WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump remarked in April upon a swath of vacant lots passing beneath his helicopter, his top aide Reince Priebus took note.
Weeks later, as the head of a top Taiwanese electronics supplier visited the Oval Office to inquire about constructing a US plant, it was Priebus who remembered those empty plots of land in Wisconsin.
“I know a good spot that you should go — that place in Kenosha,” Priebus proudly recalled telling Trump in an interview with a Milwaukee TV station this week.
Engaged in the project from start to finish, the Wisconsin-born chief of staff was eager to see the deal announced from the East Room on Wednesday. But as Trump began ticking through state and federal officials who helped make the project happen, Priebus’ name didn’t warrant a mention.
The absence of a public acknowledgment would be demoralizing enough. But for Priebus — a chief of staff who has struggled for months to please a fickle and often fuming Trump — the day’s indignity was only beginning.
‘Cain and Abel’
Hours later, Trump’s newly installed communications director appeared, on Twitter, to accuse Priebus of leaking his financial information. He didn’t clarify his message for hours, leading to the widespread assumption, including within the White House, that he was going after the man who is supposed to be the President’s top-ranking adviser.
The next morning, Anthony Scaramucci insisted that wasn’t what he was saying. But in the course of a remarkable, prolonged telephone interview on CNN, the impression of a feud was only confirmed.
Later in the day, vulgar comments that Scaramucci made about his senior White House colleagues to a New Yorker reporter emerged, leaving little question of the internal turmoil gripping the West Wing.
“Reince is a ****ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci told the magazine’s Washington reporter Ryan Lizza, adding that unlike Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist, he was not “trying to suck my own ****.”
Scaramucci, who predicted in the interview that Reince would soon resign, later said on Twitter, “I sometimes use colorful language,” vowing to “refrain in this arena” going forward. But he offered no apology to Priebus or Bannon, who both report directly to Trump.
During her daily White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could not say whether Trump has faith in his chief of staff.
“We all serve at the pleasure of the president and if he gets to a place where that isn’t the case, he will let you know,” Sanders said.
Divides among White House staffers are hardly new, but the openness with which Scaramucci described his tensions with Priebus marks a brazen split with past attempts to downplay reports of infighting. It’s led to new speculation about Priebus’ future, which has been a lingering subtext of Trump’s administration since he entered the White House in January.
“I don’t know if this is reparable or not,” Scaramucci said of his relationship with Priebus on CNN. “That will be up to the President.”
“We have had odds. We have had differences,” Scaramucci went on, before turning to a Biblical comparison that left little doubt of the acrimony.
“When I said we were brothers from the podium, that’s because we’re rough on each other. Some brothers are like Cain and Abel,” he said, referring to the Old Testament story of fratricide. “Other brothers can fight with each other and get along. I don’t know if this is reparable or not. That will be up to the President.”
There appears little doubt where Trump’s allegiances land. Scaramucci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo at the start of his interview that he’d received Trump’s “full support and his full blessing” to detail his grudges with Priebus during a 15-minute conversation Thursday morning.
Divides among White House staffers are not a new occurrence, but the openness with which Scaramucci described his tensions with Priebus marks a brazen split with past attempts to downplay reports of infighting.
It’s led to new speculation about Priebus’ future, which has been a lingering subtext of Trump’s administration since he entered the White House in January.
A former Republican National Committee chairman who entered Trump’s orbit only after the businessman secured his party’s nomination a year ago, Priebus was installed in the hopes he could help the political outsider navigate the complicated aspects of Washington governing.
But over his first six months in office, Trump hasn’t developed the same type of close relationship with Priebus as he already enjoyed with his campaign confidants. And Priebus has failed to guide Trump toward major legislative wins, most notably on health care.
When Scaramucci — whose official start date as communications director was moved up to Wednesday — arrived at the White House, it was seen as a setback for Priebus and the group of RNC staffers he brought with him to the West Wing. Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer were said to have resisted the appointment. Spicer quit his job over it.
Now, a source close to the chief of staff said his patience is also beginning to wear thin. He’s facing a barrage of attacks from within the White House at the same time he’s increasingly shut out of key presidential decisions.
“Reince, for all his weaknesses, was even-keeled,” one Priebus ally said. “He kept the governing happening.”
Priebus at least tried to instill some order in the West Wing, said this source, who predicted the White House would descend further into chaos if he exited.
