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Interview With South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford; White House Chief of Staff Resigns; White House Infighting Escalates; Stunning Republican Failure on Health Care Reform; Interview with Reince Priebus. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired July 28, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Scaramucci publicly accusing Reince Priebus of leaking information, and launching a profanity-laced rant against him, all apparently with the president's blessing.
Also tonight, the president is thanking Reince Priebus for his service and hailing General Kelly as a great leader and a star in his administration.
I quickly want to go straight to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff, these are powerful, dramatic moments in the Trump presidency.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No question, Wolf. This is one of the biggest resets that we have seen so far in the first six-month tumultuous often administration of Donald Trump.
But it came fast and furious today with the president sending out this information. There had been speculation growing that Reince Priebus, the outgoing now chief of staff, was on thin ice with the president, but that certainly was up for some debate.
But earlier today, when the president was in Long Island, he mentioned in very flattering terms the homeland security Secretary, John Kelly. He said this about him:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to congratulate John Kelly, who has done an incredible job of secretary of homeland security. Incredible.
TRUMP: One of our real stars, truly one of our stars. John Kelly is one of our great stars.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: So, one of their great stars there in about 90 minutes after that, Wolf, would become the new White House chief of staff. Obviously, the president knew about this then. He had already offered
the general the job at that point and was praising him before an audience of law enforcement officers here. And when he arrived back at Joint Base Andrews, he explained his decision to reporters who were standing just outside Air Force One.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Reince is a good man. John Kelly will do a fantastic job. General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody, a great, great American. Reince Priebus, a good man. Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: So, the president there explaining his decision briefly as he arrived back at Andrews.
But, Wolf, this decision was actually made as the plane was just about to land. And the president held this firm. It did not leak out. Of course, he has been on a tear against the leakers. So, he let virtually no one here at the White House know about it, but he announced it in his own terms on Twitter.
This is what he said. Let's take a look at this series of messages, probably the first chief of staff in the history to be announced in this way, Wolf.
The president said this. He said: "I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F. Kelly as the White House chief of staff. He is a great American and a great leader." He goes on to say: "John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my administration."
And then he went on a short time later, Wolf, to thank Reince Priebus. He said: "I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to the country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!"
But at that point, Wolf, the president and his outgoing chief of staff parted ways and Reince Priebus did not come back here to the White House, at least not directly. The president did come back here and with that a new era, a new moment that actually starts Monday in this White House, Wolf, with General John Kelly, a four-star general, now tasked with, A, getting this administration's agenda back on track, and, B, guiding this administration through what is still a cloud consuming this White House, that expanding investigation in the Russian election meddling, Wolf.
BLITZER: And interestingly, good reporting, our own Mark Preston the first to report that Reince Priebus actually offered his resignation yesterday. It was only announced by the president today.
Jeff Zeleny, stand by.
Sara Murray is getting a new White House statement that's just coming in.
Sara, what are you learning?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf.
We do have a new statement from Sarah Huckabee Sanders on the latest staffing change. I'm going to read you that.
In the statement, she said: "General John Kelly is one of the true stars of the administration. He has helped seal the border and reduce immigration by 70 percent. He is respected by everyone, especially the people at the Department of Homeland Security. The entire administration loves him and no one is comparable. He will begin on Monday morning. A Cabinet meeting will follow his swearing-in on Monday. The president thanks Reince Priebus for his service. They accomplished a lot together. He was loyal in his dedication to the president. The president thanks him and his family for the great service to the country. He will always be a member of team Trump."
And, Wolf, it's been interesting talking to people who do have a close relationship with the president about this John Kelly move. They feel like this is someone they are bringing in that the president sees as closer to a peer, who will be an adult in the room, who is certainly used to things following in an orderly fashion because of his military experience.
That's something many people who are close to the president who want to see him succeed hope will be adopted in the West Wing. But certainly a very different portfolio that he will be bringing than what we saw Reince Priebus bringing to this job, and, frankly, many people close to the president are very happy about that, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's a big challenge ahead for John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff. All right, thanks, Sara.
Go back and we are going to get some more reporting from you, I'm sure.
Quickly want to go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
Barbara, tell us a little bit more about John Kelly, the retired four- star former Marine Corps general, the now former secretary of homeland security, who is about to become the White House chief of staff.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This is someone I have known for many years covering the Pentagon and military beat, Wolf. This is a four-star at his core.
And what does that mean? The president may like his generals, but will it all work? John Kelly, like any other four-star, highly organized, has long battlefield experience, served in Iraq, in Fallujah, Anbar province during the worst of times, very much familiar with running large organizations. But he, like any other four-star, likes things orderly. It will be very interesting to see how he deals with a president with an Oval Office that perhaps has a much more flexible management style than a four-star Marine is used to.
He will become essentially the third four-star Marine in a powerful position next to Donald Trump. Of course, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, these three men have known each other for decades of military service.
So, having the military portfolio covered is not the problem. It will be very interesting to see how he deals with the rest of the issues that come to him.
Now, people I have talked to who saw Kelly go into the Trump administration, even very recently, have said to me, look, he's changed, very much following the president's orders, very tough on immigration, very much behind the laptop ban because of terrorism concerns.
But this is a guy who people who know, have known him for years, have said to me, to be very blunt, one person said to me, he drank the Trump Kool-Aid, very loyal to the president, very loyal to the president's agenda. So, one of the questions that may be, as a four- star, which he essentially is, that is who his fundamental character -- that is what he is.
Will he be able to say to the president when he disagrees, when he wants to or needs to, speak truth to power? But these two men also have a deeper bond forged on Memorial Day. We were there at Section 60 in Arlington at Arlington National Cemetery when John Kelly escorted the president to his own son's grave site, 1st Lieutenant Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan, killed in action in 2010.
