NIKHIL DHINGRA: --become more relevant than ever. The need for civic discourse in an era characterized by political polarization is evidently apparent.
By having speakers from both sides of the aisle, such as Chairman Priebus, to not only educate us from their perspective but also provide us with a glimpse into their unique insight into the political system, the IOPGA is working to start a dialogue that we hope will continue to be adopted in similar institutions across the country.
In particular, given the recent news coming out of the executive branch, Chairman Priebus will provide us with unparalleled insight into the inner workings of a White House known for its volatility and erratic methods of conducting business.
It is an honor to be given the opportunity to introduce two individuals who have attained such paramount levels of influence within our government.
Chairman Reince Priebus currently serves as the President and Chief Strategist for Michael Best and Friedrich LLP, as well as Chairman of the Board of Advisors for Michael Best Strategies LLC, the firm's government relations and public affairs group. Chairman Priebus was a partner in Michael Best's litigation and corporate practice groups before becoming the RNC's Chairman.
Most recently, Chairman Priebus served as White House Chief of Staff under President Donald J. Trump, supporting the president, managing the White House staff, and collaborating with members of Congress and other key policy makers and advancing the president's agenda.
Prior to managing the White House staff, Chairman Priebus served as the longest serving Chairman of the Republican National Committee in modern history. He oversaw a dramatic turnaround of the RNC, rescuing its finances, repairing its operations, and rebuilding its ground game. He left the RNC as one of the most successful chairmen of either political party in American history.
Before becoming RNC Chairman, Priebus served as Chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, creating the framework for one of the most historic election cycles Wisconsin has ever experienced. We are incredibly excited that Chairman Priebus has taken the time to speak with us today and look forward to hearing his insights.
Former Congressman Steve Israel left Capitol Hill unindicted and undefeated--
STEVE ISRAEL: Triumph--
NIKHIL DHINGRA: To pursue a career as a writer. He left in 2017, having served as a member of Congress for 16 years, along with serving as the House Democrats' Chief Political Strategist between 2011 and 2015 as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. President Bill Clinton called him one of the most thoughtful members of Congress, which Israel states isn't really saying much at all.
Israel is a regular political commentator on MSNBC. His insights appear regularly in The New York Times, The Atlantic magazine, as well as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. He was profiled on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes.
During his tenure, Congressman Israel was one of only nine members of the House democratic leadership and has a singular behind-the-scenes understanding of how Washington officials think.
As Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years, Israel was the chief architect of House campaign strategies. He was responsible for overall development of competitive House campaigns across America. He was lauded for recruiting and electing the most diverse and entrepreneurial freshman congressional class in history. He developed a vast network of local, state, and federal officials throughout the nation and is considered a leading expert in congressional dynamics.
In addition to writing two critically acclaimed satires of Washington, Congressman Israel is currently serving as the director of the new nonpartisan Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University, the only academically based Institute of Politics in the New York metropolitan area. Its mission is to raise the discourse and deepen understanding of political issues and geopolitics.
Once again, we are incredibly excited and honored to have both of these distinguished individuals. And I look forward to hearing their insights on the current state of the executive branch. Please join me in welcoming Chairman Reince Priebus and Congressman Steve Israel.
STEVE ISRAEL: Thank you very much.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Thank you.
STEVE ISRAEL: Thank you so much. Let's hear it for Nikhil for his excellent introductions, read just the way my mother wrote my bio. Thank you very much, Nikhil.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I especially like "the longest serving chairman." It reminds people that I can keep a job for more than six months.
I've got that going for me. It's a good line.
STEVE ISRAEL: Nikhil took a bus from Cornell University Ithaca with several Cornell students, I think about 10 students from Cornell. Some are in my class. Those of you who are in my class and came, Ellie, you just aced the midterm. Congratulations for being here.
I also want to acknowledge a few others who've joined us. We are balanced and we are fair at the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. And Nik mentioned that I am a pundit on MSNBC. But we're also joined tonight by someone who does an extraordinary job analyzing politics and explaining it. And that is SE Cupp from CNN, who is with us.
SE, thank you for everything that you do. Give her a big hand-- Saturday night, right? Saturday nights at 10:00? You've got to watch her show. It's amazing. And she graduated from Cornell, so we're very proud of her.
