ROBERT COSTA: A stunning staff shakeup at the White House. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is out. Homeland Security chief John Kelly steps in. I’m Robert Costa. We take you inside the West Wing, where power plays and tensions are boiling over, tonight on Washington Week.
Unplugged. Incoming Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci launched a vulgar rant, revealing a White House at war with itself. That fight comes as the president continues to publicly slam his attorney general, calling Jeff Sessions weak and beleaguered.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I want the attorney general to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies.
MR. COSTA: But Republican leaders are warning the president to back off.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.
MR. COSTA: On Capitol Hill –
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) So, yes, this is a disappointment.
MR. COSTA: – the seven-year Republican quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act goes down to defeat after three GOP senators join Democrats to vote down the latest measure. GOP leaders say it’s time to move on, and Democrats see the failure as a chance to start over.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) We are relieved that millions and millions of people who would have been so drastically hurt by the three proposals put forward will at least retain their health care.
MR. COSTA: We tackle it all with Nancy Cordes of CBS News, Geoff Bennett of NPR, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump announced a major staff shakeup Friday afternoon. He appointed Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to be White House chief of staff, ending the rocky six-month tenure of Reince Priebus. He made the announcement via Twitter, calling Kelly a “Great Leader,” and “a true star of my Administration.” He also gave a nod to Priebus, writing, “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.”
Alexis, tell me about the timing of this decision by President Trump.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, in this particular case, the president had a long string of disappointments. And so the idea that the president was already kind of mulling and unhappy with his staff and the chief of staff, and we had seen him already make a change in the communications, we could tell that, whether it was the Russian investigations, the way health care was going, his poll numbers, you know, how the communications and the staff were operating, the president was already deeply frustrated.
So the timing, coming immediately after what the president considered just an exasperating, frustrating loss in the Senate over the health care bill, is not that shocking, especially when you consider that the president is also being encouraged to look ahead. And looking ahead domestic – his domestic agenda, whether it’s moving to tax reform or maybe by the end of the year infrastructure, but this idea that he has to put something up on the board. And then the international situation is not getting simpler, it’s getting more complicated. So the timing doesn’t seem to be that mysterious.
GEOFF BENNETT: And Republicans on the Hill in particular were in very much a mood to look ahead today, where – you know, where Nancy and I work every day. And I’ll tell you, it was the first time talking to members after this – before Kelly was announced, but after this whole brouhaha with Scaramucci broke out – that you heard members openly criticizing the president, and trying to create some distance between themselves and the president.
So Kelly coming in as chief of staff will be warmly welcomed. He’s a known quantity on the Hill, mainly because the last 15 years of war, and all the hearings and the meetings and the appropriations fights that have gone along with it. He’s well-respected by Democrats and Republicans. Democrats thought he would be – would have been a far more moderating force on this president during his tenure at DHS, and frankly he hasn’t been. He’s been more of a conservative and more aligned with the president’s vision. But by and large, I think this will be warmly welcomed on the Hill.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, it probably will be welcomed by some Republicans on the Hill, but he’s not bringing in a Republican to be his new chief of staff. He’s bringing a general, one of the members of his Cabinet. And with the departure of Reince Priebus, we’re really seeing the cornerstone of the Republican Party inside of this White House being removed.
NANCY CORDES: Right, and there were a lot of Republicans who put out statements saying what a good job they thought Reince Priebus had done, making it clear they had he had their support until the end. However, I do think that there are probably a lot of Republicans who think that maybe this White House could use a little military order at this point because things seem so chaotic, so we didn’t notice any pushback to the notion of John Kelly being chief of staff.
There is a great deal of uneasiness about the constant turnover. We’re only six months into this White House, and we now have a new communications director, a new press secretary, a new chief of staff, new national security adviser, a new deputy chief of staff. And so the question is, does he now have the team that he wants and he’s comfortable with, or is this going to be something that continues to churn? And will this White House ever reach some level of stability where the people who were in these jobs can really focus on what the Republican Party wants to get done?
