President Donald Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci as communications director over the objections of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Scaramucci has publicly and humiliatingly criticized Priebus, calling him a “paranoid schizophrenic” who will be pushed out soon, and let it be known that the only person he reports to is the President himself, not the chief of staff – a stunning arrangement for a communications director and a sign of debilitating weakness for a sitting chief of staff.

David Cohen
courtesy of David Cohen
David Cohen

Reince Priebus has discovered quicker than most what all chiefs come to learn eventually: that the White House chief of staff position is the most difficult and thankless job in government. In a job where burnout and short tenures are the norm, reports abound that President Donald Trump, frustrated by the new administration’s numerous missteps, may replace Priebus in what would be a record-breakingly short tenure for a chief of staff in the nation’s history (save for those chiefs that finished out the end of an administration). In fact, rumors abound that Anthony Scaramucci himself is being considered as a replacement for Priebus. This would be a disaster. A creature of Wall Street, Scaramucci has never worked in government, the White House, or the West Wing.

If Priebus’ days truly are numbered, Donald Trump must reorganize the way his staff system functions, starting with empowering a chief of staff with real authority to manage the President’s time, the flow of information, and the access people have to him. Based on reports of numerous individuals having “walk-in privileges” to the Oval Office, coupled with the competing factions and rivalries battling for favor with the President, it is clear that Priebus lacks this authority. Any chief who doesn’t have the power to be gatekeeper of the Oval will be destined to fail as Priebus has to date.

Accordingly, President Trump must select a chief whose personality leaves no room for questioning who is in charge. The rest of the staff must know that the chief is the alpha dog, with authority to hire, fire, and reassign. There should be an air of intimidation and fear when it comes to the chief of staff, and the rest of the White House staff must believe that the chief’s word always carries the authority of the President. Priebus’ effectiveness has been hurt by the fact that he is perceived as weak and lacking in authority over personnel matters. Historically, chiefs who lack the ability to discipline or fire their West Wing subordinates soon find themselves overseeing mayhem and discord. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan defended Priebus, saying “Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House and I believe he has the President’s confidence.”

Another important trait President Trump should prioritize in a new chief, if he replaces Priebus, is White House experience. It’s true that Priebus spent years in Washington running the Republican National Committee and has solid relationships with GOP members of Congress – especially with Speaker Paul Ryan, his fellow Wisconsinite. And some chiefs like James Baker and Howard Baker, who were (unrelated) chiefs of staff during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, were very effective despite lacking West Wing experience.

But the White House is a pressure cooker unlike any other governing institution, and Trump himself has no political experience. Many of the most successful chiefs previously had extensive time in high-level White House jobs (e.g., Leon Panetta, Rahm Emanuel, and Denis McDonough), and some had first served an apprenticeship as deputy chief of staff (e.g., John Podesta, Andrew Card and Josh Bolten). No president, least of all a novice like Trump whose White House is already plagued by chaos and infighting, can afford a chief learning on the job as they attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of the West Wing.

In most cases, no staffer will spend more time with a president than a chief of staff, and thus, that relationship should be comfortable personally for both POTUS and chief. Part of the issue with Reince Priebus’ tenure is the fact that he publicly squabbled with Trump during the primary season. Trump does not forget such slights. The next chief needs to be personally vetted by President Trump, himself, to ensure they are not only qualified for the job, but are compatible with Trump’s outsized personality and unique work habits.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the next chief of staff must have the self-confidence and courage to stand up to the President and let him know when he is wrong – particularly a president as undisciplined and impulsive as Trump. Too often, staffers are unwilling to disagree with or confront a president for fear of being punished or fired. It is easier to stay on a president’s good side by agreeing with him and telling him what he wants to hear. But a chief that does this fails both the president and the country. Chiefs have a responsibility to always give the president the hard truth regardless of the consequences. Presidents often need to be protected politically – including from themselves when they are about to make a poor decision. A chief who is willing to alert a president to the folly of a prospective decision or ignore a foolhardy presidential order is a great asset to a president – even if the president does not appreciate it at the time.

President Trump has the opportunity to change the fortunes of his presidency, as President Bill Clinton did in the summer of 1994 when he replaced his first chief, Thomas McLarty, with Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta, to whom he granted great latitude to reorganize the White House and change personnel. The recognition by Clinton that a drastic change was necessary, and his willingness to go through with a major staff shakeup, were important reasons he was able to improve the performance of his White House and win re-election.

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Unless President Trump comes to a similar realization and decides to change the modus operandi of the White House by empowering a strong chief to lead a revamped White House staff system, nothing will change. Trump White House 1.0 has been destined to fail; will Trump White House 2.0 be a completely new design run by a strong chief, or simply a repackaging of the original staff system with a weak chief of staff of a different name? The fate of the Trump administration may lie in the answer to that question.