Reince Priebus is out, following Sean Spicer out the door. Already gone, six months since Donald Trump took office: his national security adviser, his FBI director, his deputy national security adviser, his deputy press secretary, his acting attorney general, and a raft of others. And likely next for the ax: Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General; Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State.
If that sounds like a “chaotic White House,” well, it is. But don’t think for one minute that the chaos in the White House, and the unceremonious ouster of the hapless Priebus, has anything to do with the Republican failure to pass a health care bill – or, for that matter, anything else linked to policy or politics. Here’s what happening: The Trump family, including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s Uday-and-Qusay-like sons Don, Jr., and Eric, wife Melania, and a tiny handful of their closest supporters, in a panic, are tightening the “circle of trust.”
In Meet the Parents, you’ll recall, tough-guy Robert De Niro warned poor Ben Stiller that he’d better stay inside De Niro’s circle of trust. “If I can’t trust you, then I have no choice but to put you right back outside the circle of trust, and once you’re out, there’s no coming back,” said De Niro, ominously. In Trump’s White House, Priebus was Ben Stiller. He’s gone, whacked, humiliated, called a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” by Anthony Scaramucci, the brand new communications director. It’s the job of the Mooch, as he likes to call himself, to whack everyone inside the White House who’s even remotely not loyal, and in Trump’s circle, loyal means slavishly, degradingly, self-abasingly loyal. And, so first Sean Spicer, and then Reince Priebus, had to go.
And it’s happening because President Trump, his family and his closest friends are facing a relentless special counsel, Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI who’s leading a veteran team of prosecutors, in parallel with investigators from the Senate and House intelligence committees. Like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, they’re coming after him. Donald Trump, his three children and his son-in-law have decided that, at all costs, they have to protect themselves.
What was Priebus’ alleged crime? According to Scaramucci, it was that he leaked. “I’m going to fire everybody,’ Scaramucci told reporters in the White House driveway on Tuesday. “If I’ve got to get the thing down to me and Sarah Huckabee, then the leaking will stop.” Other heads will roll, too, and in fact no one in the White House is safe. Just as leaks drove President Nixon to the brink, and he hired a team of spooks called the Plumbers to plug leaks during the Watergate crisis, Trump appears to have gone over the edge. In Trump’s case, the leak that finally tipped the scales, and the one that seemed to be the first concrete evidence of collusion between the Trumps and Russia during the campaign, was the stunning revelation that Don, Jr., Kushner and Paul Manafort, his campaign manager, met secretly last June in Trump Tower with a group of Russians who’d promised to deliver information that was damaging to Hillary Clinton, information that came directly from Russian intelligence.
No wonder Scaramucci, in his profane rant to the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza this week, even raised the possibility of murder. “What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers,” said the Mooch, in what we can only hope was a rhetorical flourish.
It isn’t known whether Priebus or one of his staffers in the White House leaked the report of the Trump Tower tete-a-tete to the New York Times, who broke the story. But it was widely considered to be a smoking gun – indeed, perhaps the first in what could be a smoking arsenal – that connected, for the first time, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election directly to Trump’s inner circle. Whether it was Priebus or not who leaked it doesn’t matter, since Trump, Kushner and Scaramucci have started to clean house.
It’s no mystery who the president doesn’t trust: It’s the Republican establishment, the avatars of the traditional, conservative GOP elite, who either joined the Never Trump movement last year or who held their noses as Trump marched toward the nomination. That establishment, symbolized by House Speaker Paul Ryan, is centered on the Republican National Committee (RNC). Now, in the Scaramucci Era, all three former RNC functionaries have been ousted: Priebus, who served as RNC chairman; Spicer, who was Priebus’ spokesman at the RNC; and Katie Walsh, a former RNC aide and Priebus ally who served as Deputy Chief-of-Staff in the White House before being booted out in March. “With every staff move, Trump seems to be moving ever further away from the Republican establishment and building a much more insular team,” says the Washington Post.
It was, according to Axios’ Jonathan Swan, a Trump family affair, and even Melania Trump was in on it. “Jared and Ivanka had brought Mooch in, in part, as a Reince-seeking missile,” says Axios. “They and the First Lady distrusted Reince, thought him incompetent and wanted him out. The President gave Mooch his blessing to nuke Reince.”