MR. COSTA: And we know, Alexis, that the president loves generals. He populates his Cabinet with some of them. But he also loves these New Yorkers, the loyalists, like Anthony Scaramucci, who are coming in. Are we seeing these two groups taking over the White House?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, it’s interesting because in the first six months I think the president thought, OK, I’m going to drain the swamp, but I’m going to play the game the way Washington is supposed to work, and he tried to do it with the establishment figures and thinking that would be the right way to do it. But his fallback position is bringing in more campaign people. I will not be surprised if we see more people coming into the White House who worked with him on the campaign. Wealthy – you have to be wealthy and a man, business success, right, and the generals. And the president has made it no mystery of his admiration for military types. He, himself, was a product of military school, and during the campaign his reverence for them was quite evident. So it’s not surprising that he thinks that this is maybe what he needs.
But I want to add to what Nancy was saying, what Geoff was saying, is there is no evidence that the president is looking for someone to tell him no. We have seen no evidence of that. He wants to have an echo chamber. And we’ve seen him hire people, bring them in, to tell him yes.
MS. CORDES: You wonder how these different groups that Alexis describes will work with one another. It’s hard to imagine two people who are more different than General Kelly and Anthony Scaramucci. But now, apparently as far as we know right now, they both report to the president. So they’re equals, in a way, which is already a very unusual situation. We’ll see if that changes. But given all of the conflict that Scaramucci has managed to bring to the surface in just his first week on the job, the question is, does Kelly somehow manage to sort of get a handle on that and bring some change about? Does Scaramucci calm down now that his arch-nemesis, his – the Abel to his Cain, is gone? Or, you know, will he find a new nemesis?
MR. BENNETT: And, remember, Scaramucci reports directly to the president, and at any other White House the communications director would report to the chief of staff.
There’s a big question here, too, about these different management styles. As a general, Kelly is far more familiar with a chain-of-command management style. President Trump we know sort of likes the spokes-and-the-wheel management style, where there are all kinds of different avenues that people can get to him, and he’s sort of like the one person who has all that information. So a traditional chief of staff is the ultimate gatekeeper, right? He manages the president’s schedule and strategizes about an agenda. The president has shown, really, no willingness, as you said, to allow that sort of thing to happen.
MR. COSTA: And you’ve been following Kelly. Tell us a little bit about him.
MR. BENNETT: He is the longest-serving Marine Corps general in history, some 45 years that he’s served. And his – and his dedication to the country isn’t just some sort of career pursuit; he’s also lost a son. His son was 29 years old, Marine Corps – excuse me – First Lieutenant Robert Kelly, who died in 2010 in Afghanistan in combat. So he has a personal sacrifice here too.
MR. COSTA: It seems, Alexis, that the president doesn’t actually have a deep relationship with General Kelly. I remember when I ran into then-nominee Kelly a few months ago, he said he didn’t really know President-elect Trump at the time and he was trying to build a bond. But it seems like his actions at DHS have impressed the White House, pursuing aggressively a defense of the travel ban.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The president has called John Kelly a star, and part of it is because the president is so warmly disposed to think that the results at the Department of Homeland Security in terms of the border and immigration enforcement has been a net plus and a deliverable from his campaign.
One of the things I wanted to add about this idea of chiefs – because I’ve covered previous presidents and I’ve seen all presidents make changes with their chiefs. They oftentimes, though, will make a change thinking also of the portfolio that they want to work on. And one of the challenges to me, watching General Kelly with his deep experience in the military and also, obviously, with immigration and relationships with the border, is the president wants to turn to completely different topics, right? Taxes and domestic, or infrastructure. And I have normally seen presidents turn and change chiefs when they want success on the next legislative or international challenge, so I’m watching to see what the president gets out of that.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, let’s remember this is just the Friday afternoon/Friday evening drama. It was just 24 hours ago Anthony Scaramucci sparked a firestorm with his very coarse, to say the least, and startling interview with a reporter at The New Yorker. In it, he said Priebus would soon resign. He also had some salty language describing White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, accusing him of leveraging his relationship with the president to build his personal brand. In a tweet, Scaramucci later admitted he may have crossed the line, writing, “I sometimes use colorful language.” And he later shifted blame to the media, saying, “I made a mistake in trusting a reporter.” So, as Alexis was saying, perhaps the president wants to move a different direction on his agenda, but he also wants a new message.
