Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus warned President Donald Trump that letting Attorney General Jeff Sessions resign would cause a “spiral of calamity” worse than the backlash to his abrupt termination of FBI Director James Comey, according to an upcoming book.
Vanity Fair on Wednesday published an excerpt of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” by Chris Whipple, based on an interview where Priebus described the aftermath of Comey’s abrupt firing in May 2017.
After Trump terminated Comey, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to reports, Trump blamed Mueller’s appointment on Sessions, who had recused himself from the probe months earlier, and lashed out at him.
White House counsel Don McGahn came in to Priebus’ office “pretty hot, red, out of breath,” according to the excerpt, and told the then-chief of staff, “We’ve got a problem.”
According to Priebus, McGahn told him that Sessions had “just resigned.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about?” Priebus said, according to the excerpt. “And I said, ‘That can’t happen.’”
Priebus said that he chased after Sessions into the parking lot, where he found Sessions in a car about to leave.
“I knocked on the door of the car and Jeff was sitting there and I just jumped in and shut the door and I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’” Priebus said.
When Sessions told Priebus that he planned to resign, Priebus replied, “You cannot resign. It’s not possible,” according to the report.
“We are going to talk about this right now,” Priebus said he told Sessions.
According to Priebus, he “dragged” Sessions back to his office and — with help from Vice President Mike Pence and then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, since ousted — convinced Sessions to reconsider. Sessions nevertheless delivered a resignation letter to the Oval Office that night, according to the excerpt, but Priebus claimed he “persuaded the President to give it back.”
Vanity Fair reported, citing an unnamed White House insider, that Priebus stepped in a month later to keep Trump from demanding Sessions’ resignation.
“He told the president, ‘If I get this resignation, you are in for a spiral of calamity that makes Comey look like a picnic,'” the source told Vanity Fair.
Priebus warned Trump that if he forced Sessions out, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would also resign, and then-associate attorney general Rachel Brand — who resigned last week — would say, “Forget it. I’m not going to be involved with this,” according to Vanity Fair.
According to the report, Priebus succeeded in convincing Trump not to oust his attorney general. A month later, he left the White House — and John Kelly, now facing scrutiny for his handling of abuse allegations against a top aide, took his place as chief of staff.