HH: Joined this morning by an old friend, Reince Priebus, former White House Chief of Staff, maybe the most successful Republican National Committee chair of the last 30 years. Reince, welcome back, good to see you.
RP: I’m glad to be here, Hugh, thank you.
HH: Let me begin with the breaking news, and then we’ll go to the deep dive into the first year of the Trump presidency. The breaking news is that in Friday’s New York Times, it was alleged that you had talked to the President and urged him to fire John Kelly. Did that happen?
RP: Well, that wasn’t what was in the article. The article simply said that we had talked about it, and we didn’t.
HH: Oh, you did not?
RP: No. The President has never complained to me about General Kelly. And on top of it, I would never, number one, he didn’t do that. But number two, I would never bring up such a subject. I’m not going to sit around and talk about the management of the West Wing. I don’t, that just didn’t happen. I like John Kelly a lot. I think he’s an American hero. It’s a huge job. And I have to say, you know, I used to say you know, what everyone, what anyone thinks the job is, just multiply it by 50.
RP: And not that it, but it is a huge job. And when a four-star combat Marine says it’s the hardest job he’s ever had in his life, I think that means something. But no, the President doesn’t complain to me about any of those sorts of things.
HH: Did you as chief of staff know about the charges about Roger Porter?
HH: And so how is it that two chiefs of staff would not know? I know the answer to this, but why don’t you explain how two chiefs of staff would not know about these charges.
RP: Yeah, well, I don’t know about, I don’t know about anything after I left.
RP: But you know, after six months, it’s not, it’s not bizarre to have a group of people that don’t have their security clearance, yet.
RP: So I mean, I had left after six months. It didn’t rise to a level of hey, this is what the situation is here. Now we had other clearance issues where people hit a brick wall and they weren’t going to go in to get clearance. Some people smoked pot, you know, things like that. But as far as this particular issue, I was as surprised as anyone when that Daily Mail article came out. I didn’t know Rob that way. He was always what everyone described.
HH: Oh, I said Roger. I said his dad. It’s Rob Porter. Yeah, I said Roger.
RP: And what I believe, no, right.
HH: Let me go back to when I was back in the White House days with Reagan. Young lawyers reviewed these raw, unredacted FBI files. And if they don’t flag it for the deputy counsel, then it doesn’t get flagged for the White House Counsel, then it doesn’t get flagged for the chief of staff. Do you think that’s what happened here?
RP: No, I just think they take time. You know, you get a temporary security clearance. Just to give you an idea, I was probably one of the very first files to be sent in, I think, maybe of anyone in the West Wing.
RP: At least I’m darn close. I got my temporary at the end of December. I don’t think I got my actual permanent until April.
RP: And I have nothing. I’ve got no liens. I’ve got no divorces. I’ve got…
HH: You’re from Wisconsin. You’re boring.
RP: I don’t have any lawsuits other than a few, maybe I got a couple of speeding tickets a few years ago.
RP: But that’s it. It just takes a long time.
HH: Yeah. Let me turn to the Special Counsel investigation. You sat down with them, and you talked with Chuck about it last week. How long did you sit down with him for? What was that like?
RP: Well, I can’t really talk about it, and I don’t want to do that.
RP: So I don’t want to be rude to you, but I’m not going to talk about anything that has to do with the investigation. I can’t. I think you can understand.
HH: Oh, I get that. Was it relaxed? Was it adversarial?
RP: They were, no, I think they were, they were professional. They were polite. I never felt, it wasn’t something where I was being trapped.
HH: Okay, and there’s a new report this morning that Steve Bannon has been picked up on the Carter Page surveillance. I want to talk to you about this Carter Page FISA warrant in a second. But would you be surprised if you turned up on surveillance tape somewhere? Would that shock you?
RP: I guess I would, I don’t know if I’d be shocked, but you know, I don’t know to the extent of what was going on in that investigation, I was the RNC chairman, obviously, through the entire campaign. I’ve never met any of these folks that people are talking about like Carter Page or George Papadopoulos. I don’t know who they are. I’ve never met them, at least as far as I can possibly remember.
RP: So that’s the extent of it for me.
HH: Are you, it is reported you’re still talking to the President a lot.
RP: Well, no, I wouldn’t say a lot. I talk to him. I care a lot about him and what he wants to do. But you know, it’s not my day to day life anymore.
HH: Are you still talking to Steve Bannon?
RP: I do once in a while. It’s been maybe a week or so since I’ve talked to him last, but not a lot of time.