New York State Assemblyman Steve Stern is with us. Assemblyman, thank you very much for joining us. Give him a big hand.
The Chairman of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University, the former Lieutenant Governor of the state of New York and a true hero to so many of us in New York City, Dick Ravitch is with us. Dick, thank you very much for being here.
Now, let me just do some quick-- is this working? I don't--
STEVE ISRAEL: OK. Let me just do some quick housekeeping. These conversations have always been and will continue to be completely off the record, SE Cupp.
SE CUPP: I got it.
STEVE ISRAEL: Got it? All right, off-the-record, confidential.
The value of these conversations is we take you deep behind the scenes. You're going to hear in this conversation as you heard with Speaker Pelosi and Adam Schiff and Congressman Tom Cole, a Republican. You're going to hear honesty and get a really granular view of what's happening behind the scenes.
But that only works if our speakers feel that they're not going to get burned and that they can speak with confidence. So rule number one is what happens at Cornell stays at Cornell. All right? That's number one.
Number two, the mission of our institute is, as Nik said, to deepen discourse and raise understanding. And to deepen discourse and raise understanding requires civility. It requires a respect for views with which you may find yourself in disagreement.
And so the rules of polite discourse and civility and diplomacy that we applied with Speaker Pelosi and with Chairman Schiff and with Tom Cole apply tonight, as well. And so if you find yourself in disagreement, you have every right to disagree, but no screaming, no shouting. I left Congress for that.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I'm not used to civility.
STEVE ISRAEL: That's right
REINCE PRIEBUS: You don't want to be civil, that's fine. It doesn't bother me.
STEVE ISRAEL: We're going to have an off-the-record conversation. It is being live streamed to the Ithaca campus, so hello, Ithaca. We're glad that you're watching.
I have some questions-- so a little conversation that I'll have with Chairman Priebus, about half an hour. Then we have cards that are being handed out. We invite you to write your questions.
We have Natalie and Devin and Jake will be circulating. If you want to write down a question, raise your hand. And then for the final half hour, we'll be asking your questions to the chairman.
So let's begin at the beginning. First of all, a big hand again for Reince Priebus for joining us.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Thank you. Thank you.
STEVE ISRAEL: No matter how you may feel, it's got to be refreshing to see a hardcore Democrat and a hardcore Republican on one stage without slugging each other, right? Isn't that nice? It's a nice thing.
REINCE PRIEBUS: He's one of the decent, normal Democrats there are. So he's a rare breed.
STEVE ISRAEL: So your very first campaign, let's go to the Reince Priebus early years. You were 16 years old in Wisconsin. What was the campaign? Do you remember?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yeah, I do.
STEVE ISRAEL: What did you do?
REINCE PRIEBUS: I volunteered-- so I've done every job there is in politics. So when I hear things-- when I used to hear candidates talk about the party elites in Washington, I'm like, who are they talking about? They're referring to me.
And I've done every job there is in politics, yard signs, making sure there's enough pizzas for the phone banks, everything from a little kid to where I am today.
So I remember the first campaign I volunteered on. There's a guy named Bernie Weaver, and he ran against Les Aspin. That's my district.
STEVE ISRAEL: Wow.
REINCE PRIEBUS: The first congressional--
STEVE ISRAEL: So where in Wisconsin is this?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Kenosha, Wisconsin.
STEVE ISRAEL: Wow.
REINCE PRIEBUS: So the far southeast corner. That's where Paul Ryan's district is today. But that was my district. I basically grew up with Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.
But how I got involved in this and why Republican and why all that-- so my parents were not real political. But my grandfather, who is Greek-- half my family lives in Greece. So my mother's Greek.
My mother was born in actually-- it's a long story-- Khartoum, Sudan. My dad was in the army in Ethiopia, American army, met my mother, moved here, and my life became-- have you ever seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That was my life. The arguing started at 7 o'clock in the morning and didn't end until everyone went to bed.
And so my parents-- of course, the relatives from Greece would come over. And they would not come for two weeks. They'd come for a couple months. So Yaya and Papu would come.
And my grandfather loved politics. And as a little guy, anything and everything my grandfather did, I loved. He was the person I looked up to the most in my life. He loved everything about this country. But he wasn't from here. And so I knew I lived in some place that was very special.