But some close to the President have been privately urging Trump to make a change. They believe Priebus has proven ineffective both in shepherding Trump’s agenda and in imposing order amid Trump’s chaos.
“I hope Reince goes. His standing with the President is so low,” one person close to Trump bluntly said. “I think Reince is really the worst chief of staff we’ve seen in 25 years. He may make it, but I doubt it.”
This person said that Priebus is no longer carrying out the President’s wishes, but is instead preoccupied with maintaining power within the White House — a proposition made difficult by the installation of Scaramucci, who — like Priebus — will report directly to Trump.
That places the new communications director alongside the chief of staff and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, as advisers with direct lines to the commander in chief. Past White Houses — even those with powerful communications staffers — have organized their staff to report to the chief of staff instead. Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner, are also both senior advisers who communicate with Trump directly.
“In almost all modern White Houses, every staff member reports through and to the White House chief of staff,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies the chief of staff position.
“It looks like Scaramucci, at this point, is a first among equals, which is always the spot that’s reserved for the chief of staff,” Cohen said. “These types of organizations, in the modern White House, don’t work well, and usually fail pretty spectacularly.”
Speaking Thursday, Sanders defended Trump’s management style, insisting it produced positive results that advanced the President’s agenda.
“I think I just answered that. I think what we have, this is a White House that has a lot of different perspective because the President hires the very best people,” Sanders said. “This isn’t group think, we all come and have a chance to voice those ideas, voice those perspectives and have a lot of healthy competition and with that competition you usually get the best results.”
But veterans of past White Houses said the dueling parties only hamper Trump’s agenda.
“You can’t be president of the United States and have everybody in the White House shooting at each other,” Leon Panetta, one of President Bill Clinton’s chiefs of staff, said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday. “Everybody’s shooting each other. Everybody’s criticizing each other, including the President of the United States. And in that atmosphere, how the hell can you can get policy done for the United States of America?”
When Priebus accepted his position as chief of staff, he brought a chunk of the Republican National Committee’s infrastructure — including much of the communications shop — along with him.
But some key Priebus allies have already departed, leaving the chief of staff even more exposed in a West Wing known for backbiting.
Former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh left the administration in March and has since returned to the RNC. Last week, Spicer announced his resignation in protest of Trump’s decision to hire Scaramucci. He’s expected to formally depart in August. And another Priebus loyalist — Michael Short — resigned from his role as deputy press secretary on Tuesday as it became clear he would likely be fired if he didn’t quit first.
Priebus himself, meanwhile, believes Scaramucci’s public comments are more sideshow than substance, according to a person close to him, a feeling that may belie the fact that Trump is in his new communication director’s corner.
Priebus is unlikely to make any public comments about the public row, the source said, saying that the chief of staff plans on “taking the high road” in the kerfuffle.
In Washington, establishment Republicans watched with concern as the conflict between Trump’s communications director and his chief of staff escalated.
“All I would say is, as you know, Reince is a good friend of mine,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan during his weekly news conference. “Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House.”
“If those two gentlemen have differences, my advice would be to sit down and settle their differences,” he said.
One of Ryan’s Republican predecessors was less circumspect.
“I think that Scaramucci had better be a lot more careful than he has been,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on the Laura Ingraham radio show. “He obviously likes the limelight, he obviously likes being in the media. I would say right now he is being more pugnacious than effective. He ought to slow down a little bit and learn what he is doing.”
“It’s totally unhelpful having someone going around starting family fights in public, and if he is going to be that divisive I’m not sure if he is going to be that useful to the president,” Gingrich said. “I think Scaramucci is full of himself, I think he got down here from New York and he is all excited; frankly he is talking more than he is thinking. He needs to slow down and learn the business.”
But while Scaramucci may still be learning the inner workings of the White House, his understanding and proximity to Trump — a fellow New Yorker — seems without question.
On Wednesday, about an hour after the jobs announcement in the East Room, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stood outside the White House, talking with a few reporters. It was only then when Priebus’ name was raised. Walker showered praise on the beleaguered chief of staff and Wisconsin native, commending him for helping make the deal come together.
A short time later, Priebus walked out of the White House for a few pictures with Wisconsin officials who came to Washington for the day. As he was holding court with his old friends, the President and Scaramucci were dining upstairs in the residence of the White House with the Fox News host Sean Hannity.