Reince Priebus looked battered. It was Monday, October 10—the morning after the final presidential debate—and our eyes met as I boarded a Southwest Airlines flight from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. It had been an extraordinary weekend: On Friday night, the biggest bombshell of the 2016 campaign dropped when the Washington Post published a decade-old audio recording on which Donald Trump made lewd comments about groping women. Speaker Paul Ryan disinvited Trump from a unity event in Wisconsin scheduled for the following day, and Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, quietly made the case to Trump and his associates that he should quit the race. Trump refused. The Sunday debate, 48 hours after the tape’s release, was dominated by discussion of Trump’s history with women. He dismissed his recorded remarks—"grab them by the pussy,” Trump had said, boasting that his celebrity status allowed him to get away with aggressive advances on the opposite sex—as "locker room talk.”
Priebus occupied a window seat, a pair of staffers to his left. The chair behind him sat empty; my instinct was to grab it and start firing questions through the slit at his left shoulder. But after studying Priebus—the slouched posture, the uncharacteristically rumpled suit, the groaning bags under his eyes—I decided it might backfire. Whether it was pity or strategy, or a bit of both, I settled in two rows back, deciding it would be better to talk upon landing in Washington.
It was an eventful flight: Ryan, while we were at 30,000 feet, had told House Republicans on a conference call that he wouldn’t be defending the president anymore—and urged them to do whatever was necessary to survive in their districts. Meanwhile, there were reports Priebus would hold his own call with RNC members to discuss ousting Trump. Priebus was understandably not keen to discuss any of these developments. But he seemed to appreciate my earlier gesture. When I greeted him, just beyond the entrance to the jet bridge, his staffers tried to shut down any interview. Priebus told them to back off. "It’s OK,” he said, offering the sort of forced half-smile you see at hospital visitations. "Go ahead. Shoot.” We walked out of the terminal and past the baggage claim, covering all of it: the tape, the debate, Ryan, the RNC and what (if anything) it could do at this point. Priebus asked twice to speak off the record, which I allowed. But his most telling comment—in retrospect—came at the end of our conversation, after he explained that the RNC had no mechanism to remove Trump as its nominee.
"Look,” he said, stepping into the sunlight outside Reagan National Airport, his staffers loading up an idling black Chevrolet Suburban. "We don’t get to pick the nominee. And we don’t get to just walk away from him, either.”
By "we,” the chairman was referring to the RNC and the broader party leadership. But it seems obvious now—in studying his approach to Trump throughout the primary season, the general election and during his tumultuous 27-week run as chief of staff, the shortest in history—that Priebus was also talking about himself. As head of the party, Priebus never foresaw the real estate mogul running, much less becoming its standard-bearer. He cracked jokes about Trump early on and flashed outrage at some of his incendiary rhetoric. But as Trump gained momentum and won the nomination and, later, the presidency—and as the RNC chairman emerged as the bridge between him and the Republican Party—Priebus could never bring himself to abandon Trump.
It’s not without irony that some will hold him responsible for Trumpism—Priebus should have kicked Trump out of the GOP debates, some critics suggest—seeing how the RNC chairman would have personally loved to see Scott Walker or Marco Rubio as the party’s nominee. Trump was the last choice of the party establishment, which Priebus embodied. It became clear, however, that Republican voters had other ideas—and Priebus made it his mission to ensure a level playing field. He ignored calls to remove Trump from debates after he threatened to run as an independent, and bent over backward to make the reality TV star feel welcome in the GOP. Priebus knew he would be accused of sabotaging the party, but he was unwavering in the belief that it was his job to be a facilitator and an ambassador, not a kingmaker.
His friends had mixed feelings about the chief of staff position, and some cautioned Priebus against taking it. After all, he had inherited a penniless, disorganized, technologically bankrupt Republican Party in 2011 and transformed it by 2016 into a financial behemoth with adequate field and data operations. On his watch, the GOP had kept the House, taken back the Senate and now won the presidency; why not ride into the sunset, spend time with his family and cash in on those triumphs?
The fateful answer: Because Priebus couldn’t just walk away. He felt a
sense of loyalty to Trump, and more acutely, an enduring responsibility
to the party and the country. Plus, the second-most prestigious office
in the West Wing was beckoning. Priebus jumped at the job.
