As White House officials scrambled to put together a Rose Garden ceremony with a military band last week, conservative blogger Erick Erickson blared this headline: “Reince Priebus’s Departure is Imminent.”
Priebus, seemingly embattled since day one as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, shrugged the story off, as usual. He spent much of the day with Trump, organizing the Paris accord event, finalizing the list of attendees and the president’s talking points. And he was back at the White House Friday.
It is the fundamental dichotomy Priebus confronts these days. He is a dead man walking, according to senior White House officials, advisers and others close to the president. Aides have begun speculating about his next job. The Washington Post reported he might be ambassador to Greece. Trump adviser Roger Stone later posted a picture of the country online and labeled it as Priebus’s next destination. Yet he continues to show up for work every day as the chief of staff, even as headlines say he will be fired—if not today, then tomorrow or next week.
And yet, he remains in place. His greatest job security: There are few takers for what might be an unworkable gig. He stays in the office until late at night and often toils away on the weekend with little control of what ultimately happens.
“The dynamics make it mission impossible for him,” said Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a history on the chief-of-staff role. “It’s totally unusual to have all these rumors out there about a chief-of-staff, but there has never been a White House this dysfunctional.”
Interviews with a dozen Trump officials and advisers suggest few expect Priebus to be long for the West Wing. A Trump adviser said the president has made no secret of his plans to remove Priebus and is in regular communication with a group of outside advisers about who could replace him. Inside the White House, Priebus is considered by some a lame-duck chief of staff soon to be reassigned. New names seem to surface daily, and Trump’s allies have begun calling Capitol Hill chiefs of staff and asking for potential replacement candidates.
A friend of the president said: “It’s basically decided that Reince is gone. It’s just a matter of who replaces him and when.”
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokesman, said the chatter was nonsense. “Reince is 100% focused on moving the president’s agenda forward and doesn’t let these false narratives interfere with his commitment to getting results,” she said.
Critics say Trump doesn’t see Priebus as a peer, and that the former Republican National Committee chairman doesn’t have the personality, temperament or management experience for the job.
“You’d think he’d just do the same thing as Dubke and see the writing on the wall and leave,” said one senior White House aide, referring to Michael Dubke, the White House communications director whose resignation was made public last week. “It’s gotten embarrassing.”
Yet Priebus tries to maintain control of the president’s schedule, to the chagrin of other aides. He is a near-fixture in the Oval Office, hovering by Trump’s side in meetings. He holds the daily 8 a.m. meeting where he attempts to assert control over the West Wing, and dashes in and out of meetings during the day trying to keep tabs on his colleagues.
White House officials say Trump is less critical of Priebus to his face, sometimes praising him lavishly – like after the May Rose Garden celebration to celebrate the passage of Trump’s health care reform law through the House of Representatives.
And Priebus no longer has as many daggers coming at him from within the White House – the other power centers, from Jared Kushner to Steve Bannon, have come to see him as relatively harmless, according to several White House officials, and he has lately developed something of a rapport with Bannon.
Several senior administration officials and close advisers say Trump is wary of making a change right now particularly given increasing pressure from the congressional and FBI investigations into contacts between senior Trump associates and Russian officials. And they note that Trump – even with a reputation for being a “you’re fired” TV character – doesn’t like firing people. ”I don’t think it’s like an immediate thing,” one person said. “The president doesn’t hate Reince,” said another friend of Trump who also often talks to Priebus. “It’s not like, this guy has to get out of here this very minute.”
Yet the drama is weighing on Priebus. He is sometimes obsessed with his media coverage, several people close to him say, and spends hours some days worrying about it. He will even review posts on Twitter that mention his name and urge White House officials to push back against them.
He has begun asking people who speak to the president what they are talking to Trump about. He has asked associates to say positive things about him to Trump about him. One friend described him as “tired, just tired.” He has told people he hopes to make it through the year.
Priebus has told others that he knows changes need to be made in the West Wing, but that it is difficult to control Trump, who built his career and brand on making brash decisions.
“He does not have the ability to walk in the Oval Office, close the door and tell Trump what he wants to hear,” said Whipple.
Even Priebus critics admit Trump makes the job difficult for him – and would be unlikely to accept a strong chief of staff, ruling out a number of people who might want the job.
“If Reince is no longer chief of staff, it has nothing to do with the way Reince ran the White House,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide. “It has not much to do with his relationship with Trump. It has everything to do with that nothing is getting through the legislature and Trump isn’t happy with it.”
Trump has asked a number of associates what they think of replacing Priebus with his top economic adviser Gary Cohn, who is close to Kushner and who, as a Democrat, would have a hard time wrangling Republicans on Capitol Hill. Cohn is a hard-charging personality viewed as willing to impose significant discipline on a West Wing staff known for navigating around Priebus and free-lancing outside their main policy areas.
But Cohn, along with other outside candidates, is likely to demand assurances from Trump before accepting the chief of staff job. Those assurances would include the promise of real authority to control access to the president and set the policy and messaging agenda for the White House.
David Urban, another frequently-mentioned candidate, is a Republican lobbyist who may be skeptical of joining the administration. He has talked with senior administration officials about potentially joining the administration, sources say. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Other rumored candidates – including top Blackstone executive Wayne Berman, Trump friend and donor Tom Barrack and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – are no longer seen as likely replacements, West Wing aides say. Though, as with almost any decision in Trump world, that could change in a minute.