As one can only imagine, this was a devastating event for General Kelly, for the entire Kelly family. He brought the president to Lieutenant Kelly's final resting place. It was a very somber moment.
And many people will tell you honestly, it was such a devastating situation for General Kelly, for the Kelly family. It's difficult. He's talked about it in the past, very, very discreetly. It is something also, as I think anybody can understand, that changed him and changed the Kelly family forever.
But those few moments at 1st Lieutenant Robert Kelly's grave site in Arlington, just a few weeks ago on Memorial Day, may have been part of what forged a bond between these two men -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, Gold Star father, a lot of us know General Kelly. I spent some time with him the other day, the other few days at the Aspen Security Forum. He met with a lot of reporters. He met with national security experts and by all accounts he did an outstanding job. He's got a tough assignment, his next assignment as the White House chief of staff.
Barbara, stand by. I want to get back to you. David Chalian, let's step back a little bit. What a tumultuous week
this has been for the president, for his team and now this.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, and it's been a week that showed a presidency incapacitated, unable to function properly, to govern properly, from everything this week, leaving the attorney general twisting in the wind, announcing a military policy with transgender service members on Twitter without any awareness from the military folks announcing it, or how they should go about implementing it.
No answers from the White House on that. The complete failure of health care in the United States Senate on this core promise of the Republican Party for seven years. This was a week that really exposed a White House not working. It ended with this soap opera drama inside -- well done, Ryan -- inside the West wing between Anthony Scaramucci and Reince Priebus.
And now on a Friday evening, the president announces via Twitter that he is changing it up and putting a new team in place. The question is, what will actually change? Will this -- will the president, who has not shown a real adept nature at changing who he is throughout his entire presidency, is he going to change in such a way to allow General Kelly to come in and actually instill discipline that has not been there in this West Wing?
I think that's a big question. I don't think just the announcement of the new White House chief of staff should give everyone comfort that this will run smoothly now because Donald Trump has proven to govern by impulse, by Twitter, by looking at competing factions.
And I am not so sure that just installing John Kelly in the corner office in the West Wing is going to change that behavior.
BLITZER: It's a fascinating development.
Kaitlan Collins, yesterday, we heard the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, deliver a very strong statement in support of his good friend, his fellow Wisconsinite Reince Priebus. And I understand you just got a statement from the speaker on this December, Reince Priebus leaving the White House.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, let's take a look at that.
Paul Ryan said: "Reince Priebus has left it all out on the field for our party and our country. Here's a guy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who revitalized the Republican National Committee and became White House chief of staff. He has served the president and the American people capably and passionately. He has achieved so much and he has done it all with class. I could not be more proud to call Reince a dear friend."
But you're right. Paul Ryan was one of the very few people who were sticking out for Reince Priebus amid all this drama this week with Anthony Scaramucci. No one from the administration, with the exception of Sean Spicer, stood up for him.
BLITZER: Stood up for Reince Priebus, you mean?
COLLINS: None of them. Yes.
BLITZER: And Sean Spicer, as we know, he resigned a few days ago, although technically his resignation won't go fully into effect for a few more weeks.
And, Ryan Lizza, I don't know if you're taking responsibility for any of this, but that interview you did with Scaramucci, that's caused quite a bombshell.
RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it seems clear this was in the works before that and Scaramucci, in that interview, of course, one of the things he said, I think it got a little buried because there was so much other sort of colorful stuff in there, one of the things he said is, you know, Reince Priebus is not long for this world and he will be out soon.
BLITZER: He said he would resign soon. He was right.
LIZZA: He was quite accurate about that.
And the fact that he would go -- if you publicly attack the chief of staff, use the language that he used, call in or allegedly call in the FBI, he told me he called the FBI on Reince Priebus. I don't know if he really did, but that's what he said.
And the president stands by -- there's a piece by Tara Palmeri in Politico that quoted some White House aides saying as soon as Reince saw nobody in the White House was really defending him or that the president was not outraged by Scaramucci's attack on Reince, that was a pretty good sign--
BLITZER: He said this.
LIZZA: -- that this is the end.
BLITZER: I'm not going to read the whole quote, because there are some words I don't want to say on television, but "Reince is a 'blank' paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac."
You heard him say that. And you have that. You recorded that.
Frankly, I think both of them were a little paranoid about each other, because they both thought that they were leaking about each other. He was saying he was being paranoid because Scaramucci believed that Reince had given me some information about a dinner that he had with the president.
As I said several times, Reince did not give me that information. Anthony just had that information wrong. So, he was being paranoid. But he believed that they were not two people that could work in a productive relationship in this White House. It was really kind of one of them had to go.
COLLINS: To follow up on that, that line stood out to me the most from your entire story, even though there was all that colorful language. The part he said about Reince was the most astounding.
And also the day before during an interview with CNN, Scaramucci also said there were people in the White House who wanted to protect the country from Donald Trump.
LIZZA: It's a great point.
COLLINS: And he wanted to get rid of those people.
You can't help but wonder if he clearly thinks that Reince Priebus is one of those people who wasn't a true Trump believer.
COLLINS: During the campaign, they always viewed the RNC people, the Republican establishment so to speak, with some suspicion. They thought that they didn't want Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee. And there was some truth to that in the Republican Party. There were certainly Republicans who thought he would be a weak general election candidate and damaging to the party.
And they thought the RNC was working against them. There was also some suspicion there about what their true motives were in helping Donald Trump.
LIZZA: Remember Reince was one of the people that recommended Donald Trump drop out of the race after the famous "Access Hollywood" tape.
That always was held against him. Trump never forgot that. I'm told that he would bring it up occasionally still, months and months later. And just to Kaitlan's point about what Anthony Scaramucci said in the CNN interview this week, he basically said there were these two philosophies in the West Wing.
