Doubts about the early performance of Reince Priebus, President Trump‘s chief of staff, reached new levels of intensity last week within the populist right, which was always wary of putting Trump’s agenda in the hands of an establishment figure, and prompted a robust response from a White House working to project a united front.
The news on Friday that Mike Dubke, a close ally of Trump critic and former Bush strategist Karl Rove, is likely to become the next White House communications director only deepened that rift.
Priebus and his populist counterpart, Steve Bannon, moved quickly to quash rumors of tension last week after Bannon’s former news outlet, Breitbart, published a lengthy story questioning Priebus’ future as chief of staff. Many had initially wondered if Bannon had served as one of the anonymous sources who slammed Priebus in the article.
Speaking to the Atlantic, the Hill, the Daily Beast and other outlets, either Bannon alone or Bannon and Priebus together refuted the suggestion that anyone in Trump’s inner circle had grown dissatisfied with Priebus’ leadership. They blamed the chatter on White House outsiders who have little idea of how the West Wing runs.
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But r The criticisms point to pressure from Trump’s populist supporters on the White House to move quicker and more skillfully toward achieving the president’s goals. And they provide an early sign that those supporters could shoulder Priebus with the blame if parts of Trump’s agenda collapse.
One source familiar with the Trump team claimed Priebus has “put all the other parts of his job on others so that he can maintain proximity” to Trump. That source said Trump frequently leans on the people physically surrounding him for guidance and noted physical proximity is often key to keeping influence.
The source said Priebus has given Katie Walsh, deputy chief of staff, an enormous amount of responsibility in order for him to remain close to Trump.
“He’s ceded control to Katie so that he can be next to the president at all times,” the source said.
Another source who served on the campaign team argued Priebus had “exported” too much of the heavy lifting— from confirmation fights to key legislation — to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“You’re either in charge of everything as chief of staff or you’re a chief of staff in control of nothing,” the source said.
A third source close to the administration highlighted the lack of clarity about who oversees what inside the West Wing.
“You just never know, depending on the time of day, who’s in charge of a particular subject, and I think it’s hurting them tremendously,” the source said. “They really need to have more clearly defined roles among the two, three or four who are closest to the president.”
Others complained that the selection of Dubke to take over the role of White House communications director, which is presently being filled by press secretary Sean Spicer, would undermine Trump’s message.
“This hire doesn’t serve the president’s interests, it serves Priebus’s and Spicer’s, that’s it,” one longtime Trump insider said.
While word of Dubke’s hiring seemed to spark suspicion among Trump’s more populist supporters, other Republicans applauded the news.
“This is a good hire by the White House,” said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Dubke & Spicer will be a great team.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the complaints that have been logged against Priebus.
Those complaints by Trump loyalists broke more widely out into the open last week when Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a friend of Trump’s, said during an appearance on CNN that Priebus “clearly doesn’t know how the federal agencies work” before criticizing his job performance. Shortly after Ruddy’s comments began to attract attention — particularly because Ruddy had just spent the weekend with Trump in Mar-a-Lago — the Newsmax CEO walked them back by publicly praising Priebus’ “impressive” White House plans and noting the chief of staff had called him to explain.
While hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Palm Beach estate last weekend, one anonymous source told Vanity Fair that Trump “was going around tables during dinner asking guests what he should do about Priebus and Spicer.”
Trump later defended his chief of staff, telling reporters Priebus has done a “great job” in his post.
It’s unclear whether whispers of doubt about Priebus will gain any traction. After all, few senior staffers in the West Wing have escaped leaks about their performance at one point or another since the inauguration.
Gabby Morrongiello and Alex Pappas contributed to this report.
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner