JUDY WOODRUFF: Reince Priebus is out as White House chief of staff tonight, after just six months on the job. President Trump announced in a tweet late today that John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, will take his place.
The president had more to say after returning from a day trip to New York, a trip that Priebus was on.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Reince is a good man. John Kelly will do a fantastic job. General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody, a great, great American. Reince Priebus, a good man. Thank you very much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And to help unpack what led to this change at the top, I’m joined now by Robert Costa, reporter for The Washington Post and moderator of Washington Week here on PBS.
And as I go to you, I’m going to share with everybody just briefly what the president’s tweets were.
He tweeted — this was late this afternoon — he said: “I am pleased to inform you that I just named General Secretary John F. Kelly as White House chief of staff. He’s a great American and great leader. He said: “John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He’s been a true star of my administration.”
And finally, he said: “I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to this country. We accomplished a lot together and I’m proud of him!”
But I guess it didn’t work out.
ROBERT COSTA, Washington Week: It was a sudden change, Judy, but it was also a change that was in the works for months.
The president brought on Reince Priebus because he saw him as a whisperer to House speaker, Paul Ryan, a close friend of Priebus from Wisconsin and he thought Priebus could help get his legislative agenda through.
But as that agenda stalled on health care and other fronts, he began to muse in recent months with friends about perhaps making a change at the top of the White House. Kelly has been at the forefront of his mind because he’s not a dramatic future and he has executed for the president on immigration policy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There have been so many ups and downs, as you know very well, because you have been covering it every day, for this White House.
How did the president see Reince Priebus as connected to that or not? Did he blame him for what’s been going on?
ROBERT COSTA: He thought Priebus, because he had run the Republican National Committee, could be a stabilizing force.
But Priebus as RNC chairman was always a low-key presence. He wasn’t who was known for managing a large organization in a military-style fashion. The president wanted that kind of person to come in.
And it’s important to note that Kelly has a strong relationship with Jared Kushner, the senior adviser, and actually Steve Bannon, the chief strategist. And they represent the two poles in this warring White House.
So there is an expectation now from my sources that Kelly can come in and try to be a calming force.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the two poles, but we also had the announcement the other day from the president he is bringing in a new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, who has been in a very visible war. And the language that he used in that conversation with a “New Yorker” magazine reporter was making all kind of news headlines yesterday.
How does that fit into all this?
ROBERT COSTA: No, it’s a smart observation, because it does seem incongruent to have this swashbuckling New Yorker in Anthony Scaramucci now working alongside General Kelly, who is known for being a very precise man.
But it really reflects how the president is trying to turn to his loyalists from New York, as well as to military figures as he tries to right the ship. He knows his health care legislation is going nowhere right now on Capitol Hill. He’s trying to recover his presidency, turning to two different types, the New Yorkers and the military.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this look to you, Robert, like this is a team that can work smoothly together, that can get this White House back on some semblance of a normal track?
ROBERT COSTA: Well, General Kelly has said publicly in the past that he would like to maybe try to monitor the president’s calls, that he thinks there could be more organization inside of the West Wing.
It’s going to be interesting to see if he can really try to contain the Oval Office. This is an Oval Office that’s known for having a lot of entryway, people coming in and offering their advice, often unsolicited, to the president. If Kelly can get ahold of that in a way Priebus never did, maybe he can turn it around.
But he also has to navigate all the different circles around President Trump. He is someone who is known not just for having a straight chain of command. He talks to a lot of people all the time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of which, what one hears is that this is a president who really likes to be his own chief of staff.
ROBERT COSTA: Indeed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: He likes — he’s a detail person. He wants to know what everybody is doing, how they’re doing it.
How is likely to fit with somebody like General Kelly?
ROBERT COSTA: General Kelly doesn’t have a deep personal relationship with President Trump. Will he stop the president from tweeting? That’s what all my sources want to know. Can he actually stop the president from, as you say, being his own chief of staff, being his own spokesman?
For now, it seems like Scaramucci and others are channeling the president in their public presentation, not trying to hold him back.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The other thing, Robert, I have to raise are the so-called — what the White House and the president like to call the leaks which they say are coming from a lot of people in the White House and the administration that shouldn’t be, but then the stories one also hears that not only is the president talking to the press, but people at the highest levels in the White House.
How is all that likely to change or not as a result of this?
ROBERT COSTA: It’s a very messy situation, because the president is furious behind the scenes. He’s telling his aides that they need to stop the leaks, but often these leaks are coming from some of his own White House officials.
And there’s a big difference between intelligence community leaks and leaks about palace intrigue inside of the West Wing. But a lot of the president’s aides are just trying to reflect his own unhappiness about a White House he thinks that is talking too much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is — as you and I were just saying, it’s one more tumultuous day in what’s been nonstop tumult.
ROBERT COSTA: And everyone was thinking maybe Attorney General Sessions would be the person to go at the end of this week, after all of his struggles with President Trump, but it was Priebus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we don’t know what is going to happen to the attorney general at this point.
ROBERT COSTA: We do not.
Robert Costa, thanks. And you’re going to have much more on “Washington Week” on all these PBS stations. Thank you.
ROBERT COSTA: Thank you.