HH: There are concerns. Everyone knows you’re getting along well with the President, but there are concerns that the President and Steve Bannon are not getting along, and therefore Steve Bannon may have very creative narratives to tell the Special Counsel. Do you share those concerns?
RP: No, because I think that in the end, people are going to be honest with the Special Counsel. I mean, that’s the whole point. I don’t believe that. I think that when you sit down with the FBI, there is an aura of this is a serious discussion we’re going to have, and there’s no time for playing games. So I don’t see it.
HH: Now I want to talk to you about the FISA warrant on Carter Page. One last question about John Kelly. Did he make a mistake? And is it a firing mistakes, because I think more than two chiefs of staff in the first year would be a disaster.
RP: No, I don’t know what anyone really knew after I left, but you know, it’s hard to say, because I don’t know what was discussed. I don’t know the specifics. What I know, though, is the Rob Porter that we all knew in the West Wing.
RP: It was one of those sort of moments where people just said that you’re kidding me. It can’t, it can’t, we’re not talking about Rob Porter, are we, the Eagles scout, Rhodes scholar, Harvard undergrad?
RP: I mean, it was an incredible resume, but he was also very meek and polite and diligent. So I’m not saying that’s an excuse for anything. I don’t want anyone out there watching this thinking I am. I’m not. I’m just telling you….
HH: You’re shocked.
RP: It was very surprising.
HH: Yeah. Let me go, then, to the question at hand and the Carter Page FISA warrant. Devin Nunes was on my radio show this week, and I’ll paraphrase. He said Hillary Clinton bought information from Russians that she then fed to the FBI for the purposes of getting a warrant on the Trump campaign. That’s pretty close to exactly what he said. What do you make of this story, the other Russia story?
RP: I make of it, it’s all, it’s a political mess. It was a political mess from the very beginning. I mean, it’s, and there’s no way when people say you know, we can’t insert politics into what’s happening with these investigations, the problem is it is political.
RP: And you can see it. People are people. And you see the texts between the two folks…
RP: …having an affair, politics is everywhere. And as much as we want to believe out there that somehow there is this iron wall between what happens in the DOJ or the intelligence community or you know, what, you name it, the EPA or the hall of Congress, it’s all political. And it’s impossible to subtract it. So for people to believe that there isn’t a political piece is total naiveté. And so it’s troubling. I think it’s really awful the way that this is all playing out. I also, but I also agree that it doesn’t, it doesn’t taint the work, I believe, that Bob Mueller is doing on the other piece of the investigation. So I think that can, I think you can have both. I think that can go on in an honest or honorable way, and you can be outraged by the fact that some of this may have been completely perpetrated because of politics.
HH: Yeah, Secretary Clinton told me when I interviewed her on my radio show you can hold two thoughts – one that it’s good that Mueller’s doing his job, and it’s terrible that the FBI, a handful of FBI people acted this way, a couple of resignations at the Department of Justice as well.
RP: But I do, but I think people need to understand that when you, we can have this sort of intelligence conversation on a Saturday morning about these things.
RP: But when you’re living it every day in the West Wing, and the President has to put up with this 24/7, and he hears that this entire situation that now he’s embroiled in, and others like you know, all of us that worked there, may have been started based on a political document paid for by political people. It’s infuriating, and people have to understand that I think the President has a right to be infuriated.
HH: You know, last week when you were talking with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, you told him you’d never heard talk of firing Mueller. But the obvious follow up from me a week later is what’s your recommendation to the President? Mine is do not fire Mr. Mueller. Don’t do that. That’s a nightmare. What’s your advice?
RP: No, that would be my advice as well. I wouldn’t fire Bob Mueller. But that presumes that the President needs that advice. He doesn’t need that advice…
RP: …because he’s not going to do it.
RP: And he never, I mean, at least to me, like I said, I never felt that that was the situation I was in.
HH: When you worked with the President, as you continue to talk with him, he has a unique decision making style, which is very inclusive of lots of points of view.
HH: He’s on the phone a lot. As chief of staff, that’s got to be maddening. On the other hand, the results are pretty good.
