With National Security Adviser Michael Flynn already forced to resign due to scandal, there are rumors of another White House shake-up in the works. Those rumors grow to a roar if you surf to today’s eyebrow-raising Breitbart report by Matthew Boyle, which quotes at least three “sources close to the president” who claim that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s future is “in doubt.”
Boyle’s anonymous sources paint a picture in which Priebus’s bumbling is the primary reason for the Trump administration’s rocky start. They portray the chief of staff as in over his head and ineffective at working with Congress. And they claim that the blame for the White House’s botched immigration order rollout should fall primarily on Priebus, because he failed to quickly confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general and purge enough leaky Obama loyalists from the government.
Mind you, this isn’t just any anonymously sourced report. In the age of Trump, Breitbart’s coverage is being read — rightly or wrongly — as a window into the views of one faction of the administration in particular: the allies of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon ran Breitbart until he left to join the Trump campaign last August. He brought Breitbart staffers like Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka with him into the new administration. The site has long maintained a close relationship to Sessions aides such as Stephen Miller, who is now a White House senior policy adviser and reportedly a close Bannon ally there.
This “nationalist” faction of the Trump administration is more anti-establishment, more anti-immigrant, and overall more radical than Priebus’s allies, who are more traditional Republicans. At a time of turmoil within the administration, officials allied with each faction are leaking to the press in an effort to scapegoat their rivals and ensure their own allies don’t take blame.
While we don’t know for certain who specifically is leaking to Boyle, the leakers are likely, at the very least, sympathetic with the worldview and aims of the administration’s Bannon wing. Indeed, their complaints read like a transparent attempt to scapegoat Priebus for a massive screw-up that others have portrayed as the fault of his rivals Bannon and Miller, as Elliott Schwartz argued on Twitter:
It is truly bonkers that the Bannon/Miller wing continues to anonymously blame Reince for their EO disaster. https://t.co/Px3lnuXWhk— Elliott Schwartz (@elliosch) February 14, 2017
So here’s a closer look at what these anonymous sources are claiming about Priebus, and why it reads as a bit of a distraction from the administration’s real problems.
Bannon’s allies are trying to pass the buck to Priebus
The biggest and most consequential blunder of the Trump administration so far was the rollout of its executive order blocking entry to the US for refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries. As Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare put it, the order somehow combined both “malevolence” and “astonishing incompetence,” leading to hundreds of people being detained at airports, massive protests, and multiple lawsuits that have now frozen its implementation.
Despite Breitbart’s pro-Trump leanings, Boyle’s story accepts the premise that the rollout was a disaster. For this, other media reports and commentators have generally blamed Bannon and Miller, who are said to have crafted the order without adequate input from other agencies and initially demanded it apply even to green card holders.
Boyle’s sources differ, arguing “that the buck stops with Priebus when it comes to the botched rollout of the executive order.” (The name “Bannon” is never mentioned in the article.) The sources lodge three complaints, none of which are particularly convincing.
First, one source argues that Priebus blundered by failing to win Senate confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly enough. If only Sessions were in place, the source seems to claim, the order would have gone much more smoothly.
This doesn’t make much sense. The bigger problem was that Bannon and Miller seemed uninterested in consulting even Cabinet secretaries who had been confirmed, such as James Mattis and John Kelly, according to multiple reports. Furthermore, the Senate moves at its own pace, and Democrats were using whatever tactics they could to delay a Sessions vote.
So it’s appropriate that White House press secretary Sean Spicer (who worked with Priebus at the Republican National Committee and is viewed as an ally to the chief of staff) sounded puzzled by this complaint in his response to Boyle. “What are you talking about?” Spicer wrote in an email. “What possibly could have been done to get Sessions done quicker? Is there some way he could have made Democrats vote?”
The second criticism aimed at Priebus in Boyle’s piece is essentially that Trump’s administration is flailing because it’s being sabotaged by Obama administration holdovers whom Priebus has failed to purge. “They’re hiding like sleeper cells everywhere,” a source tells Boyle.
There’s an element of truth to this, because there really has been an amazing amount of leaks undermining Trump — though it’s not clear whether they’re coming from Obama holdovers or the permanent bureaucracy (or Trump’s own aides, who’ve been remarkably leaky too).
Still, this is a bit of a distraction. Obama administration holdovers did not force Trump to go on bizarre rants during conversations with foreign leaders, or to be obsessed with nonexistent voter fraud. They didn’t force Trump to issue that bungled immigration order. They also didn’t force Michael Flynn to lie to the public and to Vice President Mike Pence about what he told the Russian ambassador (or force Trump to appoint Flynn, who many argued from the get-go was a terrible choice, in the first place).
Finally, Boyle’s sources complain that Priebus has not been effective at working Congress so far in general. “He was supposed to be this wizard in dealing with congressional Republicans, but has not been successful in getting anything serious done,” one source says. And while it has only been a few weeks so far, this is also essentially true.
Again, though, it’s an attempt to change the subject. Sure, perhaps Priebus could have done a bit better getting the troops in line on the Hill. But at core, the day Trump’s administration went off the rails was January 27: the day he empowered Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller to implement their “nationalist” anti-immigrant agenda with his executive order.
Since then, the administration has never truly returned to normal — the order was such a toxic disaster that the fallout from it has colored everything, energizing Trump’s opposition, drawing criticism even from many Republicans, and distracting the administration at a time when it could be focused on a legislative agenda.