Trump replaces chief of staff Reince Priebus with Homeland Security chief John Kelly

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — In a bombshell announcement capping a week of brutal administration infighting, President Trump said Friday that he had replaced embattled White House chief of staff Reince Priebus with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Trump, who announced the move on Twitter, did not say whether he had fired Priebus or whether he had resigned, but the former Republican National Committee chairman told Yahoo News via text that he had tendered his resignation to the president on Thursday.

“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 president wrote, continuing in a second tweet with “…and a Great Leader. John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration.”

When asked by Yahoo News if he was aware of the staff shakeup prior to Trump’s Twitter announcement, Priebus texted, “Yeah, we talked. I resigned privately yesterday.” He later repeated in two televised interviews that he had resigned in a private meeting with the president on Thursday.

Incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump and Priebus had begun discussing the exit “about two weeks ago.” She did not directly answer whether it was a firing or a resignation. “We all serve at the pleasure of the president,” Sanders told reporters.

In just over six months in office, Trump has shed his first national security adviser (Michael Flynn), communications director (Mike Dubke), press secretary (Sean Spicer), deputy chief of staff (Katie Walsh), deputy national security adviser (K.T. McFarland) and now his chief of staff. His attorney general, Republican former senator Jeff Sessions, has been in an increasingly tenuous position, with the president openly criticizing him, but stopping short of firing him or asking him to resign.

Priebus never managed to assert himself as a traditional a chief of staff in Trump’s profoundly unorthodox White House. He never controlled access to the president, did not manage the mercurial commander in chief’s time, and his power to hire and fire was perpetually questioned by rivals for West Wing power.

Aides also said Trump had never completely forgiven Priebus for suggesting he quit the 2016 presidential race after the release of an audio recording in which Trump seemed to brag about getting away with sexual assault.

Speaking to reporters as he arrived back in Washington from Long Island, N.Y. — where earlier Friday he delivered a speech on gang violence — Trump praised Kelly, calling him “a great great American,” and added that Priebus is “a good man.”

The news came at the end of a tumultuous week of White House infighting, notably pitting incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci against Priebus. And it landed on a day that began just after midnight as Senate Republicans failed to pass legislation aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare, a central Trump legislative priority championed by Priebus.

Outgoing White House chief of staff Reince Priebus boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, July 28, 2017, to travel with President Trump to Brentwood, N.Y., for a speech to law enforcement officials on the gang MS-13. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Sanders, when asked whether Priebus’ departure had anything to do with the bizarrely public administration feud — including Scaramucci’s foul-mouthed denunciation of Priebus and other colleagues in a telephone call with a New Yorker reporter — she replied: “No, it doesn’t.”

Asked what Kelly would bring to the job that Priebus did not, Sanders replied: “That’s a question I’ll let the president walk through.”

In a live, televised interview with CNN Friday evening, Priebus ducked, dodged and deflected questions about the exact circumstances of his departure from a White House where, on bad days, aides look like it’s been 10 days since the food ran out on their drifting lifeboat.

He said he was “doing great,” praised Trump as having “the best political instincts,” declared himself a “Trump fan,” proclaimed his membership on “Team Trump” and denied any “ill-will feelings.” He declined to hit back at Scaramucci, or to deny the latter’s charges that he had leaked internal goings-on to the news media. His voice rarely stretching beyond a Midwest-inflected monotone, Priebus suggested his situation had been precarious for a long time.

“It was something that I’ve always talked to the president about,” Priebus said. “I’ve always said to him, and he always agreed with me, any time either one of his thinks we need to make a change or need to move in a different direction, let’s just talk about it and get it done.”

Priebus provided the White House with a bridge to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite. In a statement, the lawmaker said his “dear friend” had “served the president and the American people capably and passionately.”

When one reporter noted that most of the departures have come from the ranks of establishment Republicans and asked about the White House’s relationship with the party, Sanders replied: “We’ve still got a good relationship. We’re going to continue working with the party and continue doing what we came here to do.”

On Twitter, Trump declared: “I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to his country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!”

Kelly will start on Monday, when Trump will also hold a Cabinet meeting in what one White House aide described as “a reset.” Priebus, in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Friday night said he would stay on for about two weeks to aid in the transition. Of his appointment, the retired Marine general said he was “honored to be asked to serve as the chief of staff to the president of the United States.”

President Trump with then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Conn., May 17, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Sanders played up Kelly’s role in sharply reduced undocumented immigration — a cause dear to Trump’s base — and declared him “respected by everyone.”

“The entire administration loves him, and no one is comparable,” she added.

Amid White House chatter that Priebus had been targeted because of leaks to the news media, Sanders said that the former RNC chairman had been “loyal in his service to the president.”

And, she said, Priebus “will always be a member of the Trump team.”

In a statement released Friday evening, Priebus thanked Trump for the “very special opportunity” to serve on his team and vowed to remain “a strong supporter of the president’s agenda and policies.”

Additional reporting by Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward


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