And he would take the letter P off the shelf on the World Books. And he would read about American presidents. And he would tell me stories about-- it didn't matter if it was a Republican or Democrat. Everyone was a hero.
At the time, Reagan was the president. So everything Reagan did was great. If JFK was the president, it would be JFK. It didn't matter. And he'd have a little Johnnie Walker next to him as he's telling me the stories.
But like I said, the thing I knew was the guy I loved and looked up to the most in my life loved this country. He loved Reagan. And I suddenly became interested in politics.
And that's how it all started. And from high school, college Republicans, everything in between, every event, every grunt job you could do, I did it.
STEVE ISRAEL: And you go to law school. And you have an internship at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Among other things, yes. And so I did a lot of different political things. And there are times, as you know, that the NAACP is not completely partisan. The Legal Defense Fund was a little different.
There was a gal by the name of Connie Rice, not Condoleezza Rice, that ran the LA office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I think JC Watts was involved.
In any event, you might remember the last mayor of Los Angeles, Dick Riordan was a Republican. And it was the NAACP that came in behind Dick Riordan and helped him get elected. So I thought it would be a good experience for someone from Wisconsin to be involved in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
One of the first cases I worked on was a guy by the name of Geronimo Pratt, who served 25 years in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. And it was a great experience, and I'm happy I did it.
STEVE ISRAEL: You become the Wisconsin Republican state chair.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yep.
STEVE ISRAEL: Then you become the chairman of the RNC, Republican National Committee. And then you're chief of staff to the president of the United States.
Let's shift to that role, because there may be some curiosities here about what that's like. And then we'll talk about politics and how you see the Democratic field and whether Democrats and Republicans can work together.
Let's focus on your tenure working for the president of the United States. I'd love for you to tell the story that you've told me. We're going to actually begin this part of the conversation near the end of Reince's term as chief of staff. Could you share the story that you shared with me--
REINCE PRIEBUS: I'll share part of it. Even though it's off the record, I'm always pretty-- SE knows I'm careful to a fault.
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah. And I think this story is important for you to understand.
REINCE PRIEBUS: But I promise if we had a beer together afterwards, I could entertain you for hours.
But let me say-- I'll tell the story. But let me just say one quick thing. So I know that part of this is to work with students and to encourage students. I'm a product of a person who really just worked really hard.
I don't particularly think I'm highly intelligent. I'm not gifted, I don't think, intellectually. But what I am is I'm persistent. And I work hard.
And I'd never imagined that from doing all these crazy jobs in the party-- setting up events and doing that kind of thing, running back and forth as a litigator at a law firm in Milwaukee and then after work running down to these party events-- that eventually, I was going to be the state party chairman, which I could see me doing. That's OK. That's a good job, but it's not something I thought would be out of my reach.
But then I became general counsel of the RNC, working through some crazy times for a couple years that I won't get into. But some people know what that was all about. And then on the seventh ballot, because I decided to run for chairman of the RNC, someone that no one knew-- who was this guy, Reince Priebus? How do you even get a name like that?
And on the seventh ballot, I became the chairman of the RNC. And it was a life changing moment. But it would have never happened if I didn't do all these goofy jobs that maybe people didn't care about and worked my way up. And I'm just telling you, students, you can do the same thing.
But what happens is you have to take the little jobs and do them really, really well, the jobs that you think are insignificant or maybe not getting any glory, but all the way up, being the best person at whatever that little job is. And then you get your moment to make a decision as to whether or not you want to go for it and put your name out and put your neck out and do it.
And from there, walking into an RNC that was $26 million in debt-- both credit cards were suspended for nonpayment, the biggest political party in the world. And from that moment on, things went well for us.
We modeled everything after what Barack Obama did on data and digital, the best program I've ever seen. And we built that. And the Democrats kind of faded on the DNC. We passed up the DNC.
And lo and behold, President Trump became our president-elect. And so it all ended--
STEVE ISRAEL: Were you surprised?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Well, it's always surprising--
STEVE ISRAEL: Because I was.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Listen, it's always surprising when you win, when you're in that moment. Even though you thought you were going to win, maybe when you won, it was so surprising when you're like, wow, I actually won.
