President Donald Trump has set a deadline of July 4 for a shakeup of the White House that could include removing Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, according to two administration officials and three outside advisers familiar with the matter.
While Trump has set deadlines for staff changes before, only to let them pass without pulling the trigger, the president is under more scrutiny than ever regarding the sprawling Russia investigation, which is intensifying the pressure on his White House team.
Days after his return from his first foreign trip late last month, Trump berated Priebus in the Oval Office in front of his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie for the dysfunction in the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation.
Trump had been mulling bringing on Bossie as his deputy White House chief of staff and Lewandowski as a White House senior adviser with a portfolio that includes Russia, but told the two at that meeting that they would not be joining the White House until Priebus had a fair chance to clean up shop, according to the sources.
"I’m giving you until July 4," Trump said, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
"I don’t want them to come into this mess. If I’m going to clean house, they will come in as fresh blood."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in a statement on Sunday, refuted the idea that Priebus is facing a July 4 deadline. "Whoever is saying that is either a liar or out of the loop," Spicer said.
The Independence Day timeframe is timed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s deadline for passage of the health care bill through the chamber, which is also the start of the July 4th recess. Priebus took the brunt of the blame for the first failure to get a vote on the bill through the House, though the White House and Speaker Paul Ryan were ultimately able to secure its passage on a second try.
Talk of Trump’s July 4th deadline has made the rounds in the White House, but insiders and those close to the president are not holding their breath, given the perpetual talk that Priebus and other senior staffers are on the way out.
Trump’s first deadline for the firing of Priebus and many staffers that he brought on from the Republican National Committee was the 100-day mark.
The president then considered the idea of a Memorial Day shakeup when he returned from the foreign trip, and then most recently, July 4.
"It’s become comical that every holiday becomes a referendum on Reince," said one adviser to the president.
Sensing his impending doom even before he was criticized for fallout related to the firing of FBI director James Comey, Reince had joked, "I’ve got one foot on a banana peel and another out the door," according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
Deadlines haven’t been Trump’s only tactic for warning Priebus about his possible dismissal from the top of the administration.
Trump has openly floated the idea of other potential chiefs of staff, including former campaign aide David Urban and Wayne Berman, a Blackstone executive and advisor to Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman. Shortly after national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired in February, Trump invited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to the White House to help brainstorm about a new chief of staff, according to a White House official and outside adviser with knowledge of the situation.
But those who have known Trump for years, like his former campaign adviser Sam Nunberg, says the "You’re fired" persona associated with his "Apprentice" fame doesn’t match up with the man away from the cameras.
"I don’t think he likes to gratuitously fire people," said Nunberg, who was himself fired by Trump. "He wants to give people chances."
Another outside adviser who regularly speaks to the president said that Trump often threatens employees with the prospect of being fired to motivate them to do better, prompt them to resign, or to use them as an example for other staffers of what it can be like to be on his bad side.
"Trump will literally ask anyone who will listen, ‘Do you think Reince is doing a good job?’ or ‘Do you think that I should get rid of him?’" said that adviser, who has been asked that question by Trump.
Trump has yet to allow Priebus to choose a deputy to replace his former deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh. Walsh, a Priebus ally who worked with him at the RNC, was moved to an outside political group supporting Trump’s presidency after the first failure to pass the Obamacare repeal bill in March.
Former communications director Mike Dubke is a recent example of a White House staffer who was likely on the way out, but decided to get ahead of it by offering his own resignation, according to two White House officials. Dubke is now also helping out with the outside political group.
But a former campaign official noted that Priebus has been more effective in recent weeks in bringing order to the White House, despite the chaos outside, including Comey’s dramatic testimony before the Senate last week and Trump’s subsequent accusations against him.
"For the first time in the White House there’s true structure and discipline and order instilled, despite other distractions that might be out there," the former official said.
"They are getting down to the work of governing and moving the ball forward."
The White House just wrapped up “Infrastructure Week,” which provided a more focused message about Trump’s legislative agenda — even if it got largely drowned out by Comey’s testimony. And Trump is about to launch “Workforce Development Week,” in which he’ll travel to Wisconsin with his daughter Ivanka on Tuesday before delivering a “major policy speech” at the Department of Labor on Wednesday.
Roger Stone, a long-time confidant of Trump, recalled the firing of former Trump Organization CEO Edward Tracy and Trump Atlantic City Associates CEO Nicholas Ribis as two examples of when Trump made drastic personnel decisions. He likened the firings to Richard Nixon’s "Saturday Night Massacre" and called it "sudden."
He suggested that if and when Trump removes Priebus, it will be at an opportune time and with a landing pad.
"I think it would be fair to say, that with the entire Comey controversy, that’s a pretty good reason not to make a change at this exact moment," Stone said.
"Even when he lets him go, he’s not going to fire him. He’ll just give him another meaningless post. Because it’s politics and it looks better that way. There’s no reason to offend [Priebus’] friends in the party, so they’ll find a much more important job for him."
Priebus was brought on to the White House as a broker between Trump and the Republican establishment, specifically because of his close relationship with Ryan, who Trump has reportedly been disenchanted with in recent weeks.
Trump has blamed Priebus for leaks out of the White House that he believes have come from disgruntled RNC staffers whom Preibus brought into the West Wing, two administration officials and three outside advisers said. He also blamed Spicer, who was brought on at Priebus’ behest, for the lack of full-throated defense for his firing of Comey.
Many say Trump is unfairly placing the blame on Priebus, who faces an almost impossible task in trying to clean up a White House that has been laden with scandals relating to the Russia probe and the recent firing of Comey. But some point to disorganization even earlier than that, like the botched rollout of the healthcare bill and travel ban.
Trump has weighed the idea of moving Priebus to the role of ambassador to Greece, because of his Greek descent.
Trump told Bossie, “That Priebus will enjoy Greece," according to two people with knowledge of the comment.
Another source close to the administration said that Trump is aware of the optics of having a chief of staff leaving the administration too soon, and does not want Priebus to leave with a shorter tenure than any other White House chief of staff in history.
Harry S. Truman was the first president to have a chief of staff. The shortest-serving chief of staff since then was James Baker who served the last five months of the George H.W. Bush administration. Priebus has yet to reach his fifth month.
Nunberg argued that Trump may feel less comfortable shaking up the West Wing than he did making major changes to the Trump Organization.
"The White House is different. You can’t make quick changes, it’s an institution. Once someone is gone from there, they’re gone," Nunberg said.
"With that said, I think Reince will be there for the long haul."