Reince Priebus was doomed from the beginning. He was hired as the White House's resident Republican insider — which is to say, from the perspective of Trumpworld, its resident outsider.
Priebus's notion of the White House was alien to Trump's — he had quaint ideas about managing Trump's time and working with factions of Congress to pass bills. But just as importantly, when he did the things Trump expected his top staffers to do — namely, go on television and defend the president's agenda — he wasn't a credible messenger. It was too obvious that he was the kind of person who thought that life had been basically okay before 2017, that Washington hadn't abandoned Americans to the rampages of criminal gangs.
Technically, Priebus was fired after the project he'd been assigned — getting Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act — failed in the Senate. But really, he was fired because, whether he succeeded or not, he didn't perform in a way Trump understood or respected.
While Trump's health care agenda has foundered — as has much of the rest of his platform — his immigration agenda has not. As he promised, federal immigration agents are "unshackled." As he promised, immigrants are being treated more harshly upon being apprehended at the border. The wall is happening slowly (and really, everyone involved agrees it's more of a fence) but it's moving along.
But while it's true that Trump is simply elevating the man who's overseen the administration's biggest substantive success so far — Kelly — the reality is substantially more complicated.
Kelly wasn't the brains behind the Trump immigration agenda. Most of it was designed by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (before he became Attorney General and got shut out of Trump's inner circle) and former Sessions staffers now highly placed in the White House, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security.
But over the course of Kelly's six months at the head of DHS, he became the faceof the Trump immigration agenda. And to Trump, that's even more important.
It's not just that Kelly looked the part, or that his appearances on Sunday shows gave off the air of an upstanding military man who was a little uncomfortable doing a media appearance when there were wars to be fought. It's the fact that Kelly spoke — and to all appearances believed — as if the Trump administration wasa constant war against the forces of lawlessness and disorder.
To Chuck Todd, he called intelligence leaks "darn close to treason." He warned Martha Raddatz that "you just have to be vigilant" about terrorism because "this is nonstop. They are out there trying to hurt us every day." He told John Dickerson that he was kept awake at night and distracted four to five times a day by the threat of a terrorist attack "to knock down an airplane in flight."
To Chris Wallace of Fox News, he justified the Trump administration's travel ban by saying, "We have to figure out a way to determine who they are and why they come into the United States. Otherwise, we're guessing. And this president and John Kelly doesn't want to guess when it comes to national security and protection of the US population."
Trump, easily distracted, hadn't often returned as president to the apocalyptic rhetoric of an America under siege that he used at the most important moments on the campaign trail. Kelly did.
In a speech at George Washington University in May — a mission statement about Kelly's priorities as secretary, delivered to an audience of Washington elites — Kelly was shockingly martial. "Make no mistake — we are a nation under attack. We are under attack from criminals who think their greed justifies raping young girls at knifepoint, dealing poison to our youth, or killing just for fun."
It wasn't the Kelly that many had expected when he was nominated — the regional Latin America expert who hated politics and would think a wall was total bunk. It sounded, well, a lot like Donald Trump, at a time when Trump wasn't spending much time sounding like his old self.
Now, though, that passage from Kelly's speech might sound familiar. It's awfully close to the rhetoric Trump used on Friday, during a speech in Long Island that was ostensibly about MS-13 but really about how important it was for ICE to be rough on immigrant "criminals."
The Long Island speech came on the heels of Trump's defeat on health care in the Senate. It wasn't the first time his administration had pivoted back to immigration in an attempt to move on from an embarrassing setback on something else. But it was notable in its total lack of restraint — its insistence on turning subtext into text. President Trump (and even, for the most part, candidate Trump during the general election) hadn't explicitly endorsed physical violence. On Friday, he called on police officers to shove suspects into cars without protecting the suspects' heads from the impact.
It was, at once, absolutely bone-chilling and inevitable. It was a return to form. But it was a return to a form that many hoped Trump would have retired, for good, once assuming office.