One, and he didn't really say it, but he hinted was the Reince Priebus philosophy, which is you have to contain Trump. You have to sand down his rough edges. You have to treat him frankly like a child and hem him in and make sure he doesn't do anything too crazy.
And there is the Scaramucci view, who is this intense Trump supporter, Trump loyalist, never says a bad word about him, who is just saying let Trump be Trump. Inject him into America. He literally said inject him into America.
LIZZA: And those are the two views. And if you're Trump and you're looking at those two philosophies, you can tell which one Trump would like better.
BLITZER: I want to bring in Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina to get his reaction.
What is your reaction to the news, the new White House chief of staff, now a former White House chief of staff? congressman, what do you think?
REP. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: As has been mentioned, the capstone to an incredible week.
I don't know. We don't know yet. I think in terms of a great leadership component the White House needs, General Kelly represents it. The question, though, is the wild card, which is you still have this sort of strange nepotism thing within the White House. And you have conflicting power centers.
I think what he will bring to bear is the chain of command that you see in the military and in well-run organizations. If he can do that, he's going to be successful. If you have these competing power centers that are allowed to play out, I think we still have problems ahead of us.
BLITZER: What do you mean by strange nepotism?
SANFORD: I guess not since Bobby Kennedy have we seen it. I mean, the idea of -- I mean, I was once a governor. The idea of having cousins or daughters or sons in the governorship or in the White House I think is -- it's a bit odd.
I think that the saying is that there's nothing stronger than blood. Blood is stronger than water. There are a number of different sayings along those lines. And I think what it can do in terms of, again, chain of command, is, who do you go to? Do you go to blood or do you go to the person that's supposedly in charge?
I would say this. I remember back when I was just a pup freshman in the Congress. At one point I would call the White House about something, and that night Erskine Bowles called me back. There was an amazing chain of command and there was amazing follow-up, whether you agreed or disagreed with the Clinton politics.
I think that you need to see that kind of structure and that kind of response in the White House for it to be effective.
BLITZER: Erskine Bowles was then the White House chief of staff under President Clinton.
Do you think President Trump will allow the new White House chief of staff, General Kelly, to rein in what clearly has been some dysfunction there?
SANFORD: He has to. He has to.
I mean, for this White House to pull off the legislative agenda that's been outlined, you have to have structure in the White House. Again, General Kelly is a great leader. He's got all kinds of credentials, both from the standpoint of legislative experience when he was on the Capitol Hill -- on Capitol Hill, in essence, a legislative assistant, if you want to call it, or an aide to secretary of defense, and he has direct military line of fire experience.
I mean, he's a great Marine. I think he has the capacity to do it. The president simply needs to allow him to do so.
BLITZER: As you know, Reince Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, did a very strong job there. He was seen as an establishment Republican.
Is there someone inside the White House right now who can communicate well with the Republican establishment and with the Republican leadership in Congress?
SANFORD: General Kelly.
BLITZER: Other than General Kelly?
SANFORD: Well, other than General Kelly, yes.
Again, Rick Perry. I was a governor with him. He's got a lot of relationships on Capitol Hill. I mean, Price was a fellow colleague in the House.
BLITZER: They are both Cabinet members. They don't directly work in the White House. I'm talking about the president's immediate staff, the White House staff.
SANFORD: Again, it's an outsider shop and that's been part of the allure. I think that the idea of Reince Priebus was bringing an insider. It didn't work. They need to try something different. They're doing so.
I think that, again, Kelly bridges the gap between an outsider element, strong military credential, and a degree of Capitol Hill experience that could be the formula if they will let him do his job.
BLITZER: What is this latest very dramatic move, Congressman? Tell us about the influence of the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.
SANFORD: I think it's been bizarre. I think his wording has been bizarre. I think that the sort of feud you have seen develop in the White House has been distracting.
I think one of General Kelly's first jobs is to going to be muzzle the communications director and to put him in his box, say, yes, you can say this or that, but you do not have license to say anything you want about anybody at any time because I, so, it will create havoc in terms of the White House's ability to lead on a message and to communicate with the Congress.
[18:20:05] BLITZER: But Scaramucci made a point of saying he reports directly to the president. He doesn't report to the White House chief of staff. Are you suggesting that needs to change?
SANFORD: It absolutely needs to change. In other words, if that is the case, then Kelly will be undermined in his job and he will be no more successful than Reince Priebus.
BLITZER: Some are suggesting all of this is proof the president rewards loyalty over other qualities. Are you among those?
SANFORD: That's certainly been the template, but, you know, in life, our strength is our weakness. And competing power centers, the ability to move fast, the ability to keep your opponents guessing, frankly, works very well in commercial real estate and particularly in New York commercial real estate.
It does not work well when you're talking and communicating with thousands of people, millions of people, whether it's in the chain of command as it relates to the federal government, or whether it's to the public at large.
And, so, I think you have to go back to a structured for, again, the White House to be effective. What worked well in real estate does not work too well in the White House.
BLITZER: Congressman Sanford, one final question on General Kelly. He is now going to become as of Monday the new White House chief of staff, the secretary of homeland security.
As you know, he's been seen by some as part of the president's hard- line immigration moves by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. He made some comments that he could separate mothers from their children across the border illegally. He's pushed for the president's border wall along the border with Mexico. Do you back those positions?
SANFORD: For the most part, yes. Again, I think we have to secure our southern border. I have been clear about that for a long time.
BLITZER: Congressman Sanford, I want to thank you very much for joining us.
SANFORD: Yes, sir. Thank you.
BLITZER: Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
Kaitlan, you're getting some more information from your sources as we speak. You're our White House reporter.