Let me tell you something. Political parties and just like everything you do in your life that's complicated-- there are a lot of successful business people here, SE a successful person on CNN. But it was hard getting there. And it's detailed.
When you decide to buy and sell an apartment building or whatever you're doing, it's not just luck. Political parties are the same way. If you were Ohio voters, I know everything about you. And I'm not exaggerating.
I know what beer you drink. I know the amount of kids you have. I know what cigarettes you smoke. I know what you watch. I know everything about you. And if I know 10,000 points of consumer data on every one of you, then I can score you based on your propensity to support a particular candidate.
And I know that this row here is 80% to support President Trump because of your characteristics, and you're in Ohio. And it turns out that you three share their characteristics, and I plucked you out of a voter file in Colorado. You three are going to do the same thing they're going to do in Colorado.
So my point is to you, we don't operate-- when you're spending tens of millions of dollars a day-- I raised a billion dollars-- you don't spend it just because you think you might win. I know what 2 million ballots are in the door in Florida.
Remember, they vote early in Florida. So if I know that 2 million ballots are in the door and the Secretary of State shares with me who those 2 million people are and I know everything about the entire voter file in Florida and I measure those 2 million people, I know on election day, I'm 120,000 ballots ahead in Florida than where Mitt Romney was in 2012.
The RNC, the DNC, you're not going to spend $100 million in two weeks at the end of October if you think you're not going to win, because Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are telling you, spend the money on the Senate and the House. What are you doing?
Why are you spending money on Trump? He's not going to win. Spend it over here. We spent it, anyway, because we think Trump's going to win.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right. So--
REINCE PRIEBUS: Oh, my last day.
STEVE ISRAEL: We're going to fast forward, because I think the story gives you a real sense of the dynamic and the operating style and management style of President Trump. And then we'll back into some of your early times with the president-- the day you decided to tell the president that you wanted to leave.
REINCE PRIEBUS: So we had a crazy week. Part of my problem was I was the first guy in, right? And so it was always the same-- not strong enough, can't stop the leaks, can't stop the tweets.
No one actually talks about that anymore, the leaks and the tweets. It's just always leaks and the tweets. So in many ways, the best thing that happened to me was John Kelly, because if a four-star combat marine couldn't stop the leaks and the tweets, all of a sudden, I don't look so bad, right?
I love John. I think John's great. And he did a wonderful job. But I had a crazy week, right? Scaramucci came in--
STEVE ISRAEL: This is when? This is--
REINCE PRIEBUS: Right. This is now the Scaramucci week.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right.
REINCE PRIEBUS: And he had accused me-- since we're off the record, I'll just have a little fun. He accused me of, well, however-- I would never do this to someone. But I released his financial disclosures. I don't know if you remember that. It's so long ago.
But if you paid me $10 million, I wouldn't even know where to find somebody's financial disclosures, even if you said, just tell me where they are. I don't know. It turns out they're posted online after you work for the federal government for more than 30 days.
He was working for the Ex-Im Bank for more than 30 days. And then we asked a reporter, where did you find it? It was online.
STEVE ISRAEL: Online. Let me interrupt for a moment and acknowledge that the former head of the Ex-Im Bank under President Obama's here, Fred Hochberg. I want to acknowledge Fred Hochberg for being here. Thank you for your service.
FRED HOCHBERG: He was about 30 minutes in total.
STEVE ISRAEL: Huh?
FRED HOCHBERG: He was only there for about two days.
REINCE PRIEBUS: By the way, for all the talk about how I was against Anthony, I'm the one that came up with the plan to get him into this Ex-Im Bank. And we were going to send him to Paris to the OECD, whatever that is up in Paris.
STEVE ISRAEL: So it's a tough week.
REINCE PRIEBUS: So he came in. Spicer resigns. It's going crazy.
And keep in mind, I've spent my entire political life-- I'm a structuralist, organized, right? Six years running the RNC, a billion dollars raised. You never heard about any FEC violation. You never heard about a crazy employment problem, right?
But I got into this situation where I couldn't feel like anything was going well, right? So then this happened.
I walked into the Oval Office. And I said to the president, look, this isn't working. It's not working for you.
STEVE ISRAEL: It was the Oval Office, not Air Force One?
