Whie House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus joined me this morning:
HH: Joined now by the White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus. Mr. Priebus, welcome back, always great to have you.
RP: Hugh, it is an honor to be back on the show. I enjoy it, and nice talking to you.
HH: Well, I told your team I wanted to start by asking you to please put to bed the idea of knife fights in the White House. I hear this all the time that Priebus and Bannon are at each other’s throats, and there are intrigues and palace coups. What’s it like working around the West Wing today?
RP: Well, first of all, it just isn’t the case. I mean, and if anyone’s worked here, they know that Steve and I are very close, and it’s actually the opposite. And it’s something that is extremely normal, and nothing like what you would read in some of these articles. So I would just say I think we’ve got a great team. I think the President’s put around him a lot of smart people that have accomplished a lot of big things in their life. And everyone works together to get to consensus, and at the end of the day, it’s about advancing the President’s agenda. And if you look at the things that the President’s done, and you actually go through the list of executive orders and actions and state visits, and I’ve heard you talk about it. It’s incredible. I mean, just starting from TPP to deregulation, and it is, it’s an honor to be here, and I would tell people that the sort of palace intrigue stuff isn’t anything unusual, either. I mean, when you had, you know, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett or Andy Card and Karl Rove, and I mean, you do get these sorts of stories.
HH: Oh, I was there when Don Regan and the “three blind mic”e were running around. Yeah, that was…
RP: Right. I mean, you had that, too – Meese and…
HH: Baker and Deaver.
RP: Baker, Deaver, I mean, this stuff is not unusual.
HH: So Mr. Priebus, there’s a book out on White House chiefs of staff. It’s an incredible role. How much are you seeing the President today? I told your team I wanted to know about your daily routine.
RP: My daily routine? You know, it’s sort of, well, I have an 8:00 meeting coming up where senior staff get together. I usually talk to the President before my 8:00, and then usually meet with him on the calendar before he starts his tick tock throughout the day. But generally, you know, if it’s something I have to be in, I’m in it. Otherwise, I’m back running the operation, whether it be the, you know, planning for future events and pre-planning with communications, or working with, you know, Mick Mulvaney on the budget, or you know, coming occasionally in and out of the Oval Office and making sure things are running smoothly, making sure that you know, decisions are done through staff secretary and making sure that the right people are in the room to brief the President. And these are all things that a chief of staff has to do. I mean, it’s sort of a care and feeding of the President, but it’s also sort of the strategic planning for the future and making sure that all those things are being done in a timely way.
HH: You mentioned Mick Mulvaney. I saw the director at Meet the Press this weekend, and Loren Thompson over at Forbes has written a story that said the White House budget director has effectively sabotaged chances for a big Defense increase, especially the 350 ship Navy. Are we going to get even one new ship in this budget?
RP: Well, absolutely. I mean, if you look at an $84 billion dollar increase in budget, in Defense spending, when you look at the true increase in spending, it’s one of the largest increases in Defense spending, I think, in decades. And so the President put his heart and soul into making sure that Defense spending is actually increased. And I would say that the President would increase Defense spending even further if he could, there’s a Budgetary Control Act, as you know, that requires that for every dollar you put as an increase in spending, you have to find another dollar in other programs to decrease spending. And that’s just something that is required through the Budget Control Act. So the President will do everything he can, Hugh, and for the listeners to do even more. And we can’t have a Navy that’s, you know, the size of the World War I Navy. It’s not something that we believe in. It’s certainly not something that Mick Mulvaney believes in.
HH: So the 350 ship Navy, the President made that pledge in Philadelphia. Is he going to keep that pledge? Are we going to get a plan that tells us how to get there?
RP: Absolutely. There’s no question, Hugh, and I can tell you that General Mattis and our joint chiefs, Dunford and even Rex Tillerson’s involved in this, and H.R. McMaster. This is something that they believe in, but most importantly, it’s what the President believes in.
HH: Yup. A news story came up last night, Mr. Priebus. Evelyn Farkas, former assistant deputy secretary of Defense a few days ago was on with Morning Joe, and talking to Mika about the end game during the Obama years. She said this, the 30 second clip.