COLLINS: Yes, we have a statement from Reince Priebus actually that has just been sent out and I'm going to read it to you.
Reince Priebus says: "It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve this president and our country. I want to thank the president for giving me this very special opportunity." He says he will continue to serve as a strong supporter of the president's agenda and his policies and he can't think of a better person to succeed him than General John Kelly.
BLITZER: Nice statement from Reince Priebus.
COLLINS: The first we have heard from him since he resigned as the White House
BLITZER: A tight statement, a very nice statement.
Jamie Gangel, what's your reaction? I know you're working your sources, and you have good ones. What else are you hearing?
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, I think all of the Republicans I have spoken to today, fair to say they are big fans of General Kelly. They call him calm, adult, leadership.
The question everybody has is will President Trump let him do what he needs to do as chief of staff? And I think that's what's out there. As far as Reince Priebus is concerned, I think that we should go back to the campaign.
It is worth taking a look back. I did a profile with Reince before Donald Trump had the nomination. And Reince was in the middle of this whole wild campaign and the establishment Republicans and Trump.
And he insisted through all of that that he was fine with all of it. I don't think -- in fact, one of the things he said was, he said, I'm not pouring Baileys on my cereal. This is fun.
I don't think the last six months have been fun. And certainly this isn't the first time that there was talk that Reince was gone. But I really think having spent some time with him and talked to him, that what happened this past week, what happened with the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, had to have been very personally painful for him.
I also want to say that none of the Republicans I have spoken to thus far -- and these are people around town, Capitol Hill, people who work with the White House closely, some people who are in the administration -- not one of them saw this coming. They were all shocked. I should say they knew that Reince -- you know, that there was all this talk that Reince might go, but they did not know about General Kelly.
So, in a White House where there's been a lot of complaints about leaks, this one did not leak. They really held it very closely, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, they certainly did. And now we know the result.
David Chalian, as we look at these developments, a lot of positive reaction coming in for the new White House chief of staff, General Kelly, retired four-star Marine Corps general, the security secretary of homeland security, is he going to be able to run that White House along the lines of a sophisticated military and efficient operation where everybody on the staff basically reports to him and he reports to the president? Or is it going to be a bit different?
CHALIAN: Even in the best-run White Houses, it does not run quite as smoothly as the military in terms of--
BLITZER: Chain of command.
CHALIAN: Chain of command.
But might he have some success because of his position, because of his background, because of his -- what he's been doing at DHS to put in a more orderly structure in this West Wing? He might. It largely depends on the president.
The president likes -- we know this about President Trump. He likes multiple streams of information coming in. He likes people walking into the office. He likes pulling people in, pitting them against each other in competing factions. That doesn't speak to the kind of structure you're describing that Kelly may come in to try to implement.
If, indeed, Donald Trump sends out the word to Anthony Scaramucci, to others around him that everything goes through Kelly, this is the new way it's going to work, which is hard as I'm saying to even imagine him saying that to Jared or Ivanka.
It doesn't seem the way Trump operates. If he were to do that, maybe Kelly would have a chance at that. I think what Kelly is going to have to try to do is sort of clear out the underbrush and get to a level place, because they're so below ground right now being able to accomplish the day to day blocking and tackling of running the White House.
If he can get to a level place with the staff to create a functioning White House, then maybe these personality dramas, they still may go on, but they may have less impact on the day-to-day work.
COLLINS: Follow up on that, let's look at how hard it is to work for Donald Trump.
Since he's been in office for six months, we have lost a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, a press secretary, a communications director, a national security adviser, an FBI director, and all of those, and it keeps going on.
It just shows how hard it is to work for him. An argument can be made he brings out the worst in some of these people who work for him who they thought would be stars in these positions.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But one of the qualities that's really working in General John Kelly's favor in this position is it helps to have a chief of staff to sort of be a larger-than-life figure. You need to respect the president. Reince Priebus obviously did not have that, did not have that during the campaign when he was RNC chairman, and he did not have that as chief of staff.
But we have seen that Trump really respects sort of two classes of people, right? Generals being one, and very, very wealthy people being another. And he sort of filled out his administration with many of those people. You can look to Jim Mattis at the Defense Department. You can look to Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, his secretary of state.
And I think this is another example of Trump needing someone who -- I think you mentioned this earlier, David, someone he views as a peer. And I think that is something that is working in John Kelly's favor that Reince Priebus didn't have in his pocket.
BLITZER: Take a look at this graphic, Ryan.
And we will put it up on the screen. Trump administration resignations. And we just heard Kaitlan discuss -- you see them up there, at least five and now Reince Priebus added to the list. Of course, we are now including James Comey, the FBI director, who was fired by the president, not a resignation.
There is always some movement in every new administration. I remember when I was CNN's White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton administration, early on, there was a White House chief of staff, Mack McLarty, who was removed, after -- a very, very nice guy, very smart guy.
But the president didn't think he was necessarily fit for that job. He brought in Leon Panetta from OMB, from the Office of Management and Budget, to become the White House chief of staff. And there was a bunch of other shakeups at the time.
David Gergen, a former Republican adviser at the White House, now a CNN contributor, CNN analyst, he was brought in, I remember at the time to bring some adult supervision into that staff.
BLITZER: It's not necessarily the first time we have seen a shakeup among senior staff at the White House.
LIZZA: No, absolutely.
For a chief of staff, this is short. The average chief of staff I think is about 18 months to two years is the average chief of staff's tenure. So, this is short. Look, I think Kelly is stepping into a very, very complicated situation.
I think what's important to know is what kind much agreement did he get from Trump, what kind of agreement did he get about what moves he can make? He's stepping into a place that is factionalized among a family faction that has direct access to the president, a new communications director who is feeling very empowered these days and has now pushed out his main rival, a set of people left over from the Reince Priebus era.