REINCE PRIEBUS: It was in the Oval.
STEVE ISRAEL: Oh, OK.
REINCE PRIEBUS: It was the day before.
STEVE ISRAEL: For some reason-- oh, OK. Got it.
REINCE PRIEBUS: It was the day before.
STEVE ISRAEL: Got it. Right.
REINCE PRIEBUS: So it was on a Thursday. And it was just hours before Scaramucci's comments about me being a paranoid schizophrenic and everything else were released by Ryan Lizza.
And before that happened, that's when I walked in and said, it's not working. You know it. I know it. We talked for a couple hours. And it's not like he fought me, either.
I'm not going to pretend that he said, no, please, I'm begging you to stay. So he said, fine. Just don't say anything to anybody. We'll figure it out. And I left the Oval. And I thought, OK. Now, I'm going to move on.
And it felt really good and cathartic. So I left. The next day is when we got on Air Force One. And we had a trip up in Long Island. We did that event with MS-13 and the police and all that.
So we had a great conversation. Everything was wonderful, got along great, no problems. Flew back together on Air Force One-- Reince, you're doing great. You're going to make so much money.
You're so talented, and we're just going to take care of you, nothing to worry about. When do you want to do this? I brought it up. I said, when do you want to do this?
You want to make the change this weekend? Next week? What do you think? And he said, well, maybe you do whatever. We can figure it out.
But maybe we'll go to Bedminster, which was going to be August now. And we're going to go to Bedminster for a couple weeks. We'll figure it out then.
I said, fine. I said, whatever you want to do, I'm not going to be a problem. You know me. I'm not going to-- and by the way, I basically shut my mouth for two years, right? No problem.
OK, great. You're the greatest, hugs and kisses. We're parked now at Andrews--
STEVE ISRAEL: At Andrews--
REINCE PRIEBUS: And said, fine, I'll see you at the residence. And if you've worked in politics, sometimes, if you're with the principal and your staffers, when they're with you for a long time, they're not looking for more time with you.
So I said, listen, I'll go in the back car. I'll see you at the residence, and we'll talk about it then. Great. No problem. Big hug, no problem.
I walk out Air Force One. Less than a minute later, my phone buzzes because I get the notification on the tweets. And I read the tweet.
And it says, "Reince has been great. But John Kelly's going to be the new chief of staff." I said, I just talked to him two minutes ago. This has got to be a mistake.
So I went back to the White House. I'm running the comm shop, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and this is what you're going to say. This is what we're going to do. And I thought about that moment a lot.
There's a little bit more to this story that would have to come when we have our beer together. But it really does kind of capture Trump World quite a bit.
And if you think about how he makes decisions, which we're going to talk about in a minute, he didn't need for this decision to go through the White House matrix of very different people that have different views on who this and who that. He decided right then and there he liked the idea of John Kelly.
I did, too. We agreed on that. He liked it. I liked it.
I wasn't going to be a problem to him. I wasn't going to be a guy writing books and being a thorn in his side.
And so he just decided right then and there, why wait? Just do it right now. Make the decision. Move forward.
And then three days later, I was playing golf. And he's, Reince, my man. How you doing? You want to come by and say hello-- just like that.
STEVE ISRAEL: You're still in touch with him?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yeah.
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah? Regular basis?
REINCE PRIEBUS: I am.
STEVE ISRAEL: Very good.
Let's talk about his operating style.
REINCE PRIEBUS: He tends to like two kinds of people, the people that used to work for him and the people that are going to work for him. That's a joke. Don't take it out of context.
STEVE ISRAEL: We get it.
REINCE PRIEBUS: But it is true. As long as you kind of just stay in your lane, he pretty much doesn't lose touch with almost anybody.
STEVE ISRAEL: Best day as chief of staff? Worst day as chief of staff?
REINCE PRIEBUS: So my best day as chief of staff-- and it's not to be funny. It was the first day, not that things went downhill after that. My best day was the first day, because it was one of the very few times I've seen the president overwhelmed by the job and the responsibility.
So we were up in the dining room of the White House. And the family was eating there in a buffet. And we were just sitting just like this. And he said, hey, do you want to go down and see the Oval Office?
