Six years ago, a humble party hack from Kenosha, Wisconsin, took on the thankless job of turning around the Republican Party. As he exits the White House—battered, bruised, and humiliated—Reince Priebus argues he accomplished just what he set out to do.
“We won,” Priebus told me in an interview. Calling from the golf course on Sunday afternoon, he sounded both defiant and relieved. “Winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”
The former White House chief of staff and Republican National Committee chairman said he was proud of his stewardship of the GOP, which culminated in the election of a Republican president, Republican Congress, and Republican gains up and down the ballot.
But the White House is mired in chaos, and all that Republican power has yet to result in a single major policy achievement. Priebus’s critics view him as the man who sold his party out to Donald Trump. Was it really worth it, I asked?
“It’s absolutely worth it,” Priebus said, pointing to the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice, regulatory reform, and a healthy economy, though he acknowledged health care remained “an obstacle.” “The president has accomplished an incredible amount of things in the last six months,” he added. “The future can be great, and the past has been pretty good.” Even in exile, he was still committed to spinning the Trump line.
It has been a long, strange trip for Priebus, who came to Washington as GOP chairman in 2011 on a promise to reform a party in disarray. His story, in a way, is the story of the Republican Party itself: His initial wariness of Trump gave way to capitulation and then enabling. He swallowed his private qualms for the sake of the team, until his turn to be the victim of Trump’s pageant of dominance finally came—publicly disgraced, dismissed in a tweet.
“I see him as kind of a tragic figure,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host in Milwaukee who has known Priebus for many years. “What began as a matter of duty on his part—the decision to go all-in on Trump—ended with this scorchingly obscene humiliation.”
Sykes’s pity for his friend was limited, however. “It’s sad, but it’s the result of choices he made,” said Sykes, a Never Trumper who is now an MSNBC commentator. “It’s not like he wasn’t warned.”
Ironically, Priebus’s own career in national politics began with an act of disloyalty. In 2011, he won the RNC chair by running against his own boss, then-chairman Michael Steele. Despite big wins in the 2010 midterm elections, party activists had become dissatisfied with what they viewed as Steele’s mismanagement and penchant for gaffes. Steele knew he would have challengers when he sought another term as chairman—but he didn’t expect a challenge from Priebus, his general counsel, whom he considered a teammate.
“This is the bed Reince has been making for himself since he was my general counsel,” Steele told me. “He’s a guy who’s always positioning himself for the next thing. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
Priebus’s bid for RNC chairman was premised on the idea that he could do for the party nationally what he’d done as state party chairman in Wisconsin, where he had been on the vanguard of a resurgent conservative movement. As a lawyer and party activist, he’d watched his friend Scott Walker become governor and another friend, Paul Ryan, get anointed a rising Republican star.
They called themselves the “Cheesehead Mafia.” In Washington, Ryan was the star policy wonk, one of the “young guns” remaking the party as a slick vehicle for extreme fiscal conservatism. In Madison, Walker pushed through a sudden, shocking assault on public-sector unions—then survived the left’s attempt to remove him in a hard-fought recall.
“We are not in competition with the conservative movement, we are part of the conservative movement,” Priebus said at the time. The national party, he promised, could broaden its ranks without compromising its principles—and win—just like Republicans had done in Wisconisn.
Republicans wanted more than anything to take down President Obama, and Priebus pitched himself as the man for the job. But in 2012, his first big test, the party fell short. Somehow, nobody blamed Priebus, even though one of the Romney campaign’s decisive shortcomings—an inability to compete with the Obama campaign in field organizing—had been the job of Priebus’s RNC. Priebus was a good fundraiser and party manager; most of all, he kept his constituents—the committee members across the country who elect the national chairman—happy.
Promising to figure out the party’s problems and fix them, Priebus was reelected chairman unanimously. He convened a group of insiders to conduct a sweeping study of what went wrong in the presidential election. They sifted data, conducted focus groups, and examined party rules, publishing a report that came to be known as the “autopsy.”
Young people and minorities, the report concluded, viewed the GOP as a bunch of cranky old white men. The party could change its image by deemphasizing social issues and coming out in favor of immigration reform. A set of tactical recommendations got less attention but may have been more consequential: Based on the report’s ideas, the party shortened the primary calendar, reduced the number of debates, and began a huge investment in data and ground operations.