BLITZER: All right, I Just want to alert our viewers right now, Reince Priebus is about to call us.
And we are about to get the first live interview with -- it's going to be on camera, we are now told. Reince Priebus will be joining us momentarily. We will get his in-depth reaction to all these very dramatic developments.
I want our viewers to stand by momentarily. I'll be speaking, I'll be interviewing Reince Priebus, the now former White House chief of staff. And he'll walk us through point by point by point what happened, why all of a sudden we're told as of yesterday he offered his resignation.
[18:30:23] Today the president around 5 p.m. Eastern made it official.
But while we're waiting for Reince Priebus to get ready, senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us right now, the Democrat. Senator, give me your reaction to these latest developments.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I certainly wish General Kelly well. If anybody can bring order and discipline to this White House, it is General Kelly, whom I tremendously admire and respect and share all of the high opinions that have been expressed about him.
I opposed his nomination, voted against him because of my apprehension about his immigration policies and his adherence to the potential Muslim travel ban and the draconian and sweeping policies that, unfortunately, have been adopted.
But I think one of the key points here is whether the president will let him do this job, but equally so, whether he will be loyal to General Kelly, just as he demands loyalty of the people who work for him. And unfortunately, the kinds of lack of loyalty that he's demonstrated, beginning at the top, really have to be reversed here. And the lack of leadership that we've seen, indeed in the health care debate, that has just been finished, where he was largely absent from the policy and substantive issues that had to be resolved.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, you reminded our viewers you voted against the confirmation of John Kelly to become the secretary of homeland security. But what do you think of the job he has done as secretary of homeland security over these past several months?
BLUMENTHAL: He's certainly been loyal to the president. But unfortunately, there has been not only the travel ban, the Muslim travel ban that has been struck down by some of the courts, upheld in part by the United States Supreme Court, but created a great deal of chaos and confusion.
But also, even just as alarmingly, the in effect, draconian sweeping changes in policy that have meant arrests and deportations of people who have been here, working hard for decades, heads of families, many of them with children who are U.S. citizens, spouses who are U.S. citizens. We've seen them in Connecticut. They've been working hard, and often given just days' notice before they were going to be deported.
We've worked and fought for these individuals, sometimes succeeding in obtaining stays for them so they could present their cases for asylum, because they are about to be sent back from places that are extraordinarily dangerous, even deadly for them if they are returned to Central America.
And I would hope that maybe, as chief of staff, General Kelly would persuade the president that these immigration policies are deeply flawed and, in fact, betray American values. These people who are about to be deported are heads of families often. They've worked hard. They've paid taxes. They've committed no -- none -- criminal violations, not even traffic tickets, many of them. And perhaps these policies can now be changed.
BLITZER: Do you think that General Kelly can reign in what is widely seen as some serious dysfunction in the White House?
BLUMENTHAL: He is certainly a person who is respected as a disciplined and decisive leader, and he has that training.
He's also a person of deep caring and conviction. As a dad, myself who has two sons who has served. One of them, a Marine in Afghanistan. We came to know each other, not deeply, but I was on the Armed Services Committee -- am still -- while he was in the Marine Corps.
And I think he is the kind of person who can bring order and discipline to this White House, but only if the president is as loyal to him and lets him do his job as he wants loyalty from the people who work for him. And as we've seen with Jeff Sessions, loyalty sometimes runs one way with this president.
BLITZER: You're on the Armed Services Committee. Are you comfortable with a general, a retired general, in this particular case, being the White House chief of staff? We know that there's an active duty general, General McMaster, who's the national security advisor to the president. We know another general, retired General Mattis is the secretary -- is the secretary of defense. Are you comfortable with another general in a specific role like this?
BLUMENTHAL: As long as this general, like others -- and he's been in a position of responsibility -- He's a member of the cabinet -- respects civilian rule and the rule of law, I'm very comfortable with General Kelly in this position. And I do hope that he will change a broken immigration policy.
[18:35:18] But even more broadly, bring a sense of leadership to the White House. What has been lacking is engagement in these policy discussions in a substantive way.
The president entered the health care debate, which we just finished in the Senate, very late. And then in a very bullying, threatening, intimidating way that actually backfired, I think, with a number of my colleagues, who were profiles in courage. And the three Republicans who joined us in defeating this measure, I think, saved the country from a cruel and costly health care measure.
So, I think that what's needed is substantive engagement on infrastructure. We need leadership on tax reform. We need leadership, and it has to begin at the top.
BLITZER: What does this tell you? And we're only moments away from interviewing Reince Priebus. This will be his first interview since the president announced his resignation as the White House chief of staff.
But what does it tell you, this latest development, the influence of the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, who told "The New Yorker" magazine, our own Ryan Lizza, only yesterday that Reince is a paranoid schizophrenic, and then he used some other profane words?
BLUMENTHAL: That interview really left me speechless. There is very little that leaves me speechless, but I think that for one member of a team to talk about another in that way -- put aside the profanity -- demonstrates a dysfunction that General Kelly is going to have to address head on.
He's going to have to establish that he is the leader of this team. He is the chief of staff, and that the kind of discipline that he's going to bring is important, because here's the key point.
The American people want to know the government is working for them. They are tired, I think, of the tabloid-like feuds and the lack of policy discipline and leadership to get things done. The American people want to get things done.
And again, coming back to health care or infrastructure, I hope that we're at a turning point now with these profiles in courage -- John McCain, who spoke so eloquently about the need for working together across the aisle -- that we can work together across the aisle and get things done in a way that John McCain so eloquently and so powerfully said should be done, and then by his vote, demonstrated an example of leadership and led by example just last night on the Senate floor.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks very much for joining us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to -- about to interview Reince Priebus, his first interview since all of these dramatic developments were announced by the president about an hour and a half or so ago.