Replacing Priebus as Chief of Staff will be General John F. Kelly, who’s served six months as Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security. With zero political experience and no familiarity with legislative priorities or Congress, what General Kelly brings to the table, Trump hopes, is the sort of toughness and discipline that, alongside Scaramucci, will intimidate the sprawling White House staff and guarantee the sort of loyalty that Trump prizes. A hard-liner on immigration who served as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, the military unit that oversees the Americas south of the border, Kelly shows little patience for the niceties of U.S. democratic politics. Soon after taking office at DHS, when lawmakers complained that the Trump administration was wrongly targeting people because of their race or religion, Kelly bluntly told members of Congress – yes, members of Congress! – to “shut up,” stop criticizing and salute smartly. “They should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines,” he said.
The tip-off that the earthquake shaking the White House and beyond has little to do with the health care debacle or the coming fight for tax cuts is that neither Scaramucci nor Kelly have the slightest idea how legislation happens, how laws get passed, or even how government works. But in the coming end-game over the multiple investigations of Trump and his family – inquiries that will involve not just possible collusion with Russia but a vast tangle of questionable real estate transactions and money transfers that involve the Trump-Kushner financial empire – tough guys Scaramucci and Kelly may be the president’s best hope of mounting a stonewall defense. And preventing more leaks. They’re job is discipline, and ensuring that everyone who’s still at the White House when the dust clears knows who’s boss.
The firing of Priebus isn’t the last of the housecleaning that will be overseen by Kelly and the Mooch. But, by itself, it sends a clear message to other powerful figures in the often chaotic Trump-era White House that they’d better watch their backs. That’s especially true for the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the former executive editor of Breitbart News and an ultranationalist who is the leader of the alt-right faction in the White House. Bannon, the architect of the Trump’s faux-populist billionaire-as-Everyman campaign – highlighting Muslim- and Mexican-bashing, racial code words, and “lock her up” chants – is a Trump favorite precisely because he’s an enemy of the GOP establishment. But Bannon reportedly opposed the idea of bringing Scaramucci in – putting him at odds not only with Trump but with Jared and Ivanka, too. Scaramucci, in his expletive-laden rant to the New Yorker, viciously attacked Bannon – “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” said the Mooch – which could be a signal that Bannon will soon follow Priebus out the door. Or, it could be simply an alpha-dog bark to make sure that Bannon knows his place from now on.
Besides the White House, the next top official to get a pink slip could be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a far-right, anti-immigration Alabaman who’s been the recipient of a relentless barrage of attacks from Trump for the past week or two. In his recent interview with the New York Times, in which Trump launched the first broadside against Sessions, he also hit hard against the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who’s overseeing the Mueller investigation. And he issued a fairly explicit warning to Mueller himself not to pursue investigative leads that might take him into Trump’s personal finances – although that’s exactly where the Russiagate inquiry is likely to go, in a search for the Trump family’s ties to Russian oligarchs, banks and real estate moguls.
Like the anti-leak jihad inside the White House, with Sessions too Trump is stricken with fear about Russiagate. Early in the administration, Sessions recused himself from anything to do with Russia, handing it over to Rosenstein, because of Sessions’ pattern of unexplained meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. By forcing Sessions to quit – or by firing him outright, as he did with FBI Director James Comey – Trump can name a replacement for Sessions who could support the president if and when he chooses to fire Mueller, too. Needless to add, both firing Sessions and firing Mueller could lead to charges the Trump is obstructing justice, a crime in itself.
And Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who serves as secretary of state, may be getting ready to go, too, in what’s being called a “Rexit.” Frustrated after losing a number of battles on foreign policy and reportedly unhappy with Trump’s bullying of Sessions, Tillerson may have had it. He’s especially peeved that Jared Kushner is the president’s go-to guy on matters of foreign policy, according to Mark Perry, writing in the American Conservative. One of Tillerson’s associated told the magazine: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 36-year-old amateur.”
The end game, for the White House, is an Armageddon-like battle against indictment, impeachment, and humiliating repudiation. And if that’s where Trump is headed, he wants a White House that resembles a hardened bunker. Or the Alamo.