President Donald Trump on a gloomy Friday afternoon finally announced that his chief of staff Reince Priebus would be leaving his administration, hours after the president saw Obamacare repeal fail in the Senate, Congress tie his hands on Russian sanctions, and his new communications director tell a reporter that Priebus is a “paranoid schizophrenic” and that his chief strategist is infatuated with himself to the point of attempted autofellation.
As he walked in the rain from Air Force One to his motorcade, Trump elaborated on the shakeup: “Reince is a good man,” he said. The man who will replace him, current Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly, who has no legislative experience, “will do a fantastic job,” he said. “General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody. He's a great great American. Reince is a good man."
Priebus got off Air Force One, one last time as chief of staff, and left in a motorcade without answering any questions, joining more than a half a dozen top aides who have left the White House in its first six months.
More than just being dramatic in their own right, the last 48-hours illuminate the Trump administration’s inability to focus and notch a signature legislative accomplishment, giving Republicans an idea of how dangerous the path ahead may be.
Priebus, an ally told BuzzFeed News, “was never fully empowered to do the job in the first place, but did the best he could under the circumstances and was incredibly loyal. If the President was dissatisfied, a lot of that is on him, not Reince.”
For months, Trump loyalists have argued that if Priebus wasn’t pushing the legislative agenda through, what was the point of having him around? And hours before Trump announced he was replacing Priebus, a former campaign staffer close to the administration said, "If the staff is not rallying around you to push the president’s agenda, the writing is on the wall." The source pointed to a Politico story, which reported White House staff “no longer feel like they have to attend” daily meetings in the chief of staff’s office.
Trump allies expressed deep frustration Friday after the failure of the health care vote, saying that the first six months of Trump’s presidency have gone to waste. They joined in on the swirling criticism of Priebus before he was officially removed from his post, saying they resent his decision to begin the White House’s legislative agenda with health care instead of an infrastructure package, and they said his move to export the "real work" on the legislation to Congress had been a mistake.
Thursday was a particularly deep low for the White House. The day was replete with high drama and low blows, beginning with the president's hand-picked new communications director Anthony Scaramucci casually floating that perhaps Priebus might be behind leaks undermining the administration and that Trump will have to decide if he will be fired. Soon after, BuzzFeed News reported that Priebus' days were numbered, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the president's weeklong insult campaign against him was "kind of hurtful,” and the Senate passed new Russian sanctions by a 98-2 margin, which Scaramucci suggested the president could veto.
That all happened before The New Yorker published its interview with Scaramucci, where he said Priebus would soon resign and that he wanted to kill White House leakers. The biggest blow came after midnight: when Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain joined Democrats in sinking Senate Republicans’ whirlwind plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"I think this presidency is effectively over," Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich, told "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski Friday morning.
Another source close to the administration said it’s hard to judge if Thursday was the worst day in the administration’s short existence — only because there are so many to pick from.
"I feel like they've had a lot of bad days that are self-inflicted wounds and they just seem to be piling. What we're seeing is a pattern of unproductivity coming from the White House and more drama that dominates the headlines."
"Yesterday showed exactly where the White House is, which is focusing on drama and insider gamesmanship instead of putting a whole-hearted, full-throated campaign to help Senate Republicans pass health care," the source said.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who has been at odds with the president, said Friday morning that he wasn't surprised by the collapse of Republicans' health care efforts, in part because Trump "outsourced" the issue to Congress and "it was never really sold."
"The president never really laid out the core principle," he said.
Thursday's events were also an example of the dysfunction among Republicans more widely, and some House members, said Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, took it as evidence that they would have to pick up the slack from the Senate and the White House.
"Probably the most notable comment, I won't mention which person made it [in a House GOP meeting], is that it appears that the House of Representatives is going to have to take a leadership role in how the United States government functions, inasmuch as we seem to be doing the job that the other parts of the federal government have failed to do," he said.
Given the lack of legislative accomplishments, North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker said Republicans have not "delivered" and will have "very little to go home and talk about."
"I'm not gonna pretend it's pie in the sky and that we've done our work or done our job," he said.
But GOP lawmakers and Trump allies alike kept returning to White House chaos and the way it sidetracks efforts to stick to the president's faltering agenda.
A White House adviser who checked in with administration officials in the wake of the health care rubble said the conversation ended up devoid of policy discussion.
"We only talked Scaramucci, but that’s part of the problem. We should be talking tactically about where we go from here," the adviser said. "For the first time since he won, I'm worried if he doesn’t get rid of Mooch, if we go down this road of openly fighting, and in a crass way, that we risk looking like a circus, particularly after a big loss last night in the Senate."
Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks said that “while the president's platform is there, often the distractions of the day have prevented him from being the leader we expect him to be.”
"I don't believe that the White House has done enough to bring that thoughtful approach to the table," he said. "I'm critical of the frenzied environment of the White House, the lack of focus on what matters most, which is repealing Obamacare, reforming our tax code, rebuilding our military, supporting our veterans."
Brad Todd, a GOP strategist who helped Republicans win the Senate majority in 2014, said he doesn't think Thursday’s events mark the end of the Republican's health care efforts, but it will take more effort from the president in the future to get Republican priorities through Congress. "Major votes are a lot more successful when the White House has a single-minded focus on it. It's hard to argue that they've had a single-minded focus on it."
It was noteworthy and damning that on the same day a major vote failed in such a public and high stakes way, CNN cast the legislation for tougher sanctions against Russia, which the White House has not yet committed to sign, as "one of the first major bipartisan pieces of legislation passed during Trump's presidency."
Hope is dim, but still there among some true believers. When asked about Thursday's events, a source close the administration first just responded: "Holy cow!"
The source, who had been in contact with White House aides, said the staff is "frustrated and just wants some sort of resolution."
"It just sucks that we're still here when this should have been done two months ago," the source said of Obamacare repeal, before warning that Trump should still not be underestimated. "Look, I'm not banking against the president. People who banked against him in the past aren't around anymore."
The former campaign staffer said Trump needs to do something big and bold "to move this economy into fifth gear and tax reform is that big and bold thing," but the enormity of that complex issue, too, provokes fear among people looking towards the promise and peril the fall could bring.
"This is not the way we’re going to sell tax cuts," the White House adviser said of the latest drama, before offering a particularly dark view of the administration's prospects. "If we don’t cut taxes, we might as well pack it in, we’re done. We'll lose the House and Democrats will impeach Trump."