In the meantime, as we await the start of that interview -- I'll be interviewing Reince Priebus -- I want to bring in Mike Rogers, our CNN national security commentator, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
What's your reaction to this? Reince Priebus gone from the White House. John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general, all of a sudden will be the next White House chief of staff.
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, it's one thing that generals know about, Wolf, it's body counts. And this White House has a bunch of them.
So, I think there's two things if he's going to be successful. One, he has to be the chief of staff. Reince Priebus was in, I think, title only chief of staff. He needs to control all of the in and out activity in the Oval Office. He needs to control all of the decision- making in the West Wing. Without that, you could bring in General MacArthur, it won't be successful.
Secondly, he's going to need a good deputy, or someone that reports to him that understands and gets Washington, D.C., on the legislative side. They have real challenges in their legislative agenda. It's not going to get any better if you don't have somebody that understands it and knows how to work that, both the Senate and the House, to get something done for the president's agenda.
If he gets both of those, he'll be wildly successful. He is a very well-respected and deserves a chance to succeed there.
BLITZER: Yes, he's going to have a huge mission ahead of him.
Phil Mudd, you used to work at the CIA; you used to work at the FBI. What do you think? What's your analysis of these dramatic developments?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, who are we -- who are we kidding here? We bring in General McMaster, and he's sidelined at the National Security Council. We bring in General Mattis. On the transgender issue over the past 48 to 72 hours, do you know what the Pentagon told the president? "Give us an implementation plan on limiting transgenders in the military." You know what that message is from General Mattis? "We ain't doing it."
[18:40:10] What happened with General Flynn? A few weeks in. after we said, "He can bring discipline to the White House. He's a general. He was with the president during the campaign.: He's bounced because he lied to the vice president. Who are we trying to fool?
The president runs an Oval Office and a White House that is unmanageable. Another four-star general ain't going to change it. And all you've got to do is look at history here to tell you what's going to happen. Three months, six months, nine months, we're going to find that the new general says, "The president is unmanageable."
BLITZER: Not an upbeat assessment from Phil Mudd. Clear.
Sara Murray, you're over at the White House. You're getting more information, as well. What are you learning?
SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We do have a statement now from Secretary Kelly who, of course, is going to be starting here on Monday as the next chief of staff. I'm going to read you that statement, Wolf. It says, "I have been fortunate to have served my country for more
than 45 years, first as a Marine, then as a secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. I am honored to be asked to serve as the chief of staff to the president of the United States. To the tremendous men and women of DHS, I thank you for the opportunity to serve as your secretary. When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic group of individuals. I was wrong. You accomplish great things every day defending our nation, and I know your exceptional work will continue."
So, obviously a very gracious, very warm statement there from Secretary Kelly.
And, Wolf, of course, as you know, when staff shake ups of this magnitude happen, there is always a question is who else will be going? Will others follow? There was a question of whether Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, would also be departing. My colleagues, Dana Bash and Jeff Zeleny, and myself are all hearing from sources that Steve Bannon is expected to stick around, at least for now.
I'm also told that he actually has had a pretty close working relationship with Secretary Kelly while they have sort of been at the beginning of this administration. So, he may come on sort of better footing with this new chief of staff than we might have expected, considering that Bannon's name was being thrown around as someone who could potentially be on the ropes, as well. It does not sound like he will be departing, at least not now.
BLITZER: Yes. I want to just remind our viewers we're standing by to speak live with Reince Priebus, the now former White House chief of staff. He'll be joining us from the White House momentarily. Lots of questions for Reince Priebus. Stand by for that.
I want to go back to Jamie Gangel, who's working her Republican sources. So it seems, at least for now, Steve Bannon, the chief strategist at the White House, who was also the target of some very, very tough attacks from the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, he's going to at least be staying for the time being. What are you hearing?
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think that that's fascinating on many fronts, Wolf. The people I was talking to earlier today did not know what was going to happen with Steve Bannon, but they were saying, "Watch, it will be a sign. See what happens next."
It's interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, for quite some time there have been people who wanted Steve Bannon out of the White House. So, there was some speculation, maybe this would be the opportunity to do that.
The fact, as Sara reported, that Steve Bannon has had a good relationship with General Kelly, working relationship, all I would say is this. It's also -- we have reported that we were told that Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus had a good working relationship, and I don't think that was always the case when we would hear leaks or other negative stories coming out about infighting. And then the third part of that that's interesting was, we've had
reporting that the Trump family was not high on Steve Bannon, that Jared would have liked to see Steve Bannon gone some time ago. Now we had, you know, Scaramucci taking on Steve Bannon.
So, I think what's interesting about Steve Bannon staying is that we are still back in a place where you're going to have different factions, different power centers in the White House slugging it out from time to time. And how is General Kelly, the new chief of staff, going to be able to deal with that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, I want to bring in Ryan Lizza, because he's the one who did that amazing interview with Anthony Scaramucci for "The New Yorker" that's caused such -- such a ripple. Not only did Scaramucci go after Reince Priebus, who's now resigning as the White House chief of staff; he also went after Steve Bannon. I'm just looking at some of the words. I can't even read what he said about Steve Bannon. But are you -- are you surprised that Steve Bannon, at least for the time being, is staying?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, he's a survivor. He survived a lot of reports about his imminent demise.
[18:45:00] So, I'm not totally shocked. I think it's very telling that in the sort of fight between Scaramucci and Reince, that it's Scaramucci who survived and that Reince is on his way out. I mean, think about the message it sends to other White House staffers after Scaramucci went public with those remarks about Reince Priebus. The president clearly did not have a problem with it, and it's Reince that's departing today, not the communications director.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, I think we found out who was Cain and who was Abel.