RP: Well, that’s the point. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that the President, his entire life, starting with a little bit of seed money from his dad to build up a 30 or a 100, or excuse me, a $10 billion dollar operation, to being the guy to go down the escalator, and maybe one of a few people in America that thought he was going to be president was himself, and he did it pretty much by himself. Now what he does do, though, is he brings people around him a desk like this. Say it’s an issue like trade. He has no problem, and I think he enjoys the sort of Socratic method of learning and talking things through, having complete opposite people on a particular piece of policy matter and letting them argue it out. It was not uncommon for us to argue over trade or argue over what we’re going to do about the Paris Agreement, or argue about whatever that item may have been, a regulation, taxes, ISIS, you name it. You hear all these reports. The media focuses in on that side of the equation, which is the decision making and the tweets.
HH: And the tweets. And the tweets.
RP: But it’s that type of decision making that is creating these great results. So what I would suggest is people stop focusing in on the process, which works for the President, and it’s worked for him his entire life, and focus in on well, what then was the final decision? And what was the final decision? Regulations, Judge Gorsuch, more federal judges than anyone in history than maybe except for Washington. You have ISIS almost eradicated. It’s very difficult to actually come up with a list of things that anyone could have possibly done in his first year than President Trump.
HH: We’ll come back and talk about that after the break. Very quick exit question, though. Do you expect another Supreme Court vacancy?
RP: I do, just by the sheer possibility, by the game of possibilities. But we’ll see.
HH: Were there whispers in the White House before you left that be ready?
RP: Not quite, but I do think there’s going to be some vacancies.
HH: We’ll be right back. More with Reince Priebus when we turn to politics and the Reince reforms at the RNC that got Donald Trump on track to become president. Stay tuned.
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HH: With me is the former White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, his second extended interview, the first was on Meet the Press, since leaving the White House. Reince, a lot of people know about your time in the White House, but before that, as chairman of the RNC. You led the reform effort that organized the primaries into a coherent calendar, which moved up the convention, too. It was originally going to be June, and then the Cavs won the title, so it had to be July.
HH: And then, of course…
RP: You’re happy about that.
HH: I am. The twelve debates, of which I participated in four of them, and those debates actually changed American politics forever. Did you have any idea when you organized the debate calendar, and insisted that there be a conservative presence on the stage, that you were in fact setting a new set of rules that would be ideal for Donald Trump?
RP: No, I think, I thought it was going to be ideal for showcasing really great candidates. It was going to be ideal for putting the party committee in front, and giving the party come leverage over the actual nomination process of the party. That used to be, many, many, many years ago, delegates would run in particular states. The delegates would get elected by people in their states within the party. And the party infrastructure would elect a delegate, and the delegate would go to the convention and choose the nominee of the party of which they’re a delegate from. Somewhere along the way, the party decided you know what? We could get a lot more people involved in the process if we bind the decision of the delegate to the overall decision of people in the state, so get more people involved. Well, that created an entire complication which decentralized the power of a political party. Now if you were, excuse me, if you were a member of the NRA, you would vote for the president of the NRA, but you would be a member of the NRA, and you’d pay money.
RP: Well, in our party, we got to the point where people that weren’t really involved in the party were picking the nominee of the party.
RP: And I tried to do things to bring that control back to the Republican Party.
HH: Very successful things, things that got President Trump in a position to win the amazing upset. However, now Tom Perez is sitting over at the DNC. And by the way, who do you have on your radar as the top two or three Democrats you’re worried about in 2020?
RP: You know, I’m not really worried about much of any of them.
HH: Come on.
RP: It’s hard to tell. No, it’s hard to tell. I mean, if Vice President Biden’s going to run, I think he would be…
RP: He would be formidable. Look…
HH: Kamala Harris gets people cheering.
RP: I think a lot of the others are kind of, I don’t find that bench to be incredibly strong, and that’s what they have. They have a bench that is sort of like a mile wide and an inch deep. You know, they’re decimated in governors, they really have no leadership in the U.S. Senate. It’s very difficult for a House member to come out of nowhere, so…
HH: So here’s the problem. They have a mile wide bench, and they all want to run for president.
HH: And I mean, we’re looking at Oprah and Mark Cuban, all the way over to Tim Ryan, my Congressman…
RP: I would suspect not so much Joe Biden. I would suspect something that we’re not thinking about, someone in business, someone maybe from Hollywood. There’s, I would think it’s going to be something that’s not yet discovered.
HH: Bob Iger from Disney. Okay, so Perez is sitting over there, and he’s got no money, and people are leaving, and they’re internally divided. It’s not unlike when you took over the RNC from Michael Steele. There was a mess, and that you had to create. What’s your advice to Tom Perez specifically about debates, because they have changed the way that it works. People are going to want a lot of them, and there are going to be a lot of Democrats. Would you advise them to have a committee to cut people out who have no path to the nomination? Or would you do it the Reince way, which is everyone gets a shot who is above 2%?