And I had never been in the Oval Office, even though I'd been doing this for my entire life. But it's just that I came into being some political horsepower during the entire eight years of Barack Obama. So why would I be in the Oval Office?
So I said, that would be great. Let's go. So we walked down through the dining room, in through the hallways-- didn't even know how to get there. The Secret Service was basically leading the way.
And I remember walking into the Oval Office. And it was dark. And it was quiet, just like this. And the president walked around. And he looked up, and I still remember the look of him.
He looked up, like this, stared at the ceiling and just looked at me and just said, wow. And then he looked at me. And he said, can you believe it? I said, no, I can't believe it, Mr. President.
So then I walked on to my office. And there was an empty office. And there was a password for the computer, a Bible verse left by Denis McDonough-- great person, good friend of mine.
STEVE ISRAEL: Great guy.
REINCE PRIEBUS: And that was it. And you're going to go-- you're running basically the United States of America. A password and a Bible verse, and go figure it out.
And let's face it. Working and managing Trump is not easy. I still get texts from other chiefs of staff. But in the beginning, I had to sit here and read advice from the second chief of staff of Jimmy Carter.
And hey, this is what you should do. And these guys would have had a stroke or a heart attack in a month, like the book, The Gatekeepers, by Chris Whipple. Oh, OK. Great.
So that was the best day. The worst day, which is very real about the job, is I was going into the Oval Office one day. And I'm going to give you the ending, and I'll back up.
And this was the day that President Trump gave the joint speech to Congress, his very first speech in March, if you remember that day. And he did a good job. He does a good job, especially in those moments. And bipartisanly, people thought he did well.
But before all those guests come to the gallery and sit up and they say, this is Phil. And he runs a bean factory in Idaho and this person's over here, those people come into the Oval and meet the president. And then they get bussed over to the chambers.
You know. You've seen this 100 times. OK. So I walked into the Oval. And I was a little bit unsure of who and why some of these folks were there.
And I thought, OK. Wait a minute. These are the guests. OK. Fine.
And I saw a gal in her mid 30s or so, two little kids eight, nine, 10 years old, really dressed up cute, perfect age-- kind of fighting a little bit and pushing. Mom looked a little nervous waiting in line.
I thought, who is that? I was curious. I said, wait a second. Do you remember there was a moment where we were stopping planes from coming into certain countries because we were concerned about bombs on laptops, inside and put them by the window?
Well, it turns out that this gal was the wife of Ryan Owens, who was the Navy SEAL that got killed in the firefight in Yemen. That was the cell that was creating these bombs on computers. I thought, that's who that is.
And I looked on these little kids, and it really struck me, because they had no idea that dad wasn't coming home. And you know why? Because dad went back and forth about five or six times. He was a 35-year-old Navy SEAL.
And then I started thinking to myself-- and I don't mean this in this way. But when it happens, I thought, there I was two weeks ago, up in the White House with Mike Pompeo and Tillerson and Mattis. And they were presenting the plan to move forward with this movement.
And although I'm one of 10 people that agreed that it was what we should do-- and everyone agreed we should. In fact, it was a movement that Obama wanted to do. But you want to do it when there's no moon out. And so there's no moon.
And I thought, how easy it was for me to say, that's a great idea. And then the result, of course, is now you have a 35-year-old father back in Dover, not alive, kids without a father.
I remember I left the Oval Office. And I went into the Cabinet Room. I just lost it, because I thought, this is just too much. And so that, to me, by far the worst day in the White House.
STEVE ISRAEL: It's profound.
Let's talk about that decision that the president made, that it was a go. Can you use that as an example to describe to us what his management style is? What was that dynamic like when there were--
REINCE PRIEBUS: That's a good question. There are two different-- I know we're in a mixed crowd. We don't agree with each other in politics. I know some people can't stand the president. Some people might like him, and I get that.
But the one thing I will tell you, when it comes to military use, he's very passive on military use, commitment of soldiers in the field. He does not make decisions quickly when it comes to-- even on the bombing in Syria on the airport that we had conducted, it was three or four meetings.
Mattis is a diplomat. When these generals get to that level, they become world diplomats. Even though he's a Marine and he's a fighter, but he's slow to the trigger. The president's even slower.
So for those of you that may not be fans of the president, I can tell you you can be comforted to know that he is not a person who wants to pull the trigger, press the button, send thousands of troops here and there. That's not him.