These measures were intended to prevent the sort of drawn-out melee that was thought to have weakened Mitt Romney’s candidacy, and to put an infrastructure in place to aid the party’s candidates. But they may have had unintended consequences.
Like everyone else in the GOP, Priebus didn’t see Trump as a threat for the nomination. For years, he had cultivated the Manhattan mogul as a party donor, playing along with his flirtations with running for office on the assumption it wouldn’t ever happen. When Trump did get into the race—on a platform diametrically opposed to the autopsy’s recommendations for a kinder, gentler party—Priebus tried to leverage their relationship to rein him in. He called Trump after his campaign announcement and urged him to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric. And after Trump contended that John McCain was “not a war hero,” for example, the RNC issued a statement declaring, “there is no place in our party or our country” for such comments.
But Trump ignored him, and the conflict-averse Priebus fell into line. Trump exploited the divisions and weaknesses that the party had allowed to fester for so many years—the anger-primed base, the oppositional fervor. After the McCain incident, his continual outrages elicited nary a peep of rebuke from the party, nor was any attempt made to exclude him from the debates over which the RNC had near-total control. As Priebus’s friends in the GOP establishment wrung their hands, he insisted it wasn’t his place to intervene. His job as he saw it was to implement the will of the party’s voters, and to manage the chaos that resulted.
Privately, Priebus was frequently horrified by Trump’s behavior during the campaign. He deplored Trump’s attack on Khizr Khan, and when the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, he even urged Trump to drop out of the race—an insult Trump never let him forget. But publicly, he played the good soldier. When Trump won the Indiana primary, Priebus preemptively declared him the presumptive nominee. At the convention, he was instrumental in putting down a last-ditch rebellion of anti-Trump partisans.
To the Never Trump crowd, Priebus was a craven patsy who sold out his principles.“He empowered Trump again and again,” the anti-Trump conservative writer David French tweeted on Friday. “Reince was tireless in defending, excusing, empowering, and enabling Trump.”
All along, Priebus assumed Trump would lose. In the campaign’s final weeks, he considered rerouting campaign funds to the party’s down-ballot candidates; the RNC hosted a pre-election briefing to make the case to reporters that the expected loss wouldn’t be the party’s fault. The party, a source familiar with the episode told me, even put down a deposit on a venue in California for the RNC meeting to be held during the presidential inauguration in January—based on the assumption that it was the other party that would be celebrating in Washington. (Priebus told me the party had reserved hotels in D.C. and California in order to be prepared for either election outcome.)
When the impossible came to pass on Election Day, Priebus’s strategy seemed to have been vindicated. As the administration quickly became a rolling soap opera, the chief of staff was cast as the voice of the traditional GOP in the White House. But Trump never trusted him, and he never had the authority of a true chief of staff. Rather than being empowered to make decisions and to speak on the president’s behalf, he played the part of a nervous courtier, always hovering around the boss in an attempt to curry favor, always scrambling to clean up messes he was powerless to prevent. “He acts like a battered spouse,” the anti-Trump Republican consultant Rick Wilson told me.
Trump didn’t respect Priebus, but he saw him as his link to Ryan, the speaker of the House, and the congressional GOP. Priebus mostly found himself a harried go-between, frantically running interference between his out-of-control boss and exasperated lawmakers. “Reince always wanted to make sure he did not lose any friends,” Sykes told me. “Maybe that was the problem—he never wanted to burn bridges. He wanted to keep everybody happy.”
Everyone who works for Trump has to know that their turn in the barrel can come at any time, that the slavish loyalty he demands will be repaid only in abuse. Still, Priebus’s defenestration was particularly savage: a detested interloper brought in over his protestations, his best ally pushed out, Trump deafeningly silent as the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, publicly derided him as “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” After his dismissal was announced, he suddenly found himself alone in a black Suburban as the rest of the motorcade left for the White House without him.
With Priebus out, the only traditional conservative remaining in the administration’s upper ranks is the vice president, Mike Pence, leading many on the right to fear that Trump will now openly turn on the GOP and begin pursuing an agenda antithetical to his party’s traditional principles.
Like Priebus, the Republican Party made a Faustian bargain when it capitulated to Trump’s takeover—it would sell its soul in order to win. But as chaos continues to swirl, Priebus is surely not the only Republican asking himself: What was that victory good for?
“We have a Republican president, a Republican Senate, and a Republican House,” Priebus told me. “I have no regrets at all.”