RP: Well, first of all, just real quick, just to say something polite, which is right, you know, Michael Steele, I thought, had just an enormous amount of God-given talent. He’s really smart and sharp.
RP: And he did, we did win the House when he was chairman.
RP: So he gets the kudos for that. As for Perez, you know, I think their superdelegates is a disaster. They need to get rid of superdelegates completely. I think they need to obviously control the debate calendar, make sure they’re having some say over who the panelists are. And take, you know, be a little bit of an authoritarian on the process, because it’s actually the process of the parties that control who should be the nominee of the party. And if there’s no value of the party, and the party doesn’t have anything to give, then the party loses its way. The other piece that you have to do which we did at the RNC is we built up a, you know, I don’t remember the exact number, but over six years probably over a billion dollars of infrastructure that we were able to give the winner of our 16 person debate and primary situation. So unlike the Democrats, we at the RNC built hundreds of millions in data and voter identification, turnout, a lot of boring things that people don’t like to talk about, but it’s important that the party built it. And then whoever wins that race plugs into it.
HH: They get the keys.
RP: That’s what President Trump did. Now President Trump has, as far as a candidate in the electorate that we were in, he was actually the perfect candidate for the situation we were in at that time. But what he also had was a national party that was basically the guts and the nuts and bolts of the operation that he could plug into.
HH: You know, Reince, he would also, he would also go on any show. I interviewed him 16 times.
RP: That’s right.
HH: And why has he stopped that? I mean, he still tweets. Why has he stopped engaging, because he very rarely loses those engagements, but he does not do long form interviews anymore.
RP: I would say, one thing about the President that he could do better than anyone is take an issue on and put it to bed. And he did that in the West Wing. And we would be relieved for a number of days after the President decided I’m going to do a press conference. I feel it. Let’s do a press conference today. I’m going to deal with these issues. And when he did, everything went away for a while. And he was good at that. Personally, it’s not my business anymore, but if I were him, if I was advising him, I would say do more media, because I think he’s really good at it.
HH: More media? How about more tweets/less tweets?
RP: You know, look, I’ve been on both sides of this issue with the tweets. And initially, I’m a straight-laced guy. You know what I mean? I’m a traditionalist.
HH: You and I are both Mid-Westerners, Rob Portman Republicans, Paul Ryan.
RP: I would be the guy…
RP: Don’t tweet this, do tweet that, don’t this, don’t that. And others chimed in, even the First Lady and the family. But you know, at the end of the day, he goes through the whole campaign, he’s listening to people like me saying don’t tweet this, don’t tweet that, and he tweeted it, and he won.
HH: And he won.
RP: And so I’m at a place now on the whole tweeting issue that I think more or less, people like me were wrong, and people like him were right.
HH: Last question is about the cabinet. You were there through the transition. It is the most conservative cabinet of my lifetime. My son works for Scott Pruitt, so I always have to declare that. But Scott’s a friend, Rick Perry’s a genius at, you know, we want every part of energy going. I think Ryan Zinke helping out parts of the coast is a good thing. Are you happy with the way cabinet government has turned out under Donald Trump? He does seem to actually to have reverted to cabinet government.
RP: Yeah, I mean, and he empowers the secretaries as well. He really doesn’t micromanage what they want to do, who they want to hire. And he lets them govern. I think that the cabinet is something that you know, personally, I’m very proud of. I took, I was, I played a part in that.
RP: And I thought if you look at the people that he’s put in place from top to bottom, it is really the cream of the crop.
HH: Any doubt in your mind that he is running for reelection in 2020?
RP: No, of course he’s going to run. There’s no chance…
HH: And any doubt in your mind that Mike Pence will be his colleague on that ticket?
RP: I have no doubt about that, and I think he’s, you know, look, you see the approval numbers are coming back up. And by the way, I always remind people, they always love to talk about his approval number. Oh, it’s 38%, it’s 40%. On Election Day, it was 37, and he won. And now he’s in the low-40s to mid-40s. I think some had him even higher than that. The point is, is that in December, he was at 32. One had him at 42, and I think Rasmussen or something had him at 47 or 48.
HH: Yeah, he’s getting close.
RP: I mean, look, I think he’s going to be very tough to beat, because I think the economy’s going to be strong, and people are going to see what’s happening.
HH: I think you’re right. Reince Priebus, thank you for coming in and joining me very much. I will be right back.
End of interview.