Now, when it comes to his style generally, how I would describe it is-- and he's admitted it. He encourages and has no problem with conflict within the ranks.
So you know that most Bush Republicans, they're all the same, right? They're Bush Republicans. They're the same kinds of Republicans. Obama Democrats are the same kind of Democrats. They're very similar, just like Clinton Democrats are Clinton Dems, right?
Trump, they're all the same species. Trump doesn't do that. He has natural predators that work together.
And he'll have instead of the same types, a shark and a seal and a falcon and a rabbit. And he'll say to Gary Cohn-- think about this, Gary Cohn, Bob Lighthizer, Wilbur Ross, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon. Could you find any more opposite people?
And he says, what do you want to do about trade? Well, I want to rip up NAFTA. What do you think? I want to get rid of the WTO. And these people got here through no accident. And you have full-blown war right there in front of the resolute desk.
And then in the media, of course, it's Bannon said Cohn's a globalist. And Cohn thinks Bannon's an idiot. And this one-- and it's all true. They actually said that.
But the president learns through the Socratic method. He learns from listening to Gary Cohn, who's super smart-- 20-year Goldman Sachs president-- fight with Bob Lighthizer, whose entire life's career is being a China hawk. And they fight it out for hours and hours and hours.
And the president's listening to this. And he's trying to make a decision on what to do. It's also why sometimes you see stops and starts, like, well, he's going to rip up NAFTA. He's not going to.
He's going to do this. He's not. He's going to do to China. He's not going to, because he's got these people talking to him every day. And they're saying opposite things about the same subject.
That's the best as I can describe it.
STEVE ISRAEL: Perfect description. If you have a question that you want to write down, please fill out a card. Raise your hand. One of our staff people will collect it from you.
Several questions about how you see the Democratic field shaping up-- and who do you think the Republicans worry about?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Well--
STEVE ISRAEL: These are several questions from the crowd.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Although I do think that-- and it's very rude. I think he's making a lot of mistakes is Joe Biden. But I do think he's the only person that I would worry about right now in the field.
And maybe Klobuchar would be someone I would worry about. I always worry about the Democrat candidate that folks generally agree they're patriots. And they're going to keep the football between the uprights. Those people, I think are dangerous.
But here's the problem I think Joe Biden's having. Joe Biden, his message is, let's return to something more normal. Let's kind of keep things more in the sense of how the American presidency used to be.
We're tired of the fighting. We're tired of the chaos. We're tired of this, and we're tired of that. That's his message. And there are a lot of people who agree with that.
He's doing well, but he's not catching fire within the Democratic Party. Now, if Elizabeth Warren was here and you said, what do Democrat voters want to do, her answer would be, they want to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. And guess what? They do.
And so the truth, in my opinion, is that there are people who are tired of the style, granted. But my belief is people out there in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, they want more blood on the floor. They want more guts on the floor. They want more fighting, more of what you see, which is why Elizabeth Warren has the horsepower in the Democrat Party.
And I'll tell you, if Elizabeth Warren is the Democrat nominee, you're going to have Republicans from coast to coast that may like what President Trump-- what the accomplishments are. But they may not like how he does it.
They're going to be right on that Trump train. There are going to be checks being written by people who didn't think they wanted to write another check to Trump. They're going to write it. And the Democrats are going to lose.
STEVE ISRAEL: I have a theory that the 20--
REINCE PRIEBUS: I'm telling you, it's going to happen--
STEVE ISRAEL: 2020 election is going to be decided in seven states, 20 or 25 counties-- so seven battleground states in the Electoral College, 20, 25 counties. One of those counties is in Wisconsin, Kenosha County. And whoever wins Wisconsin, in my view, likely wins either re-election or defeats President Trump.
So of the current Democratic field, what I hear you saying is that a Biden or a Klobuchar probably plays better in Kenosha County, Wisconsin than most of the others.
REINCE PRIEBUS: 100%. If it's Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, many of the others, I don't see them being able to carry Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. If it's Biden, then I think it'll be tough-- more difficult.
STEVE ISRAEL: Obama/Biden won Kenosha County, right? 2008? 2012?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yep.
STEVE ISRAEL: But President Trump won it by less than a point.
