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U.S. Politics Reince Priebus departure caps a week of turmoil for Trump

White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, left, seems to look away as now former chief of staff Reince Priebus walks to his car upon arrival Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., in Friday.


U.S. President Donald Trump's chief of staff has been elbowed out in a White House civil war, capping a chaotic week even by the standards of Mr. Trump's Washington.

The President announced on Twitter on Friday that he would replace Reince Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired general. Mr. Trump posted the tweet while sitting in Air Force One at Andrew's Air Force Base after returning from an event with law enforcement officers in New York. Mr. Priebus, who had already left the plane, rode separately from the President's motorcade.

In an interview with CNN, Mr. Priebus said he offered to resign after talking it over with Mr. Trump.

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"I think it's time to hit the reset button," he said. "He intuitively determined that it was time to do something different, and I think he's right."

Mr. Priebus, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, represented the efforts of the GOP establishment to rein in the unpredictable President and make him govern as a conventional conservative. But he was repeatedly undermined by the many competing factions in the West Wing – and often the President himself – during his difficult six-month tenure. CNN, citing unnamed sources, said Mr. Priebus offered his resignation the previous day.

Word of Mr. Priebus's departure followed a profane tirade from newly hired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who accused Mr. Priebus of leaking inside information to the press and described him as a "paranoid schizophrenic" in a rant to a New Yorker correspondent. Mr. Scaramucci also disparaged chief strategist Steve Bannon as an attention-seeker and said he wanted to "kill" leakers. Mr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon had tried to stop Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Scaramucci.

And it came less than a day after a Republican bid to repeal Democratic president Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act unravelled in the Senate in a failed scramble to craft a health-care bill the entire GOP caucus could support.

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The drama renewed troubling questions about how the most powerful country in the world can be governed for the next three-and-a-half years amid the disarray and non-stop palace intrigue, and with a vacuum of leadership at the top.

"At the beginning of Trump's term, people thought, 'Well, maybe he's still in campaign mode. Maybe he'll grow into the job.' With every passing day, there's less and less hope of that," said Elaine Kamarck, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution, who was a White House staffer during the Clinton administration. "He's addicted to self-inflicted wounds."

For one, the President has been unable to break his obsession with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his campaign team's ties to Russia. It prompted him to use Twitter this week to bully Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose decision to recuse himself from any Russia inquiry he blames for the investigation. Mr. Trump berated Mr. Sessions for not prosecuting Hillary Clinton.

To some, the outburst was alarming for its constitutional implications – the President of the United States suggesting executive power should be used to stop investigations of himself and to take down political opponents. It also riled up the political right for targeting one of its stalwarts. Mr. Sessions was the first senator to back Mr. Trump's presidential bid, and has worked dutifully to implement his agenda, leading a crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

"If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay," GOP senator Lindsey Graham told reporters at the Capitol this week. "Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency."

Rather than containing the conflagration from the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump seems intent on fanning the flames.

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"This is the only scandal I've seen that a president is causing himself by his own words and actions," said Gary Nordlinger, a Washington political consultant and instructor at George Washington University. "He huffs and puffs at the risk of blowing his own house down."

Mr. Trump's other preoccupation seems to be shutting down the torrent of leaks spilling out of the White House, which have exposed the infighting among his inner circle. But instead of ending the problem, Mr. Scaramucci only made the internecine battle even more public.

In Mr. Scaramucci, Mr. Trump appears to have found an aide who enjoys whipping up drama as much as the President does, Mr. Nordlinger said: "It's Shark Week and you've got the White House feeding on its own."

The administration's internal warfare has meant the President has spent little time on policy. He mostly left the details of the attempts to repeal the health-care act, known as Obamacare, to be crafted by Congress – aside from making a contradictory promise to somehow pass a repeal bill but ensure no one loses health insurance. In a frantic midnight sitting, GOP leaders wrote legislation on the fly in an attempt to reach a compromise that could secure 50 votes. In the end, three Republican senators joined the Democratic majority to vote the legislation down.

In Ms. Kamarck's view, there are three possible paths forward. In one scenario, people in the administration take charge and steer policy while Mr. Trump continues to rant on Twitter. In the second, power shifts away from the White House, as Congress and state governments advance policy on their own. The third possibility is impeachment.

The first two scenarios have already begun to develop, she said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have worked to smooth over relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. State governments, meanwhile, have taken the lead on climate policy.

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"He can, just by being crazy and unpredictable, make the presidency irrelevant," she said. "The more he does that, the less he matters." Political observers struggle to find any historical parallel in the presidency, so unusual a figure is Mr. Trump.

"He's a temperamental business leader used to doing things his own way," said W. Joseph Campbell, who teaches at American University in Washington. "He's disrupting and destroying the norms in Washington. I just don't know what's going to be left in his place."

Still, Mr. Campbell, points out, Washington has been through wild times before. Asked to name a previous summer as turbulent as this one, he pointed to 1998, during the peak of the sex scandal that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment. Before that, were 1973 and 1974, when Richard Nixon faced Watergate revelations that ended with his resignation.

Then there was 1814, when British troops captured the city, and the conflagrations were literal rather than political.

"That was a tumultuous and unprecedented upheaval: The White House was burned down," he said. "The summer of 2017 is tumultuous, but the country has seen a lot worse."

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