Former White House Chief of Staff and Chair of the RNC Reince Priebus joined me this morning:
HH: Joining me from the airport where he’s about to board a plane, Reince Priebus, former Chief of Staff of the White House, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Good morning, Reince, great to have you on.
RP: Hey, good morning, Hugh. Nice to hear your voice.
HH: Now we go back to the transition. You know everybody in this administration. You worked with, for example, with Mike Pompeo, very closely when he was offered the job at CIA. What do you think of Director of CIA going to State?
RP: Well, I think Mike Pompeo is a brilliant choice, and here’s why. It’s not so much because, you know, he was number one at West Point, and he went to Harvard, all those things put aside. He’s a person who understands and works well with the President. The President respects him. The President trusts him. And that’s good for our country, you know, and I told a couple of people, even a couple Democrats, that Pompeo at the State Department is good for America. It’s good for the President. And so I’m a big fan of the move.
HH: All right, now against that backdrop, there are all these reports of chaos, that’s the favorite word in the West Wing, and you stay in touch with your successor, John Kelly. You stay in touch with General McMaster. You stay in touch with the President. Is there chaos in the West Wing? And do we expect departures this week?
RP: Well, you know, here’s how I would put it. Number one, no, I don’t think it’s chaos. But what I think it is, is the President of the United States has a decision making process that is different than what the mainstream media’s used to. And so they view the concept of putting, you know, a guy like Gary Cohn and a guy like Wilber Ross, and a guy like Bob Lighthizer as the USTR, the trade representative, who have very, very different views on things such as trade. So what the President does is he puts divergent views together, sometimes people that don’t agree with each other on almost anything, puts them right in front of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and says okay, fellas, give me your best shot. And they come in with their A game, and they’re all total experts in the field, and so they’re not, you know, they didn’t just get in the West Wing, you know, out of nowhere. So they walk in, they argue it out, they fight it out. The media reports all along, though, on the fight. Today, this one doesn’t like this one. Today, someone yelled at someone else. Today, this one might be leaving because he’s mad. And so that is what is interpreted as chaos. But then the President makes a decision. And what I always try to remind people is forget about the process of the decision making, because the President likes learning from division. Forget about the process, but look at the decisions. And look at them, Hugh, and I know you talk about them every day, and you tweet about them every day. You look at the courts. You look at ISIS. You look at regulation. You look at the tax cuts. The decisions, if you’re a conservative or a Republican or maybe even someone close to the line or in the middle, on the decisions, you cannot possibly be happier. So I say forget about the process, look at the decisions. Sorry for the long answer.
HH: No, that’s a good answer, and it lets us dig into the General McMaster question in particular. There are so many reports that the President doesn’t get along with General McMaster. Now I’ve interviewed General McMaster. He’s got a command of the world second to none, equaled by General Kelly, General Mattis, and now Mike Pompeo. There’s a great national security team – Dan Coats and Mike Rogers.
HH: It’s a great national security team. Does the, you’ve watched the President interact with General McMaster. Do they get along?
RP: Yeah, they get along. And they get along, and McMaster is not just an American hero, but he’s super smart when it comes to our place in the world. You and him would get along beautifully, because you’re both totally into all of the details with and in regard to our place in the world and our, in the diplomatic relationships that we have around the world, and how complicated they are. And General McMaster is every bit of an intellectual as he is a warrior. And so it’s a unique combination that you know, you can only get with a three and four star general like that that has achieved almost every goal of their entire life. And so I think we’re lucky to have the General, and, you know, again, it goes back to this other issue, though. Is arguing about what we need to do in Iraq, what we need to do in Afghanistan, having people in the room that don’t agree with each other on troop levels, the people that don’t agree with each other on some issues in regard to strategy, to me, personally, I think most people would hope that we have real debates in the West Wing over things such as troop deployments. And so not everyone’s on the same page, and the President wants people to argue it out and bring their A game. That, to me, is, I think it’s one of the good things that’s going on in Washington, D.C, not a negative.
HH: But now, McMaster does need to move if he wants a fourth star. The NSA advisor job is not a three star job. Do you expect him to move on soon?
RP: I don’t, I, honestly, Hugh, I don’t know. I think that guessing game is sort of like, you know, putting a couple dollars on the lottery. I just don’t know.
HH: Okay, and what about the Chief of Staff? He’s got our job. John Kelly could not be more different than Reince Priebus, but do you think he is going to last in that job a long time?
RP: I hope so. I hope he does, because I think that he’s doing a good job, and I also think that he’s good for our country, he’s good for the President. You know, it is a tough job. And you know, there was a quote the other week about something I said about, it was attributed to chaos being 50 times what people think it is. It’s not what I said. What I said was the job of chief of staff was everything you think it is multiplied by 50. And when a four star combat Marine says it was the toughest job he’s ever had in his life, that tells you something. It is a tough job. And the President’s not a cakewalk. And I love him, but again, it’s not an easy job. But it’s one that I think you feel blessed to do every day, even though it’s really, really tough.
HH: The President’s not a cakewalk, and when he tweeted about Special Counsel Mueller, he lit off a volcano in the news. What’s your advice to him about Special Counsel Mueller?
RP: Well, look, I mean, I always think, you know, you have to err on the side of caution. You know, I think that these folks have been professionals, have no problem with the job they’re doing. But here’s the other thing. It’s an administration appointment. I mean, it is an appointment from the Trump administration’s folks at the DOJ. So you know, it’s not an appointment from Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. And so I think it’s important for us to remember that cooperating and laying all our cards on the table is something that we need to do every day, and I think it’s good for the country for this thing to get over with as soon as possible. But I would also imagine that Bob Mueller and his team understand that as well. So I would just stay away from it, if it was me.
HH: Now you also…yeah, stay away. I agree.
RP: Let it go.
HH: Don’t bother the Special Counsel. You brought in, or helped bring in, Dr. Shulkin, or held him over from the previous administration. A lot of people think he needs to be replaced. One name I’ve been using is Jim Talent. A lot of people look over at Justice and say the Attorney General can’t run Justice this way. Your advice, without specifics, if he’s going to make a bunch of moves to, you know, bring in the second season of the Trump presidency, should he make them all at once? Or should he parcel them out over a long period of time?
RP: Oh, boy, I think that’s six in one, and half a dozen of the other, Hugh. I don’t know. I think, you know, there’s a good case to be made that you figure out everything you want to do right off the bat and get it done in one big day, and let all the narratives and all of the supposed made up drama take its toll immediate and once and for all. But you know, there is something to be said for an occasional change and tweak here and there. It just depends on how deep and how far the administration wants to go. If they want to go big and they want to make, you know, five or six changes, then I’d say do them all at once. But if it’s a couple things here and there, then I just think you let nature take its course and you pull one trigger at a time.
HH: All right, two last questions. One, Rex Tillerson didn’t fill any of the jobs. It was like Margaret Peterlin and at that was it. What’s your advice to Mike Pompeo on filling jobs and moving rapidly, and supporting people like Rick Grenell, who’s been nominated forever and not gotten moved through? What’s the advice to the Secretary of State-designate?
RP: Yeah, good point about Rick. I would move fast. I would get all your appointments done as soon as you can. Obviously, you have to make the right choices, but I also think there’s a lot of people in the queue right now, and I think the Senate needs to get pushed, and I think Mike Pompeo needs to, you know, get on that, and I think he will, and then fill all those positions in the State Department. We felt like, you know, on, for early on, we were getting killed with all of these stories about how we weren’t filling positions, and we were behind. You know, other than the State Department, we were right on track with Bush 43 back in 2000. We were right on track. But we couldn’t quite get it all done, and I think that Mike’s got a great opportunity now to get the State Department on the fast track.
HH: And they’ve got to pick a place for the RNC Convention. I think they’ve got to go back to Cleveland for good luck, Reince.
RP: Oh, no, not this again.
RP: Not this again. Oh, no.
HH: What’s your, I think they’ve got to go back. It’s good luck. What’s your advice on picking…you don’t want them to go…
RP: You started on me, I still remember the day you started on Cleveland. And the first time you said that we should go to Cleveland, I was just being nice to you thinking oh, yeah, okay, we’ll do that, no problem, Hugh. And then we ended up there, and it was a fabulous place. And we learned something about cities like Cleveland. You’re better off going into a city like that and owning it than being swamped in the bigness of a metropolitan place – Philadelphia or New York.
HH: And there’s something to be said for superstition, right?
RP: Yes, there is, my friend.
HH: All right. Reince Priebus, safe travels to you today.
End of interview.