It was a mismatch from the start. As RNC chairman, Priebus had two primary responsibilities: dialing for dollars (typically three to five hours each day) and sorting out disputes among his 168 members to keep everyone happy. Key administrative functions were mostly handled by other RNC staff, including Priebus’ own chief of staff; some associates feared that Priebus’ skill set simply would not translate to the new job. Making success all the less likely was the Wisconsinite’s disposition: laid back, naturally soft-spoken and nonconfrontational, a classic people pleaser. Priebus kept a mini-fridge stocked with Miller Lite in his RNC office and would later hold occasional Friday happy hours in his West Wing suite, inviting officials from across the building to grab a can of beer or a Solo cup of wine and commiserate about the week that had been. This calm, consensus-minded approach made Priebus a beloved party chairman, and Republicans held out hope that it would make him a good chief of staff. But it didn’t. Trump trampled Priebus from Day One, sending out press secretary Sean Spicer, a longtime Preibus ally, to deliver a demonstrably false rant about the inaugural crowd size. Trump resented the idea that his chief of staff was there to tame him, and resented even more the notion that Priebus was the conduit to a Republican Party he had conquered.
But Priebus was the conduit. By firing him, Trump has severed a critical connection to his own party—not simply to major donors and GOP congressional leaders, but to the unruly, broader constellation of conservative-affiliated organizations and individuals that Priebus had spent five years corralling. He was effortlessly tagged as an "establishment” figure—inevitably, given his title atop the party—but Priebus was a specialist at coalition-building. He convened regular meetings as RNC chairman with influential players in the conservative movement, picking their brains and taking their temperatures on various issues. That continued as chief of staff: Priebus spoke by phone with prominent activists, such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, at least once a week. There is a meeting scheduled at the White House this Wednesday of the Conservative Action Project—an umbrella group that brings together leaders from across the right—and Priebus was planning to attend. It was this kind of systematic outreach that made Priebus, whatever his flaws as a West Wing manager, an essential lieutenant for Trump.
There is no question, however, that Priebus’ absence will echo loudest on Capitol Hill—particularly in the speaker’s office. Ryan’s team had heard whispers for months of Priebus’ possible departure, but the news was nonetheless a dagger, especially on the heels of a health care defeat and at the dawn of tax-reform season. Ryan and Priebus, both Green Bay Packers fans and local beer loyalists, have been friends for decades; Ryan’s former chief of staff, Andy Speth, was Priebus’ college roommate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Priebus was the first call Ryan made when things got hairy this year, and vice versa. Working with a West Wing that contains few other true allies—and with a volatile president who has viewed him suspiciously ever since the speaker accused him of making "the textbook definition of a racist comment” about a Hispanic-American judge—Ryan saw Priebus as his staunchest ally and bunker mate. And now he’s gone.
In his place is John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and respected disciplinarian whose mandate is to succeed where Priebus failed: imposing order and organization on a chaotic White House. Kelly, however, is not a political figure; he did not support (or oppose) Trump’s campaign, and is not known to hold strong political or ideological inclinations. Looking around Trump’s inner circle, there is communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a political novice who in the past donated to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; chief strategist Steve Bannon, who used Breitbart to try and burn the Republican Party to the ground; National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat; director of strategic communication Hope Hicks, who has zero history with GOP politics; and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, a pair of self-professed Manhattan progressives. Of Trump’s closest advisers, only Mike Pence has any association with the Republican Party.
This no longer seems accidental. Trump has, since taking office, consistently referred to Republicans as though he is not one himself—it’s invariably "they” or "them.” Unlike past presidents of his party, Trump entered the White House with few personal relationships with prominent Republicans: donors, lobbyists, party activists, politicians. This liberated him to say whatever he pleased as a candidate, and, by firing Priebus, Trump might feel similarly liberated. The fear now, among Republicans in his administration and on Capitol Hill, is that Trump will turn against the party, waging rhetorical warfare against a straw-man GOP whom he blames for the legislative failures and swamp-stained inertia that has bedeviled his young presidency. It would represent a new, harsher type of triangulation, turning his base against the politicians of his own party that they elected.
Things have not yet escalated to that point. But some, including officials in his own administration, took the dismissal of Priebus as a signal that Trump is willing to go rogue against the GOP. Only a day after announcing Kelly as his new chief of staff, the president let loose on Twitter, calling out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not changing the Senate’s filibuster rules and saying Republicans "look like fools” for not doing so. He also tweeted that Democrats are "laughing at” the GOP. In a final taunt, Trump tweeted that Republican senators would be "total quitters” if they move on from health care following last week’s failed repeal vote.
More and more, Trump talks as though there are Democrats and Republicans—and him, a party of one. If unchecked, this poses an existential threat to the GOP. But it’s not Priebus’ problem anymore. He is officially unemployed. And with a few weeks of summer vacation remaining, chances are that he—along with his wife and two young children—will soon be on an airplane, heading someplace where no reporter will be waiting to ask him about Donald Trump.