Trump ousts Reince Priebus as chief of staff in latest White House shake-up

President Trump ousted his beleaguered chief of staff, Reince Priebus, naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to replace him Friday in the latest White House shake-up as the administration struggles to emerge from bitter staff infighting and a stalled legislative agenda.

Trump announced the abrupt reshuffle in three posts on Twitter hours after the Senate killed his latest plans to rewrite President Obama’s signature healthcare law, dealing another harsh blow to the White House.

The tweets, sent as Trump was returning on Air Force One with Priebus after a speech on gang violence in New York, caught Capitol Hill and others off guard even though Priebus’ stature in Trump’s inner circle has been in sharp decline for some time.

In announcing Kelly’s appointment, Trump called the retired Marine Corps general “a Great American” who has “done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration.”

“I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to his country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!” Trump said in his third tweet.

Priebus submitted his resignation Thursday but Trump waited a day to make the switch, according to a person close to the White House who is familiar with the fast-moving events.

Trump did not say whom he would nominate to replace Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security, one of the federal government’s largest departments. Its agencies are responsible for immigration, border security, counterterrorism and other areas that are administration priorities.

Dave Lapan, a Homeland Security spokesman, said Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke would become acting secretary starting Monday.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said that Trump had been in talks with Kelly “for a while” about moving to the White House. “The entire administration loves him and no one is comparable,” she added. “He will begin on Monday morning and a Cabinet meeting will follow his swearing-in Monday morning.”

In a statement, Kelly — who will be the first former general to serve as chief of staff since Alexander Haig under Presidents Nixon and Ford — said he was honored to join the White House. He lavished praise on the Homeland Security Department.

“When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic a group of individuals,” Kelly wrote. “I was wrong. You accomplish great things everyday defending our nation and I know your exceptional work will continue.”

In a separate statement, Priebus thanked Trump for “this very special opportunity,” adding, “I will continue to serve as a strong supporter of the President’s agenda and policies.”

Priebus was an odd fit in the Trump White House from the beginning. He chaired the Republican National Committee before joining the administration of a divisive political leader who campaigned as an outsider and drew broad skepticism from within the GOP establishment.

Trump never forgot how Priebus tried to get him to drop out of the presidential race last fall after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump is heard bragging that he could get away with grabbing and kissing women against their will, according to a longtime Republican fundraiser with close ties to the White House.

Trump also believed Priebus was holding back Republican Party money from Trump’s campaign, betting that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win in November and the GOP would need the cash to launch a counteroffensive.

“He was the guy who begged [Trump] to quit,” the fundraiser said. “He was the guy who told him he was never going to win.”

Trump forgave Priebus when he gave him the job running the West Wing. But he didn’t forget.

Trump’s unconventional management style made Priebus’ job running the White House especially difficult. The president allowed multiple aides and others to gain direct access to the Oval Office, diminishing Priebus’ authority and cutting out the chief of staff’s usual role as a gatekeeper and chief counselor.

Priebus was further undermined this week when Trump’s incoming communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, openly feuded with him.

In an expletive-laced phone call to a reporter with the New Yorker, Scaramucci suggested that Priebus had leaked information about him. He also called the then-chief of staff a “paranoid schizophrenic.”

Rather than reprimand Scaramucci or publicly defend Priebus, Trump sat back. The White House spokeswoman declined to say Thursday whether Priebus had the president’s full confidence.

Trump also failed to mention Priebus during one of the White House’s few bright moments in a tumultuous week — an East Room celebration of a deal to bring a production facility and new jobs to Priebus’ home state of Wisconsin.

Priebus had resisted hiring Scaramucci, a former Wall Street financier, for prior White House positions and tried to prevent him from being named communications director. When Trump did so anyway last Friday, Priebus’ closest ally, Sean Spicer, resigned as press secretary in protest.

Trump is hoping his new team can help calm a White House that has been beset by infighting and leaks while Trump is consumed with multiple investigations by a special counsel and on Capitol Hill into whether his campaign cooperated with Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The distractions have contributed to, and been compounded by, Trump’s inability to pass major legislation in Congress.

Trump’s standing in polls has steadily fallen as the crises have mounted. Several surveys that track his job approval hit new lows this week, including the Rasmussen poll, which Trump used to cite because it showed him doing better than others.

In Survey Monkey’s latest polling, which was close to the average of all current surveys, his job approval dropped 3 points this week, to 39%, with 58% disapproving. The biggest declines came among liberal and moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the survey found.

Trump tends to trust and respect generals and businesspeople who have demonstrated financial success, which could give Kelly a leg up.

But few if any of his top advisors have demonstrated an ability to rein in some of Trump’s more impulsive behaviors, including tweets that distract from his agenda or pick fights with allies he needs for his legislative goals.

Scaramucci’s rise and Priebus’ fall could empower Trump’s anti-establishment advisors, headed by White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who had called for a purge of former RNC staffers in the White House.

Many of those staffers were Priebus loyalists, and some of Trump’s advisors believed Priebus was working to stall White House initiatives, leak to the media about their rivals and seed agencies with establishment Republicans who opposed aspects of Trump’s agenda.

Kelly comes to the job with little experience navigating Congress or electoral politics. The Boston native enlisted in the Marines in 1970 and was discharged as a sergeant in 1972. After he graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, he was commissioned a Marine officer, where he worked his way up to the rank of four-star general.

His career has included deployments in Iraq and service as the senior military assistant to two Obama-era Defense secretaries, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta. He also led U.S. Southern Command, which focuses on the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Kelly held that position for three years, retiring in January 2016. Trump picked him to lead Homeland Security, and the White House has credited him with helping to seal the border and reduce illegal immigration by 70%, although critics say those claims are inflated.

Times staff writers David Lauter and Katherine Skiba contributed to this report.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

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UPDATES:

6:55 p.m.: This article was updated with changes throughout, including statements from Priebus and Kelly.

2:28 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and background.

This article was originally published at 2:15 p.m.

An earlier version of this article inaccurately reported that the U.S. Southern Command's responsibilities include Mexico. It focuses on the Caribbean and Central and South America, but not Mexico.
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