“Congratulations, you’ve got the worst f — -ing job in government.” That’s what James A. Baker III, Ronald Reagan’s consummate gatekeeper, tells every new White House chief of staff when asked for advice about the role. In the best of times, being White House chief is so challenging, the pace so grueling, the burnout so intense that the average tenure is a little more than 18 months. For President Donald Trump’s beleaguered gatekeeper, Reince Priebus — saddled with the herculean task of disciplining the 45th president — 18 months could feel like a lifetime.
Increasingly, it looks like he might not make it that long. By one account, Trump has given his chief a deadline of July 4 to fix a dysfunctional White House, upon penalty of dismissal (or, possibly, being shipped to Greece). Priebus’ defenders have boasted lately about newfound discipline, pointing to a recent “infrastructure week.” And Priebus himself has privately complained that the White House dysfunction would be twice as bad without him. But here’s the problem: No matter what Priebus does to try to save his job, it will amount only to tinkering around the edges, because the central stumbling block is Trump himself. Until the president learns that he cannot govern without giving someone the authority to tell him hard truths, there is little any chief of staff can do.
As it is, the Trump administration has been unable to perform the most basic tasks: issue enforceable executive orders, craft legislation, prioritize the president’s agenda or communicate a coherent message. In a normal White House, all of these functions flow from a strong and empowered chief of staff. But in the transplanted Manhattan real estate firm that is Trump’s West Wing — a scrum of advisers competing for the boss’ favor — Priebus has never been given the necessary authority as first among equals.
History is littered with the wreckage of presidencies whose chiefs lacked the power to execute the president’s agenda. Gerald Ford tried to run the White House himself, with his chief Alexander Haig sharing access with a half-dozen other aides. (Ford called this model “the spokes of the wheel,” with the president at the center.) Within a month, Ford realized it was a disaster and empowered his pal Donald Rumsfeld, a tough taskmaster, to run the West Wing with an iron fist. (Ford shipped Haig off to become supreme commander of NATO.)
As Bill Clinton’s chief Erskine Bowles told me for my book about chiefs of staff, The Gatekeepers, “When the chief does not have the confidence of the president, people can feel it, they can sense it, they can smell it — and the chief is nothing but an overblown scheduler.”
“If you want to govern,” says Reagan’s Baker, “you can’t have a dysfunctional White House. We’ve had some of those, and it’s a tragedy for the president and for the nation.”
With no real authority, Priebus has failed to help Trump govern. But the chief’s most important duty is to tell the president what he does not want to hear. Alas, far from a teller of hard truths, Priebus has become the president’s chief sycophant — gushing about what a “blessing” it was to serve the boss during last week’s surreal “Dear Leader” Cabinet meeting, a display of obsequiousness right out of The Manchurian Candidate. None of the 17 living White House chiefs who preceded Priebus, all of whom I have interviewed, would have taken part in such a charade. (And by the way, no competent chief would leave Trump alone in a room with his FBI director.) It is bad enough when a president shows contempt for democratic institutions, attacks the judiciary and the press, and lies on a daily basis. It is worse when he is enabled by a chief of staff who cannot say “no.”
With Trump in the cross hairs of a special counsel investigating his campaign’s Russia ties, an effective chief is more important than ever. The model for a besieged White House is Clinton’s. During the Monica Lewinsky affair, Bowles successfully contained the scandal by isolating it in a “war room”: Clinton dealt with the crisis when he had to and spent the rest of his time focused on governing. (The war room was run by deputy chief John Podesta, who was called the “secretary of s — -.”) But unlike Trump, Clinton made it clear that his chief spoke for him. As a result, Bowles was able to strike a deal with a hostile Congress for a balanced budget, and Clinton cruised to reelection. In the current White House, when push comes to shove, no one believes that Priebus speaks for the president, or even knows his constantly changing agenda.
One former chief told me that struggling presidents are like alcoholics: “Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom before they’ll admit the need for change.” It took Jimmy Carter two-and-a-half years to realize that he couldn’t run the White House without a chief of staff, and to reluctantly appoint Hamilton Jordan as his gatekeeper. A year-and-a-half into his first term, paralyzed by distractions like the Whitewater scandal and “Travelgate,” Clinton replaced his unempowered chief Thomas “Mack” McLarty with a tough disciplinarian named Leon Panetta. With help from his deputy Bowles (who would succeed him as chief), Panetta whipped the Clinton White House into fighting shape.
For Trump, oblivious to the lessons of history, governing effectively might no longer be a realistic option. Ronald Reagan understood something the 45th president does not: An outsider president needs an insider chief who is not afraid to tell him what he does not want to hear. Reagan found that person in Baker. But at this stage, how likely is it that Trump will suddenly delegate authority to someone with gravitas who can challenge his views? (And would such a person want Priebus’ job?) Now Trump’s best hope may be clinging to power and staving off the possibility of impeachment.
Toward that end, a chief can be a vital safeguard. Richard Nixon, who shared Trump’s obsession with enemies, turned the White House into a criminal enterprise. But it could have been even worse: Nixon’s chief, H.R. Haldeman, ignored many orders he considered illegal or beyond the pale — such as the president’s demand to fire-bomb the Brookings Institution and to wiretap everyone in the State Department. For Priebus, there may be a lot of days like that ahead. His next test could come if and when Trump decides to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel, or Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general and Mueller’s supervisor. Priebus’ response to such an order will seal his legacy, and likely Trump’s as well.
During Watergate, as the prosecutors closed in, Nixon paced the West Wing corridors, talking to the oil portraits and drinking heavily. As a precaution, his final chief, Alexander Haig, made sure Defense Secretary James Schlesinger would have to sign off if the president ordered a nuclear strike. Trump, who doesn’t drink, is already careening around the White House residence, shouting at the flat-screen TVs, cursing the “deep state” and tweeting his grievances to the world. The day may come when Priebus — or his successor — has to consider making sure that Jim Mattis, not Trump, is in charge of the nuclear codes. As I wrote in my book’s epilogue last December, “working next to the most powerful person in the world is an extraordinary privilege. For Trump’s chief, the job also carries a profound responsibility: He may well represent the thin line between the president and disaster for us all.”