MS. CORDES: Right. And, you know, Anthony Scaramucci sort of fits the mold that President Trump really likes, which is somebody who’s combative on TV, good on TV, willing to promote the boss, you know, as far as the day is long. But –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Love him deeply. Love him deeply.
MS. CORDES: Love him a lot.
MR. BENNETT: Loyalty’s good.
MS. CORDES: I don’t know that the president really knew the extent to which Scaramucci might create some of his own controversies. I think that that may have come as something of a surprise to this president. And while he does like people who can get out there and do a good PR job, he doesn’t like anybody overshadowing him either. So it’ll be interesting to see – you know, so far the president has refrained from saying anything negative about Scaramucci’s role in some of these controversies and, frankly, some of his bizarre comments accusing everyone around him of leaking when he seems to leak something to a different reporter on a daily basis. So, you know, we’re watching to see how all this plays out, and it’s very troubling to Republicans who, while they have no love lost for someone like Steve Bannon, you know, don’t like to see someone coming into the White House and creating more conflict than already exists.
MR. COSTA: Was Reince Priebus basically done as chief of staff when the president remained silent after that New Yorker interview, Geoff?
MR. BENNETT: I think so, and there’s some reporting that Reince Priebus, or rather Reince Priebus’s allies, have told some reporters that that day he decided that he was done and that’s when he tendered his resignation. I thought what was particularly interesting about that interview that Scaramucci gave to CNN yesterday – was it yesterday morning? This has been the longest week ever. (Laughter.) When he said that there are people in the administration who feel like they need to save America from this president, I thought that was just profoundly startling and stunning. And for the president to have done nothing to suggest that he found issue with what Scaramucci said, both on the substance or about the tone or about the four-letter words he used to describe Priebus and Bannon, it was almost as if all the signposts were there that this was coming, that he would essentially be pushed out.
MS. CORDES: I also think that, you know, one of the things that Priebus suffered from was the fact that anytime there was a leak – and there are constantly leaks from this White House – he sort of got the side-eye because he was the one power center that had come in from the outside. He was not part of the Trump campaign team. He was not part of the Trump Organization. So there was this assumption that all these leaks must be coming from him. And whether that was true or not, you know, it created a level of distrust within the White House that it seemed they couldn’t get past.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to go right now to our friend Jeff Zeleny. He’s over at the White House. Jeff, you with us?
JEFF ZELENY: I am indeed, Bob. Good evening.
MR. COSTA: Thanks for joining us. What is the scene over there tonight, Friday night? All of this tumult. Is Priebus there? Is General Kelly already starting to reorder the whole operation?
MR. ZELENY: Well, Bob, I mean, this really is a – was a remarkable evening particularly. You could see it on the looks of the staffers inside the West Wing, who are quite simply shocked and taken aback by this. But Reince Priebus has been here throughout the evening. He was doing an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN just a short time ago. And if he hasn’t left yet, he’ll be leaving shortly. But, no, General Kelly is not here. He is going to officially start next week, on a Monday, and he’s going to start, you know, obviously getting his hands around the organizational structure here. But I think a question here tonight is we know that Reince Priebus will be taking his leave, and he’s, you know, vowing to work with General Kelly as well, but how many more people from the RNC wing of this White House, if you will, will be going with him? And I think that that is something that this was about, more than Reince Priebus. It was also about Trump loyalists cleaning house, if you will, by some RNC folks they simply still do not trust.
