White House shakeup watch: Why the media prefer Kelly over Priebus

The media spent so many months predicting that Reince Priebus was on his way out that his actual ouster almost seems anticlimactic.

There was a collective judgment in the press that he was a weak chief of staff, so every time something went wrong for the White House, he got blamed—a process fueled by colleagues who would anonymously denigrate him.

We’re seeing a very different attitude toward John Kelly, the retired general and Homeland Security chief tapped by the president to replace Priebus. Kelly has a well-earned reputation as a tough leader and a straight shooter, so the stories are being framed around the notion that he could bring military precision to the West Wing. 

 “New Chief of Staff Seen As a Beacon of Discipline,” says the New York Times.

“John Kelly Will Bring Plain-Spoken Discipline To an Often Chaotic West Wing,” says the Washington Post.

That, of course, depends on the commander-in-chief.

Priebus, the former RNC chairman, was tapped to be Trump’s emissary to the Washington establishment. But that alliance produced few results. It may be purely symbolic, but Priebus’ departure was announced a few hours after the death of the Senate health care bill. And despite his Wisconsin friendship with Paul Ryan, the bill barely got through the House.

Priebus made more than his share of enemies in the West Wing and never seemed to fully win Trump’s confidence, which may stem in part from tensions they had during the campaign. 

Dave Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, said on “Media Buzz” yesterday that Priebus had been set up to fail. 

The president’s decision to hire Anthony Scaramucci, despite Priebus’ objections, was a clear signal that Trump was unhappy with the way the place was run—and immediately triggered the resignation of Sean Spicer, Priebus’ spokesman at the RNC. When Scaramucci started publicly attacking Priebus and no one in the White House defended him, it was clear the clock was running out.

To his credit, Priebus exited gracefully, praising the president during interviews with Wolf Blitzer and Sean Hannity, though he did take a shot at the”dishonest” media. 

Staff shakeups, of course, only go so far. How many people remember Denis McDonough replacing Jack Lew, who replaced Bill Daley, who replaced Pete Rouse, who replaced Rahm Emanuel, under Barack Obama? It’s the white-hot spotlight on all things Trump that makes every personnel move feel like an earthquake.

I expect that Kelly will get a bit of a media honeymoon. He’ll have a wide berth to replace more people and control the flow of people and paper into the Oval Office.

But eventually the president, the press and the public will want to see results. 

Now Trump is bringing in a man who’s been a war commander in places like Iraq. This will be a very different challenge.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. 

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