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'Trump was always different': Reince Priebus discusses 2016 election, being Trump's chief of staff

Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, holds the record for the shortest tenure as White House chief of staff. Yet, Priebus still maintains a close relationship with the president. 

On Monday night, a packed Page Auditorium listened to Priebus recall working as the president’s gatekeeper after serving two three-year terms as RNC chair. The talk was moderated by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, who Priebus referred to as one of the “never Trumps” who helped President Donald Trump win the general election.

He said that if the election was held today, Trump would beat Clinton and win the popular vote. But, Priebus has not always been this confident in Trump’s success at winning the presidency.

After having to deal with Trump’s comments at his opening rally and insults aimed at Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Priebus did not believe Trump could have a chance at winning the general election. Then, he returned to his hometown in Wisconsin. Every person he talked to in his close-knit town said they were going to vote for Trump.

“I realized that [Trump] could very well be the next President of the United States,” Priebus said.

Priebus described the Republican Party during the primary election as a “total train wreck,” characterizing the process as a “16-person fiasco” with 15 of the candidates as the “same type of people slicing each other’s conventional pie.” He said voters were looking for a candidate to wave “the biggest middle finger to Washington D.C.”

“There was no better person to do that than Donald Trump,” Priebus said. “Trump was always different. He said what a lot of people were thinking.”

After Trump began winning states like New Hampshire, Trump as the Republican nominee was a “done deal," he said. Turning his attention to the general election, Priebus explained the process through which the Republican Party targeted voters. 

As both sides of the aisle desired party infrastructure that is “solid and competent,” he acknowledged that the Republican Party did not waste time on those who are “80 percent certain” they will vote for Trump and ensured they receive an absentee ballot. On the other hand, the party delved deeper into the behavior of those who were “60 percent certain.” 

“I’m going to know everything about you, and I can predict very carefully how you’re going to act at the ballot box,” Priebus said.

He noted that the differences in the center of Democratic Party and Republican Party's infrastructures. Because Democratic strategists built their party infrastructure around candidates, he elaborated that the growing presence of Sen. Bernie Sanders threatened the Democratic Party’s intention to build its platform around Hillary’s campaign. 

On the other hand, he said that the Republican strategy was to “build everything around the party.” Priebus called the coupling of these two factors a “perfect storm.” 

The success of this strategy was tested with the releases of the Access Hollywood just before the second presidential debate that showed Trump talking about groping women. Priebus remembered that a member of the debate preparation staff left every two minutes the day of the leak.

“When you have the entire communications staff in a huddle on a Friday afternoon, I said, ‘Donald, this isn’t good.’ Trump responded with, ‘What the hell’s going on out there?’” Priebus said.

When White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, formerly the Trump campaign press secretary, handed a packet to Trump, Priebus said that Trump was “ashamed” and “not happy with what he was reading.” 

“There are some other things [in the packet] that will come out later,” Priebus said.

In order for Trump to “hear something raw” before the debate, Priebus said that he told the president two things: he would either lose by “the biggest landslide ever” or “drop out of the race.” Even after the accusations about the Hollywood Tapes, Priebus said that Trump “delivered a knock-out” in the second debate. 

“For the last three weeks of his campaign, Trump was giving five speeches a day,” Priebus said. “The American people forgot all about the controversy. Those three weeks felt like three years. All of a sudden, we were in the clear.”

The Comey investigation into Clinton's emails had “more life” in the last couple days of the campaign when Clinton was already exonerated, he said. However, Priebus detailed that if Trump would have been in the same situation, he would have treated it as the “biggest birthday gift” he ever had.

“Hillary didn’t do that,” Priebus said. “Trump played an unconventional game against a very conventional candidate. This campaign showed that non-stop attention is not necessarily a bad thing.”

He said that Trump was “in a good place to win” the Friday before the election. There is “no evidence” that the aftermath of the email controversy changed the outcome of the election, Priebus explained. But, he agreed that committees investigating the scandal should find out if such evidence exists. 

“As a candidate, [Trump] sucked up every art of media attention, and it was enough to beat a weak candidate who didn’t resonate with the American people,” Priebus said.

Reflecting on Trump’s presidential tactics when he was chief of staff, Priebus noted how the president preferred to surround himself with “factions.” Although this method of governance is “harder,” he believed that division makes governance “better” because it increases the likelihood of recognizing other viewpoints. To Priebus, “unity is a dead dog loser” and “division is money.”

“All the so-called experts were wrong. When it comes to winning or losing—not governing—the formula works,” Priebus said. “The president’s view on governing is to run with lightning.”

Priebus also recounted times when he had to enter the Oval Office to stop Trump from tweeting.

“I know the tweets you haven’t seen,” Priebus said. “For every tweet you’ve seen, there’s another nine you didn’t see.”

He explained that–even when Trump cannot be stopped from rushing to his phone–the president is “not stupid,” as he knows both “the difference between a tweet and a nuclear bomb” and how to “play the media like a fiddle.”

When asked if the president would run again in 2020, Priebus unhesitatingly affirmed.

“The kind of person that doesn’t run [again] is not President Trump. He will fight every day until he dies,” Priebus said. “[Trump] loves the country and works like a dog.”

First-year Allyson Lee attended both the John Podesta and Priebus segments of the series "One Year Later: America's Role One Year After the Election that Shook the World." Although both speakers “towed their party lines,” she noted that Podesta was “humbler” and “more conciliatory,” and it seemed that Priebus was “antagonizing the audience.”

“[Priebus] was selling us on the president even though he was no longer in the White House,” Lee said.

First-year, Caleb Rummel, a member of Duke College Republicans, also attended both talks. 

“I saw [Podesta] as a part of the establishment and had a fake persona. But, I believe it was very insightful having both of them here. It was nice seeing both perspectives and the inner workings of both parties,” Rummel said.

Since his resignation in late July, Priebus has enjoyed “breaking away from routine.” He returned to his former law practice as the firm’s president and chief strategist and as chair of the board of advisors for Michael Best Strategies LLC.

“I have had the greatest three months of my life–just being quiet and alone, not fighting anymore,” Priebus said.

Stefanie Pousoulides | Investigations Editor

Stefanie Pousoulides is The Chronicle's Investigations Editor. A senior from Akron, Ohio, Stefanie is double majoring in political science and international comparative studies and serves as a Senior Editor of The Muse Magazine, Duke's feminist magazine. She is also a former co-Editor-in-Chief of The Muse Magazine and a former reporting intern at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C.


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