LIZZA: That's right. Kaitlan is referring to Scaramucci saying brothers sometimes fight.
BLITZER: Like Cain and Abel.
LIZZA: Yes, and one killed the other.
BLITZER: Yes, we all learned that story.
ROGERS: And he's got a list. He's got a list that's longer than that. He talked about --
BLITZER: Who's got a list?
ROGERS: Scaramucci. He said he's going to clean out his communications department.
BLITZER: I haven't spoken to you, Mike Rogers, since that interview was released yesterday. You must have been stunned like all of us.
ROGERS: You know, in some jobs in government, especially if you're in the communications side, those aren't conversation you should even have in your own office with your own staff. So, that's what was shocking. It seemed a little bit immature and it seemed absolutely not to understand the good boundaries of civility in this town.
If you want to get anything done, coming in and talking tough is not going to do it. You have to be able to build relationships. It's not about subtraction in this town, it's about addition, and they continue to use that subtraction method. And that language tells you a lot about how he's thinking about how he wants to be the communications director.
BLITZER: You got to see the president's management style when you served the president during the transition. And you saw up close how he operates. Talk a little about that.
ROGERS: Well, I can't say I was up close. So, there were two things happening. There was the campaign out of New York City and then there was the congressional mandated transition that started after in August. And, so, that was functioning in regular order. The campaign had its -- was really starting to do its own meetings, it's own -- other things, even national security and policy discussions that was separate from that, which really was a good way to understand how the president works. He took the people that he knew and trusted and he put them in positions, not necessarily to focus on the campaign, but to focus on what was happening after.
One thing in politics you're not supposed to do, even though he's shown -- you can do those things and still win -- is thinking about what you're doing when you're winning. You want a separate groom of people trying to do that mission. He didn't do that. He took a lot of those decisions to New York City.
BLITZER: You know, Ryan, we're really a few minutes away now from my interview with Reince Priebus. This will be his first interview. We're going to give him plenty of time to explain from his perspective what happened.
But you've been covering this story from the very beginning. Give us a little sense what you want to learn.
LIZZA: Wolf, just -- he has had such a wild ride with Trump, right, for two years, right? First, when he was at the RNC and he was being pressured by a lot of establishment Republicans to sort of brush back Trump, do something about him, stop him. Then going in for Trump when he was the nominee, protecting his nomination at the Republican national --
LIZZA: Convention. It's been a long 24 hours. And then in that famous "Access Hollywood" moment, Reince was the one guy who, from Trump's waive erred and suggested he should drop out. He had this loyalty issue. Then, fighting to get that chief of staff job, fighting those early battles with Steve Bannon over who was sort of -- had supremacy at the White House. And then this long running battle with Anthony Scaramucci that now has ended with his ouster, he's had quite a ride. I really want to read Reince Priebus' book when he is out of this
White House. But we want to know the details of -- I want to know the details of the last two weeks. Was he pushed out? Was he fired? Did he resign? When did it happen?
How did the health care debacle affect this? How did the Scaramucci attacks affect this? When did his relationship with President Trump start to deteriorate if that's indeed what happened? And will the new chief of staff have more power than he did?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And you have to imagine with Reince Priebus right now, there must be a sort of a sense internally, and I'll be very interested to hear this interview with him, Wolf, of some unfinished business. He is one of the shortest serving if not the shortest serving -- I'll have to check on that -- chiefs of staff ever in the White House. He can't really not point to any legislative achievements that he was able to help this White House score.
And, so, it's really a very thin sort of resume that Reince has in terms of what he was able to accomplish as chief of staff. You have to believe for all that he sacrificed during the campaign for Donald Trump, and then in these early months of his presidency, all the drama that he had to endure. It must feel a little dissatisfying to leave at this stage.
BLITZER: You know, Mike Rogers, you know Reince Priebus well.
ROGERS: I do. I do.
BLITZER: Talk a little bit about Reince Priebus, the man that you know.
ROGERS: You know, he was a great, effective leader. As the head of the Republican National Committee, he was well-respected.
[18:50:04] He did exceptionally well in making all of the trains run on time for the RNC in a presidential cycle. And I think that's why a lot of people were excited that he was going. He had a relationship with Congress. He understood national politics.
But I think the problem was they created an environment in the White House where you were more worried about keeping your job than doing your job. And he did not have the ability to make decisions.
I have to say, it's a little odd to see your chief of staff go everywhere with the president. You really want your chief of staff back at the White House when you're off doing your thing, making sure that those trains are running on time. To me, that said he was more worried about not being the guy in the room than he was trying to perform the work he was supposed to do in the White House.
LIZZA: A sign of insecurity about where he stood with the president.
BLITZER: Let's not forget -- I was about to say, all of us covered the campaign. The RNC under Reince Priebus' leadership played a very significant -- we're about to speak with him -- played a very significant role in the ground game in getting Donald Trump elected president of the United States. They did all sorts of things in this presidential election they didn't do four years or eight years earlier when Barack Obama was running for president.
LIZZA: After the 2012 election, Reince Priebus assembled a team to look at why they lost the 2012 election, lessons learned, put together a report. It had two sections, sort of. It had one on mechanics, and infrastructure and money, and it had one on policy and messaging.
He won the battle on mechanics and infrastructure. He completely lost the battle on messaging. And Donald Trump went with a completely opposite message in the 2016 campaign.
But a lot of people will credit Reince Priebus and the RNC with the Republican victories in 2014 and '16. And, so, that -- I think, politically that's probably his greatest legacy right now as chief of staff as Rebecca was pointing out. I think it was more about stopping bad things from happening than actually affirmative victories for this White House.
ROGERS: Moving into digital. Moving into digital.