MR. COSTA: You mentioned that RNC wing, Jeff, and you think about the other wings of the White House. There’s the Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, populist wing. There the Jared Kushner, more establishment Republican, financial wing. How is General Kelly going to fit into that complicated orbit?
MR. ZELENY: Bob, that is a great question, and I think we’re going to have to see how it works before we know the answer completely. But you’re right, there are so many wings, there are more wings than hallways, actually, here in the West Wing. So I think that one thing that General Kelly brings in – one thing the president, I’m told, trusts and likes about him so much – is his organizational structure and his strength. One thing that the president likes is wealth. He also likes strength. And he had come to view Reince Priebus as weak, for good or bad, right or wrong. That’s how he had come to view him. And I think we’ve seen, once the president makes up his mind, it’s hard to change his mind. But I think that General Kelly is a – you know, he’s a longtime Washington hand as well, and he’s been involved in the military, of course. He’s a four-star – a four-star general. So his politics – his background does not come from the halls of Congress or the, you know, Republicans or Democrats, but of course he knows politics as well. The military is political. You don’t rise to that level without having some sort of good political eye or antenna. But he is mainly here, Bob, to keep the trains running and to try and bring some more structure to this White House. We’ll see if that’s possible, given a president who’s different than anyone we’ve ever seen.
MR. COSTA: Stay with us, Jeff. Appreciate you being here.
MR. ZELENY: Sure.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, I want to just turn for a second about another drama in this administration, because remember, until yesterday Attorney General Jeff Sessions was seemingly the only administration official who was caught in this intense public drama. His was with the president. And Fox News caught up with Sessions in El Salvador this week and asked him if he thought the president’s repeated public criticism was fair.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: (From video.) It’s kind of hurtful, but the president of the United States is a strong leader. He is determined to move this country in the direction he believes it needs to go to make us great again. And he’s steadfastly determined to get his job done, and he wants all of us to do our jobs, and that’s what I intend to do.
MR. COSTA: How much longer, Alexis, can this painful process for the attorney general linger on?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, I thought what was interesting this week – and I think Geoff was hinting at this, too – there were no people stepping up to cry crocodile tears for Reince Priebus. None of his allies were trying to find cameras. But there are plenty of allies in the Senate and around Washington who have known Jeff Sessions a long time, former senator from Alabama, and they stepped right up to the cameras to say if the president does not stop this, right, we have something to say about this. Senator Graham of South Carolina was one of them, and went on to say, look, I’m interested in even introducing legislation to try to build a wall around the special counsel, Robert Mueller, right?
In this particular case, Sessions is taking a tack which others have tried, which is the president might move on to another victim, and let me just do my job – let’s just do the job. And so what he’s emphasizing is, yeah, you know, it’s a personal thing, but I’m focused on the job, and he’s trying to show the deliverables. That is what the president liked about John Kelly at DHS, too.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, key Republicans are running to the cameras to defend Sessions. They’re also going on Twitter to talk about this, too. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, all but said that if Jeff Sessions is fired or if he resigns, he’s not going to hold a confirmation hearing for a replacement AG, pretty much signaling to the president to effectively knock it off.
MR. COSTA: So on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue you have all these tensions and staff shakeups, but on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue they’re having some problems, as well, in the Republican Party. Senator John McCain surprised many when he joined fellow Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to kill the legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The defeat this week of the so-called “skinny” bill is a significant blow to President Trump’s agenda, and right now it’s unclear if Republicans will try again. Democrats, meanwhile, are hopeful that there is a way to repair Obamacare.
SEN. MCCONNELL: (From video.) I regret that our efforts were simply not enough this time. So now, Mr. President, it’s time to move on.
SEN. SCHUMER: (From video.) On health care, I hope we can work together to make the system better in a bipartisan way.
