“It’s almost like a puzzle mystery,” Priebus told me last summer. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but Priebus had a knack for homespun Wisconsin logic and, particularly, throwaway lines that would stick with me. I kept thinking of the puzzle mysteries that were playing out up and down Trump Tower, even though I showed up Friday without an appointment with Priebus and was confined to the lobby watching tourists ride up and down its now-famous escalators.
Priebus and I started talking last spring, as I was undertaking an article for this magazine about the seemingly fracturing state of the Republican Party. We kept in touch during the campaign, drank the occasional Miller High Life in his office and exchanged the sporadic email. Priebus was constantly going on TV saying he was certain Trump would win, even though he could read polls and precedents like everyone else. Still, he carried on as the chief carrier of Trump’s choppy water because that’s what a party chairman does: He smiles and spins and swallows his best-laid plans and audibles in the name of getting his nominee to the finish line. In a sense, Priebus, who squired his future wife to a local G.O.P. banquet on their first date, was the purest form of “political hack” that Trump would rail against as he bulldozed the G.O.P.
For his efforts during the campaign, Priebus gained the respect and gratitude of Trump loyalists — especially the fiercest loyalist, Donald J. Trump himself. He also won derision and ridicule. He was the subject of multiple stories in The Onion (“Reince Priebus Smiles, Shakes Head While Flipping Through Old Briefing on G.O.P.’s Plans for 2016”). His spirited TV defenses of Trump’s indefensible behavior drew him comparisons to “Baghdad Bob” (Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf), Saddam Hussein’s chief propagandist during the early months of the Iraq war, whose dubious predictions of imminent victory despite growing devastation all around made him an international laughingstock.
Long before Trump’s victory, back when it seemed like a long shot, I asked Priebus whether he would consider taking a job in a Trump administration — maybe a plum ambassadorship to somewhere. “Yes,” he said. “Wisconsin.” It was a throwaway answer to a throwaway question, which was laughably hypothetical anyway. But I never had a sense he had thought that much about a Trump administration job, besides possibly staying on as R.N.C. chairman whether or not the Donald prevailed.
For all his well-honed sheepishness, Priebus’s “just a kid from Kenosha, Wisc.” shtick belies a penchant for main stages, big-ticket rooms and high-level company. No shortage of Reince Priebus photos hang on the walls of the R.N.C.’s headquarters on Capitol Hill. He can be a little star-struck. He travels far and often to appear with candidates and party dignitaries at events where his presence is not necessarily required. Priebus was giddy when I spoke to him last spring as he prepared to attend a party for Time’s “100 most influential people” at Lincoln Center. We were on the phone, him walking through the lobby of the J.W. Marriott after a packed day of fund-raising. He sounded almost out of breath, less from exhaustion than what seemed like pure excitement. He told me how stoked he was to meet the golfer Jordan Spieth and the pro-wrestler-turned-actor the Rock. “Those are my top two,” Priebus said, especially the Rock. “I was a big pro-wrestling fan back in the day,” he added, noting his childhood admiration for Hulk Hogan and Mad Dog Vachon.
“Growing up in Kenosha, Wisc., being named to the Top 100 list is a pretty cool thing,” Priebus told me. At this point, I reminded him that no national party chairman would ever be named to the Top 100 except in extraordinary circumstances like these — and these were not particularly enviable ones.
The White House chief of staff’s post is arguably the most grueling job in Washington. It would be a burnout caldron under even the most predictable and disciplined of presidents. The average tenure of a White House chief of staff is about two years. Chief-of-staff jobs are so synonymous with thanklessness that a whole White House mythology surrounds them. “A good chief of staff is seldom popular,” Richard Nixon wrote in his 1990 memoir. “He must see that his chief gets the credit for the administration’s successes and must take the heat for its failures, even when they are not his fault. … He sometimes finds he doesn’t have many friends or supporters. Some may well call him just a prat boy.”
Some may call Priebus worse than that, and maybe already have. “Eat rocks” is an expression I’ve heard Priebus use a few times. It refers to being game to do what is needed: swallowing pride and taking one (or one thousand) for the team. If serving as R.N.C. chairman in 2016 has been the definition of eating rocks, Priebus’s next gig could go down even harder. “It’s 24-7 and never stops,” says Andy Card of the job he held in George W. Bush’s White House for more than five years, making him the second-longest-serving chief of staff in history. “My only area of angst on Priebus is that he has young children,” Card added, referring to Priebus’s son and daughter. Card has a few other concerns, one of which he says presented itself as soon as Trump “jumped all over” Megyn Kelly in the first Republican primary debate last year. “I’m thinking he would be a very hard president to work for if he doesn’t accept people speaking candidly to him.”
Card, who remains close to the Bush family and supported Jeb Bush for president, said the most important part of being a chief of staff is remembering that the “staff” part is far more important than the “chief” part. The president is by far his most important client. “I know of one chief of staff who failed because he was used to being a principal,” says Beth Myers, who served as Mitt Romney’s chief of staff during his four years as governor of Massachusetts. Priebus may not have that problem; he has been described with that most anodyne term for a Washington manager, the “consensus-builder.” But the White House chief of staff job is not so much about building consensus, Card told me. It’s all about serving the only principal who matters. “Chief of staff is the only job in Washington that really is defined by what the president’s idiosyncrasies are,” Card says. “Are they a morning person or an evening person? Disciplined or not? Do they suffer fools kindly or not?”
