WASHINGTON >> In the behind-the-scenes drama of who’s up and who’s down in Donald Trump’s White House, chief of staff Reince Priebus is playing a starring role.
Priebus, a genial Midwesterner with deep ties to the Republican establishment that Trump toppled, has faced questions about his future since the day he set foot in the White House. And the focus on him is intensifying following Trump’s failure to get enough GOP lawmakers to support a White House-backed health care bill, an embarrassing blow for the new president.
There’s blame to spare for the health care debacle at both the White House and on Capitol Hill. But Priebus is a particularly rich target, given that his value to Trump is tied to his relationships with GOP lawmakers, many of whom were elected during his six years as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“Reince doesn’t have a magic wand,” said Henry Barbour, a friend and Republican national committeeman. “He doesn’t have an ability to make people do what they don’t want to do — and he doesn’t want to.”
Priebus’ standing in the White House has broad implications for Trump’s agenda. Beyond Vice President Mike Pence, he represents the president’s most direct link to the traditional underpinnings of the Republican Party and is the buffer between the fiery nationalists and the more liberal New Yorkers who also occupy top White House jobs.
Trump has voiced confidence in Priebus in recent conversations with associates, including after House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the health care bill off the floor Friday, and White House officials say the two men appear to have developed a comfortable relationship.
During the Republican primary, Priebus, 45, often remarked to colleagues that he spoke with Trump more than any of the other 17 GOP candidates. The president likes to make good-natured digs at Priebus in public remarks, joking about his “crazy name” and telling a meeting of auto industry executives that his chief of staff might end up running a car company someday.
For laughs, Trump will sometimes recount a tense exchange with Priebus at one of the campaign’s lowest moments: the release of a video in which Trump is heard making predatory comments about women. During an emergency campaign meeting, Priebus told Trump he should either drop out of the race or risk dragging down Republican candidates across the country.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior adviser, said it’s not Priebus’ grim — and ultimately inaccurate — warning that stuck with the president. It’s the fact that Priebus showed up at all, given the intense pressure at the time for Republican leaders to abandon the party’s nominee.
“Reince had the courage to get on a train in Washington, D.C., go to Penn Station, go to Trump Tower and come to the meeting,” Bannon said. “That’s courage.”
Bannon, who was also considered for the chief of staff job, has grown unexpectedly close to Priebus and has distanced himself from the criticism by Breitbart News, the far-right website Bannon ran before joining Trump’s campaign.
“They’ve got their heroes, they’ve got their villains, it’s never going to change,” Bannon said of Breitbart. He vouched for Priebus’ populist credentials, saying, “When left to his own devices, he’s not really that establishment.”
Priebus inspires intense loyalty among those who worked with him at the RNC, several of whom followed him to the White House, including press secretary Sean Spicer. They describe him as a workhorse who is determined to unite the disparate factions of Trump advisers.
“He wants input, he wants buy-in, he wants people to feel like they’re part of the process,” said Katie Walsh, who worked alongside Priebus at the RNC and is now deputy chief of staff at the White House.
But one White House official said Priebus’ approach backfired early in the administration, leaving the impression that he was a pushover who didn’t have full control of the staff. His style has also created uncertainty on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers sometimes get conflicting messages from top White House officials, including during the health care debate and on a tax overhaul.
A GOP leadership aide said Priebus himself appears to be less involved in shaping the details of Trump’s agenda and more focused on trying to get White House officials on the same page. The aide was among about a dozen White House officials, Trump associates and congressional aides who spoke about Priebus, some on the condition of anonymity in order to disclose private conversations.
Priebus is said to be sensitive to the criticism that has sprouted up about him, particularly when it’s focused on his competency and management of the West Wing. That’s created a mild sense of paranoia among his allies, according to another White House official, leading them to respond in outsized ways, both privately and publicly.
“He’s somebody that always hears footsteps,” the official said of Priebus.
He’s had to adjust the traditional role of chief of staff to fit a highly unconventional president. Unlike many of his predecessors, Priebus spends much of his day by Trump’s side and typically sits in on his meetings with CEOs and other outside visitors.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counselor, said that’s a function of a president who can make decisions in those meetings that the chief of staff needs to know.
“This is a president that allows a lot of access,” Conway said. For Priebus, she said, “it requires a lot more physical presence.”
Priebus supporters say he has moved to tighten the reins in the West Wing in recent weeks, leading crisper discussions in his daily 8 a.m. staff meeting and taking a tougher line with those who veer from the day’s plans.
“Reince has been on a learning curve in the executive branch, he’s never been there,” said Chris Ruddy, a friend of Trump’s and among those who have been publicly critical of Priebus. “There’s a settling in that’s taken place.”