WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump drove out his chief of staff on Friday, replacing Reince Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in an explosive move that ends a turbulent six-month tenure.
“The president wanted to go a different direction,” Priebus said. “A president has a right to hit a reset button. I think it’s a good time to hit the reset button. I think he was right to hit the reset button.
“I’m always going to be a Trump fan. I’m on Team Trump and I look forward to helping him achieve his goals and his agenda for the American people.”
Priebus repeatedly said he submitted his resignation to the president privately on Thursday. Yet throughout the day on Friday, sources close to him insisted that he was not resigning.
But around 3 p.m. MDT, Trump made the announcement on Twitter just after landing on Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
“I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” Trump tweeted. “He is a Great American … and a Great Leader. John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration.”
It wasn’t until after the president named Kelly as his new chief of staff on Friday afternoon that sources close to Priebus reached out to reporters to say he had resigned the day before.
Other White House officials questioned that version of events, suggesting Priebus and his allies were trying to put a positive spin on the President’s abrupt decision to bring on Kelly.
The move followed months of on-again, off-again speculation that Priebus would soon be ousted from an administration where he has consistently drawn heavy criticism for failing to stem the flow of leaks and struggled to impose a sense of order in a chaotic White House beset by controversies.
Priebus, who was brought on by the outsider president in large part because of his Washington relationships, also wound up carrying a hefty share of the blame for the White House’s legislative stumbles, including the latest failure to pass a health care replacement bill.
Rumors of infighting among Trump’s staff eventually devolved into all-out warfare, bursting dramatically into the open late Thursday with a vulgar screed from incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Priebus also lacked strong support from key members of Trump’s inner circle.
Two sources familiar with the situation said Trump’s family — including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, among the president’s most trusted advisers — had lost faith in Priebus.
One of those sources says Trump’s kin urged the president to finally execute a long-pondered shake-up.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is expected to stay, at least for now, sources said.
The president has sounded out people recently about whether to keep Bannon, including some conservatives who convinced Trump that getting rid of Bannon would damage the president with his base, a person familiar with the conversation said.
Priebus, who had traveled with Trump to Long Island for an event on gang violence, was seated inside a Secret Service van on the tarmac when the message came down.
His vehicle split away from the motorcade and departed for Washington before Trump got off the plane.
New York Rep. Peter King, who traveled with Priebus and Trump to Long Island, said there was no hint of the impending shake-up during the flight, recalling Priebus’ “poker face” aboard Air Force One.
“I think Gen. (John) Kelly is a brilliant pick,” Priebus said in the interview, conducted from the White House Roosevelt Room. “We’ll be working on a transition here for a couple weeks together with Gen. Kelly starting on Monday morning. So this is not like a situation where there are a bunch of ill will feelings.”
Trump sent a message of thanks to Priebus after his initial announcement, and told reporters at the air base that Priebus was a “good man.”
“John Kelly will do a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters. “General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody. He’s a great great American. Reince is a good man.”
Kelly is due to begin his tenure as Trump’s chief of staff on Monday when he’ll participate in a meeting of Trump’s cabinet, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Conversations between Trump and Kelly about the role began two weeks ago, Sanders said.
Trump tapped Kelly after November’s election to run his Department of Homeland Security, a position that put Kelly in charge of the administration’s policies on issues including immigration, cybersecurity, countering domestic terrorism and aviation security.
A Marine, Kelly served in the military for nearly five decades and served in positions including chief of Southern Command and senior assistant to the secretary of defense.
He also worked as a legislative liaison to Congress and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His son, Robert Michael Kelly, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010.
Priebus’ 189-day tenure as chief of staff is the shortest in modern presidential history, according to David Cohen, a University of Akron professor who studies the position.
The former Republican National Committee chairman faced a difficult task from the outset as he attempted to wrangle a hodgepodge of rival staff factions divided by ideology and allegiance, his influence supplanted by several other top advisers — including the president’s own kin — who reported directly to Trump and not to the chief of staff.
Priebus’ appointment was announced alongside Bannon’s, the former Breitbart editor in chief who was appointed chief strategist.
The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was named senior adviser and soon thereafter his wife — the president’s eldest daughter — Ivanka Trump was as well.