Priebus and the future president-elect had their dicey stretches, but their relationship grew as the campaign wore on. “Trump told me over and over again, ‘I trust Reince, I trust him,’ ” Priebus felt a need to tell me one day in his office last spring. They have both proved a lot of people wrong and were both aggressively underestimated along the way, if not outright dismissed. “I don’t buy this theory that unpredictable is necessarily bad,” Priebus said back when Trump was just his ruffian nominee and not yet his future boss.
You can’t appreciate the magnitude of Priebus’s changing loyalties until you consider just how much time, energy and dignity he expended before Nov. 8 trying to protect “the party” from being defiled by Trump. “Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and the party is the party,” Priebus used to tell me during the campaign. His ultimate allegiance was never in question. It was only six years ago that Priebus was happily ensconced in Kenosha as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Now he is being described as the consummate “Washington insider” in the Trump White House. He certainly has a line to Republican officials, namely his close friend and fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan.
But in the end, for Priebus, it’s now all about serving Trump, whose partisan impulses have proved flexible through the years — let alone his allegiance to the G.O.P. He ran, foremost, as a candidate of disruption. He fashioned himself a dealmaker. No doubt this could immediately run afoul of the conservative orthodoxy that has driven the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill. Trump also vowed to “drain the swamp” of the “bloodsucker” lobbyists and “blood money” fund-raisers, “political hacks” and various other parasites and hangers-on that have fattened themselves so spectacularly in Suck-Up City. In many ways, these are Priebus’s people. He has cavorted, fund-raised and campaigned with them for years, attended their crack-of-dawn donors’ breakfasts and mediated their disputes for the good of the party. He will most likely be looked upon as a chief emissary to the Capitol Hill, K Street and donor constituencies that Trump explicitly campaigned against — the chief of swamp.
For his part, Bannon has undertaken an incendiary mission over the years to upend the G.O.P. “establishment,” no one more so than Ryan (“a total and complete sellout of the American people,” Breitbart once declared, referring to Ryan’s stewardship of House appropriations). Bannon could occupy something of a mysterious Svengali role in the tradition of presumed all-powerful presidential whisperers like Karl Rove (for George W. Bush) and Valerie Jarrett (for Barack Obama). Both Rove and Jarrett represented wild cards in their respective White Houses and regular thorns in the sides of the various chiefs of staffs with whom they served.
But one notable difference is that neither Rove nor Jarrett made it his or her goal to obliterate the establishments that their presidents were trying to fold themselves into; nor did either have close ties to fringe elements of their parties, as Bannon has to the so-called alt-right and its main platform. Breitbart has been described as a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The site has posted articles linking undocumented immigrants to disease, declared in a headline that “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” promoted the Confederate flag (“Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage”) and referred to Gabby Giffords as “the Gun-Control Movement’s Human Shield.”
Bannon, who has tried to play down the most extreme elements of the alt-right in recent days, nonetheless viewed Trump as a kindred provocateur — a feeling that appears mutual. In one form or another, Priebus will try to integrate his establishment orientations with these disruptive forces operating all around him. Back during the campaign, Priebus used to refer admiringly to Trump as “an earthquake in a box.” In a separate conversation (and metaphor), he described his challenge to me as keeping Trump inside “the funnel.” Presumably this meant keeping him directed and contained, easier said than done, but still fascinating — and somewhat entertaining — to watch unfold in the campaign.
But with the presence of Bannon and the weight of Trump leading a nervous and divided nation, the challenge in the White House is considerably less entertaining to contemplate. Washington — like the presidency, certainly — creates its own distinct funnel that will shape Trump and everyone around him in inexplicable and perhaps dark ways.
As it turned out, Priebus never showed his face in the lobby of Trump’s building, at least when I was there. Like many key players inside Trump’s ragtag circle of collaborators, Priebus has gone largely dark since Election Day, holing up in Transition Tower with occasional hops down to Washington. He was not responding to my emails and was described by gatekeepers as “drinking from multiple fire hoses.”
So for now, my most recent and enduring image of Priebus is watching him beaming and red-faced and a bit stunned on TV in the early hours of Nov. 9. A triumphant Trump had just called him to the podium, declared him a “superstar” and compared him to Secretariat. “But I’ll tell you, Reince is really a star,” Trump exulted. “Reince, come up here. Where is Reince? Get over here, Reince.”
Trump offered him the mike and insisted he say something. There could be no more of a pinnacle moment for an avowed Republican Party animal who used to listen to Newt Gingrich speeches in the car as a teenager. He would soon go from being one of the most dumped-on figures in American politics to one of the most sucked-up-to insiders in a White House of insurgents.
“Ladies and gentleman, the next president of the United States, Donald Trump,” was all Priebus could muster. There were worse images to dwell on before the drama intensified and puzzle mysteries inevitably presented themselves. Who knew what the night’s result would lead to or what “normal” would become for any of the Trumpians soon, or any of us?