MR. COSTA: President Trump took aim at McCain and the other two Republicans, tweeting: “two (sic; 3) Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”
Nancy, you’ve been covering the Hill. You saw this unfold up close. What is the next step for the Republican Party on this signature promise?
MS. CORDES: I am still so emotionally drained from watching that vote play out. It was, you know, incredibly suspenseful, stressful; you know, the challenge of trying to read lips to figure out who was a yes and who was a no and who was talking to who. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen on Capitol Hill.
What’s next? Well, some Republicans, some moderates and some sort of just institutionalists, say it’s time to work with the other party; let’s be realistic, we have a razor-thin margin in the Senate, it’s going to be very difficult for us to do something alone, let’s work with Democrats to come up with a package of fixes to Obamacare that we can agree on. You heard that from a lot of Republicans who were nevertheless disappointed today, but said time to turn the page. But you’ve got House Republicans who are so angry. They passed their legislation back in May, and they were sitting back waiting for the Senate to do its job. And they came out saying, hey, go back to the drawing board, Senate Republicans, keep trying, you’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain.
MR. COSTA: So, Jeff Zeleny, the Senate wants to maybe take a pause. The House wants to move forward. What about the White House? The president was limited in his salesmanship on health care. Does he want to move on to other items?
MR. ZELENY: I think he does. I mean, in the – in the short term, at least, they realize that health care is, obviously, so difficult, despite what he said when he was running for president that, oh, this will be easy, especially with a Republican majority. They know that it’s difficult. So we were talking with the legislative affairs director, Marc Short, here earlier today, and he, you know, suggested that the White House does want to move on to tax reform, that’s something that they want to try and put together, start talking about the outlines with more specifics as early as next week, actually. But the challenge of all this is, Bob, as you well know, these things are linked. And the idea of tax reform initially was built around doing health care reform as well. That’s what some of the tax policies and tax rates were designed to sort of follow. So that’s why they picked this sequence – health care first, tax reform, then maybe infrastructure – because that’s basically how it should work. But now they essentially think that health care is very difficult to do. It may come later. It may be something that they’re working on in committee or so.
But, Bob, there’s a lot of second-guessing around here, is if this is the order this all should have gone. What would have happened if President Trump would have started with infrastructure? You will divide the Democratic Party by bringing some of those labor unions over. And would he be at a different place now as he enters August? We’ll never know that, of course, but that’s the big question.
MR. COSTA: We will never know. But, Alexis, you think about the White House, they just did not just sell the bill, but they didn’t really – they weren’t able to translate their political capital into passing this legislation. There were allies of the Trump administration who threatened some of the moderates in the Senate. Nancy talked to Senator Murkowski this week. Why weren’t these threats from the Trump side effective?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, because, in the reporting that I’ve done and I’ve written a story about, the clear answer that I kept getting was there is no one in Washington, Republican or Democrat, who fears Donald Trump; that there is not a feeling that he can do something to them politically, except maybe in the negative, and they’re so wary now about him. And we know the Freedom Caucus has definitely said in the spring we’re the ones who put you in the White House, not you.
MR. COSTA: And, Geoff, has the Republican Party just accepted the Affordable Care Act as law, that it’s hard to uproot it?
MR. BENNETT: It seems that way, especially if they move on. I will say this, though: the Congress has to do something to prop up the exchanges, particularly for people who live in rural areas, because that’s a real problem, where insurers are pulling out and people just don’t have any real option. So you heard a couple of Republicans on the Hill today talk about moving toward some sort of repair bill. But I think Republicans learned a message here. Paul Ryan today said that he learned some lessons as they move ahead to tax reform. We’ll talk about that later.
MR. COSTA: We’ve learned a lot of lessons this week on a lot of fronts. We’re going to have to leave it there. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much for joining us on the White House, and thanks to everybody – Nancy, Geoff, Alexis – for being here at the table.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the president’s surprise policy announcement banning transgender people from serving in the military. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching, and have a great weekend.