Riding an Untamed Horse: Priebus Opens Up on Serving Trump

Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, at an event in the East Room last April.

WASHINGTON — The meeting, to say the least, had not gone well. Upset at a presidential dressing down, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had just left the White House vowing to resign. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, raced out of the building, found him in his car, banged on the door and implored him to come back inside.

The dramatic episode, described by Mr. Priebus in a soon-to-be-released book, proved a turning point in the relationship between President Trump and his attorney general, one that has shaped the administration ever since. More than any president in modern times, Mr. Trump has engaged in a high stakes public conflict with the Justice Department with extensive potential consequences.

Mr. Priebus’s account comes in a new chapter included in the paperback edition of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” by Chris Whipple, to be published on March 6 by Broadway Books. In interviews with the author, Mr. Priebus gave the first extended description of his tumultuous six months as Mr. Trump’s top aide. Vanity Fair posted an excerpt from the new chapter on Wednesday.

Mr. Priebus described a roller-coaster experience trying to impose discipline on one of the most undisciplined figures in American politics, a period that led to his unhappy departure last summer when Mr. Trump unceremoniously announced his resignation on Twitter just before Mr. Priebus disembarked Air Force One in the rain.

From rushing out ill-prepared executive orders to arguing over the president’s Twitter fixation, Mr. Priebus struggled as none of his predecessors had before in a job that is historically among the toughest in Washington. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” he said. Working for Mr. Trump, he added, was “like riding the strongest and most independent horse.” But he expressed admiration for Mr. Trump’s toughness and allowed that perhaps the president was right about Twitter.

The meeting that nearly led to Mr. Sessions’s resignation came last May shortly after the president fired James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director who was heading an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and any cooperation with Mr. Trump’s campaign. The dismissal of Mr. Comey, which Mr. Trump in an interview with NBC News linked to his unhappiness with the Russia investigation, triggered the appointment of a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to the ire of the president.

Mr. Trump was furious with Mr. Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and therefore losing control over it. Mr. Priebus’s account confirms and adds more detail to a New York Times report that the president berated Mr. Sessions in a meeting in the Oval Office, leading him to offer his resignation. Vice President Mike Pence and the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, were in the meeting, but Mr. Priebus was not.

“Don McGahn came in my office pretty hot, red, out of breath and said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’” Mr. Priebus recalled. “I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we just got a special counsel and Sessions just resigned.’ I said, ‘What? What the hell are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘That can’t happen.’”

Mr. Priebus bolted down the back stairway of the West Wing and out the door to the parking lot and found Mr. Sessions in the back of a black sedan with the engine running and about to leave. “I knocked on the door of the car and Jeff was sitting there and I just jumped in and shut the door and I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’” Mr. Priebus said. “And then he told me that he was going to resign.”

“I said, ‘You cannot resign. It’s not possible. We are going to talk about this right now,’” Mr. Priebus continued. “So I dragged him back up to my office from the car. Pence and Bannon came in,” he added, referring to Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, “and we started talking to him to the point where he decided that he would not resign right then and he would instead think about it.”

In the end, Mr. Sessions still drafted a resignation letter later that night and sent it to the White House. Mr. Priebus then went to work on Mr. Trump, arguing that he should not accept it. The president reluctantly agreed and Mr. Sessions stayed.

But that did not end the danger to the attorney general. A couple months later, Mr. Trump took his anger with Mr. Sessions public by telling The New York Times in an interview that he would not have appointed him attorney general had he known that he would recuse himself.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump once again demanded Mr. Sessions’s resignation. Citing a White House insider, Mr. Whipple’s book says the president told Mr. Priebus to act on his order. “Don’t try to slow me down like you always do,” Mr. Trump told him. “Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.”

Mr. Priebus, however, did try to slow him down and argued that pushing out Mr. Sessions would result in the resignations of the second- and third-ranking Justice Department officials too. “If I get this resignation, you are in for a spiral of calamity that makes Comey look like a picnic,” Mr. Priebus warned him. Again, Mr. Trump backed down.

But in other ways he did not. Mr. Priebus said he and other aides — including Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Hope Hicks, his communications director — regularly tried to convince Mr. Trump that his random, often incendiary Twitter messages were self-destructive.

“I told him, ‘Some of it’s not helpful, it causes distraction. We can get thrown off our message by tweeting things that aren’t the issues of the day,’” he said. But he did not get through. “Everybody tried at different times to cool down the Twitter habit — but no one could do it. Not me, Jared, Ivanka, Hope.”

Even the first lady weighed in when her husband addressed Congress. “After the joint session, we all talked to him and Melania said, ‘No tweeting,’” Mr. Priebus said. “And he said, ‘OK — for the next few days.’ We had many discussions involving this issue. We had meetings in the residence. I couldn’t stop it.”

The challenge was clear from the very start when Mr. Trump called him the morning after he was sworn in ranting about news coverage comparing the size of his inaugural crowd with that of his predecessor. Mr. Priebus tried to calm the new president, but ultimately had to go along. “Am I going to go to war over this with the president of the United States?” he asked himself.

Mr. Priebus’s inability to control Mr. Trump or even control who could wander in and out of the Oval Office caused consternation. Mr. Bannon told Mr. Whipple that John F. Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, complained to him about it. “He said to me, ‘It really upsets me that I walk in the Oval Office and it’s like Grand Central Station,’” said Mr. Bannon.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump would pick Mr. Kelly to replace Mr. Priebus. But Mr. Kelly, who initially earned plaudits for imposing more order on the West Wing, lately has come under fire for his management of the White House, particularly his handling of spousal abuse allegations that resulted in the resignation of the staff secretary, Rob Porter.

Mr. Priebus said that Mr. Trump has spent his whole life resisting the sort of organization that others would like to impose on him. “The idea that he was suddenly going to accept an immediate and elaborate staff structure regulating every minute of his life was never in the cards,” Mr. Priebus said. “At least not on Day 1.”

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