BLITZER: Describe this moment in the Trump presidency. Are you at a turning point right now, a critical moment right now?
ROGERS: Well, and I said before, this is like watching an octopus put its socks in the on morning. I mean, it is confusing. It's chaotic.
And I don't know if they have realized yet is that chaos inside the White House, these factions that regularly fight and elbow and push, it is stopping certain people from wanting to go into the government, number one. And number two, they're losing control of the legislative influence that they might have. I think last night was a great example of that.
The president should have been engaged in that in a way to get an outcome that he wanted. They don't have that yet. Six months in, you want to do big things, you have to have Congress with you. The way this chaos is rolling out, people are taking a step back.
And I have never seen members take a step back from their president this early. Always happens with every president, Republican and Democrat. I watched it happened through both. But this early, that spells trouble for your legislative agenda.
That's what he needs to do and maybe General Kelly is the person. But, again, that means and that 800-pound gorilla in the room is, does the family report through Trump or does it report through the chief of staff? If you can fix that problem with the Bannon problem, meaning they all report to the chief of staff, they may actually get control of that White House and begin to be able to implement the president's policy.
BLITZER: This was a week, Rebecca, we also saw an extraordinary amount of criticism of the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, by the president of the United States, a refusal to say the president has confidence in the attorney general. And that had enormous ripple effects on a lot of others in Congress.
BERG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you look at Congress right now, part of the problem is that the White House is kind of in disarray. The president has a low approval rating. And so, that's part of why you see Republicans retreating from the president in some respects.
But part of it is just crisis fatigue. They are tired of every single day having a new question come out of the White House. Does someone have a job? What is the president's policy on transgender troops in the military, for example?
To draw an example from this week, Republicans are tired of not knowing what is going on with this White House. And what happened this week with Attorney General Sessions and his job in limbo was a perfect example of that. They feel like they can't trust the president and this administration to show any discipline, to work in a sort of deliberate fashion, and they're waiting for that and maybe it will take a general as chief of staff to bring discipline into the White House and into this administration. It would be a relief for congressional Republicans.
BLITZER: There has been some good news, let's be fair, in this administration first six months. Second quarter growth -- economic growth, for example, 2.6 percent.
[18:55:02] That's pretty strong relatively speaking. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the stock market has been doing well. Jobs have been -- have been going.
Yesterday, the other day, we saw the announcement of this new plant that's about to be built in Wisconsin that's going to be Foxconn is going to be developing a lot of electronics here in the United States. The president promised he would do that. So, there have been some positive developments clearly.
COLLINS: There's been a few. Border crossings are down. That's why Trump was in Long Island to talk about his and Jeff Session's agenda to be tough on crime here at home.
But Donald Trump, we see him time and time again distract from those things that are working for him. At this event today, he was talking about the election and, you know, his poll numbers and whatnot. And instead of, you know, focusing on what Jeff Sessions is doing in El Salvador right now, the attorney general is there to talk with law enforcement officials about combating MS-13 gang, he was talking about other things and veering off topic and talking about the why police officers put people into cars.
So, we just need Donald Trump to detract from that message again and again. And like with Jeff Sessions, it's more of a loyalty thing. Donald Trump wants this loyalty and he wants people to put their reputations and their credibility out there on a line for him like Reince Priebus, like Sean Spicer, like Jeff Sessions have done. And in the end, where does it get them? Two of those three don't have jobs anymore.
BLITZER: Jamie, as we await our interview with Reince Priebus, what are your Republican sources saying about the fact that the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, was getting beaten up this week by the president?
GANGEL: They were very unhappy about it. That's the nicest way to put it. Look, there is certainly on Capitol Hill certainly in the Republican establishment whether these were members of the Republican Party who were even in the same wing as Jeff Sessions, they had a lot of respect for him. And I think what was most infuriating to them was this lack of loyalty, because Sessions had been -- he was the first one out there for Trump.
So, if the president was going to treat him that way, then, you know, what does that say, especially as we were just discussing, when he holds loyalty at such a premium.
The one other thing I just want to mention that has come out a lot in the last hour from people I have spoken to about this, nobody is optimistic that Donald Trump is going to change. No one thinks that the 70-year-old man is going to be any different. But they do hope that knowing General Kelly the way he conducts himself and his background that if anybody can make a difference in the general feeling of the White House, the set-up how things are working, that he's the guy to do it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Standby.
Joining us now is the now I guess former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
Reince, thanks so much for joining us.
REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Hey. How are you, Wolf?
BLITZER: I'm glad you're joining us from the White House.
First of all, I've got a lot of questions for you. But how are you doing right now?
PRIEBUS: I'm doing great. I just had a good conversation with General Kelly and the president, and I think you may know I have been obviously talking to the president for a few days about this and ultimately I formally resigned yesterday.
And, you know, the president was great. He wanted to include me in figuring out how and who would be a great successor and a good chief of staff. I think General Kelly is a brilliant pick. I just, like I said, talked to him, talked to the president. We'll be working on a transition here for a couple of weeks together with General Kelly starting on Monday morning.
So, this isn't -- this is not like a situation where there is a bunch of ill will feelings. This is, I think, good for the president. I think it's smart for him to pick General Kelly, and I think that things are going to be run very well.
BLITZER: You say you resigned yesterday. Tell us why. Why did you make that important decision to resign?
PRIEBUS: Well, it wasn't -- it was something that I have always talked to the president about, which is -- and I have always said to him, and he always agreed with me. Any time either one of us think that we need to make a change or move in a different direction, let's just talk about it and get it done. And, so, I think the president thought about that and we talked about it yesterday. And I resigned and he accepted my resignation.
But this is about the president. It is about moving his agenda forward. I think he made a smart decision with General Kelly, and I think he's going to do a great job. And I'm looking forward to the future.