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Week In Politics: Health Care And Priebus Out, Kelly In


Late yesterday afternoon, a tweet from President Trump heralded the hiring of a new chief of staff, General John Kelly. That means the departure of Reince Priebus, who had served as chief of staff up to that point. The announcement capped off a week of chaos at the White House and a presidency that has seemed to redefine that term again and again. Joining me now, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey, Don. Good to be with you.

GONYEA: So Reince Priebus, his relationship with his boss, President Trump, is now past tense. Priebus was generally regarded as good at his old job as chair of the Republican National Committee, but chief of staff is a whole different ballgame, isn't it?

ELVING: It is. And a big part of it is connecting with an establishment Washington, which was, of course, not Donald Trump's world. And he was connecting with the Congress and other elements of the power structure - donors, lobbyists - also establishment Republicans around the country outside of Washington, governors and so on. And Priebus knew everybody. He had been chair of the Republican National Committee, righted the ship there, eliminated debt at that organization. But given the great frustration that has met the president's agenda so far - the breakdown in health care, the delays on all the rest of the agenda, nominations and so on - Priebus was increasingly likely to be faulted for all of that, fairly or unfairly.

GONYEA: And his replacement, General John Kelly. He's been secretary of Homeland Security till now. That title, general, stands out. The rap under Priebus is that too many people had walk-in privileges to the Oval Office. It could be like that great state room scene from that old Marx Brothers movie. Will General Kelly bring that to an end?

ELVING: Well, I think some of that Marx Brothers routine might continue, but we would expect the general to impose some discipline and blow the whistle on that crowd scene, as you describe it, sort of sorting out the various cats in the bag and restoring some kind of sense of hierarchy, a chain of command, to borrow a military term. You know, some of us remember the sudden entrance of General Alexander Haig taking over his chief of staff for Richard Nixon in 1973 at an - what could be described as an embattled point in that presidency. And the idea in both cases was a military style of control.

GONYEA: High-level departures are now feeling pretty routine in this administration. I'm thinking Sean Spicer just a week ago, a couple of others in the communications shop, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, now Priebus. Can a White House function with so much turnover so fast in such important jobs? I mean, I can't think of any other precedent myself, perhaps you can.

ELVING: It's not unusual for a new president to shed some of the staff that comes in with him in the first year. You know, people from the campaign, for example, who don't fit in in the new environment. But this is the earliest we've ever seen a chief of staff go. And this many departees at this high level, it's hard to think of an analog in the first six months of any other administration.

GONYEA: OK. A really big legislative story this week with the Senate failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Is that effort dead as in really, really, really dead?

ELVING: It is dead for the moment. You know, the president has been tweeting in the last 24 hours about killing the filibuster rule because it's too hard to get to 60 votes. You know, on this bill, all they needed was 50 votes and they could not get to 50 votes. And the real problem here is not process. It's the problem. They don't have consensus on health care. So it looks dead in the Senate, at least for the moment, but it could be revived in the longer run.

GONYEA: And just quickly, we could have started our conversation with North Korea or Russia. The world is out there, isn't it?

ELVING: It is, indeed, and it's not giving the U.S. a break to get its act together. North Korea seems headed for a crisis. The Russia relationship may be as well. The president has said he will sign the bill stiffening sanctions on Russia and making it more difficult even for himself to lift those sanctions. The Russians have already begun retaliating for that, so more to come.

GONYEA: More to come. NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you, sir.

ELVING: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.