EF: …that the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about their, the staff, the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence. So I became very worried, because not enough was coming out into the open, and I knew that there was more….We have very good intelligence on Russia. So then I had talked to some of my former colleagues, and I knew that they were trying to also help get information to the Hill.
HH: So Mr. Priebus, I put two clips together.
RP: That’s incredible.
HH: React to that for me, would you?
RP: Well, I mean, I heard it late last night, so I mean I honestly, I talked to Sean a little bit about it late last night, Spicer, and then we’re going to be meeting on it this morning. It’s just an incredible statement, you know, and how, what it means and what she meant by that, and whether that has anything to do with the issues in regard to surveillance of Trump transition team members is something that we need to figure out this morning and throughout the day. But it certainly is an incredible comment, although I don’t want to add too much into it right now until I have an opportunity to sort of dig into it and figure out the scope of such a statement.
HH: Now I want to ask you about a personal reaction to it, though. It suggests that incidental collection of American conversation in intelligence, perhaps even in Russian to Russian conversation, was pushed out by Team Obama for the purposes of cornering you guys? I don’t know what, but…
RP: Yeah, I mean, a personal reaction is it’s, it’s almost, it’s so cavalier and unbelievable that I just wonder whether this person knows what the heck she’s talking about. I mean, you know what I’m saying?
RP: It’s sort of like one of these things it’s so much in your face that it makes you wonder what she means.
HH: Now do you think Director Comey will be interested in that statement?
RP: (laughing) Well, I hope that the intelligence committees and agencies are interested in all of these things. And the one thing I will tell you is that we want, we want this thing done thoroughly, and I will tell you that because we have got nothing to hide. I mean, there’s just nothing there. I’ve said it many times on television and elsewhere. There is no collusion. The issues in regard to contacts with Russia as outlined in the New York Times article about a month ago is total garbage, and we just, we would rather this move forward and be thorough and get on with it, because we’ve got nothing to hide. It’s ridiculous.
HH: Okay, to a substantive question. You’ve got your 8:00 meeting, so I don’t want to take you over that.
HH: But we’ve got the deputy secretary of Defense, deputy secretary of State, circuit judges. I told your team I wanted, I want some names, Mr. Priebus. When are they coming?
RP: Well, we do have, I met with our presidential personnel person this morning, Johnny DeStefano. There is a lot of people in the queue, Hugh, but here’s the problem. You can have a hundred people in the queue for assistant secretaries and all of these departments. But once you name them, then you have to wait about 30 days to get clearance from the Office of Government Ethics before you actually make an announcement. So if you were in my office, I could show you a ledger, and all of the positions that have been filled, and we are ahead of where Bush was at, and ahead of where Clinton was at, but the problem is you can’t actually put a name out there in public that hasn’t cleared OGE, and that takes time. So if I named you today to the Ambassador to Malta, I couldn’t actually share your name and as a formal nomination to the Senate until I get your Office of Government Ethics clearance back, which takes, most of the time, at least 30 days. So what I’m telling you is most of all these people have been decided, but it’s waiting in the queue to make the announcements. And you’ve seen a couple of weeks ago, slowly but surely, these names are coming.
HH: That’s good news. And by the way, I will accept the ambassador to Malta. I like Malta.
RP: (laughing) Right. It’s a great post.
HH: But those 18 Circuit judges, one of them got named, great guy in the 6th Circuit. We’ve got 17 more. Last question, when do we see those names, because they’re so important with Justice Gorsuch looming, but we’ve got to fill up the second tier of judges, too.
RP: No doubt about it, and Don McGahn has not just that, it’s U.S. Attorneys and all of them. I’ve got 103 judgeships between those that you’ve mentioned and the district courts. We’re moving as fast as we can, and Don McGahn and his team and Senator McConnell and others are doing a great job in organizing this, and I can promise everybody it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be quick.
HH: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, thanks for joining me. Please get the President to call in pretty soon. I would appreciate talking to him, too.
RP: You bet. Thank you, Hugh.
HH: Thank you, Reince.
End of interview.