REINCE PRIEBUS: That's right.
STEVE ISRAEL: And so that's when people say, what should I be looking at in the 2020 election? Watch Kenosha County.
REINCE PRIEBUS: One other quick thing about-- so the other thing to think about when you're looking at this and for people who analyze the details of the electorate, the one thing Biden has-- one of the big things he's got going for him are seniors and black voters.
Elizabeth Warren has not shown the ability to capture black voters in South Carolina or elsewhere. And so you think about the heart and soul of the Democrat party. If you can't move black voters, you're going to have a hard time winning that nomination.
The other thing is money. Where Elizabeth Warren is strong is money. I know Biden's getting hit for not raising enough money, but he's raising money. And Bernie Sanders is going to be somebody that's not going to go away, because he can raise a lot of money.
He doesn't rent out his lists. What that means is his unique voter file, he doesn't let people rent it to make money back to the campaign. So his donor list is very unique to him.
Remember, after Nevada, California's next. Who's going to have the money to compete in California? Bernie Sanders is going to have the money to compete.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right. 2012, Mitt Romney is defeated, Barack Obama re-elected. You're chairman of the national committee.
And you presided over a really fascinating project for the Republicans, where you made the argument in 2012 that the Republican Party had to be more inclusive, more tolerant, more welcoming of immigrants, needed to build into the LGBTQ community, needed to appeal to younger voters.
It doesn't feel like President Trump subscribes to that theory. What do you think the Republican-- this is part of a question that we received. What do you think the GOP needs to do to attract younger voters? And is the GOP long-term strategy to stick with its base or to try and broaden beyond the base, in your view?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Right. Well, I never thought that you could build a party by subtracting people out of the room. You only have two doors to walk into in this country, basically. You can argue that. But basically, there are only two doors you can walk into.
And so if all the Republicans are in one room and all the Democrats are in another room, we'd have a roomful of people that agree with each other generally on things, but not everything. So how do you add people into the room without subtracting people out? And that's the basic goal of running a party.
My sense is that in our party, we live in a divided country. And it's divided down to-- we have a person in the state assembly. It's divided down to the state assembly races in this country.
Think about this. We live in-- would anyone disagree that as far as modern political history-- 200 years ago, people shot each other in duels. But in modern political history, this is probably the most vitriolic, nasty political environment you could possibly put together on both sides of the aisle, right? No one's innocent, right?
But in 2018, out of 435 House districts, only 10% were in play. 90% of everyone's safe. It's all base messaging, right?
So if Steve and I lived-- say we were best friends, and we were neighbors, both members of Congress. Let's put ourselves in San Diego for fun, because that's a great place to live. So we're in San Diego.
We have the same newspaper, the same media market. He's a Democrat. I'm a Republican. His district goes that way, and it's 80% Hispanic and 80% Democrat. My district goes that way, and it's 80% white and 80% Republican.
He's not going to the chamber meeting for lunch on Wednesday in my district, because why should he? I'm not going to a Hispanic church festival in his district because it's not in my district.
He's talking about, well, what about the kids that are here through no fault of their own? Doesn't it seem reasonable that we should do something for these people? And I'm talking about a double-wide electric fence on the border. And we're in the same media market, and we're neighbors.
And we have a better chance of getting re-elected and waking up tomorrow. So why should I work with you? And why should you work with me? There's no benefit. There's no money in unity.
There's only money in division. I'm not saying it to be rude. It's true. What book out there in politics is making money that's based on unity? What radio show has more than 10 listeners that's based on unity? Division is money. Unity's the loser.
So this is an important point. It really captures everything going on. So Biden's message, Warren's message, Trump's message, how is it that this all works together?
Even AOC-- her message isn't unity. It's all just vitriolic fiasco stuff. And it wins. She's one of the most popular politicians in America. It's not based on unity.
STEVE ISRAEL: And the media and our culture reinforces that. To your point, I wanted to do a book, tentatively entitled The Bridges of Capitol Hill, because it is a far more bipartisan place than any of you imagine-- maybe not at the frothing surface, but deep beneath.
And my agent said to me, if you rename it Frothing at the Mouth, it might sell, because you're exactly right. Nobody is interested in bipartisanship. It's just not interesting to people. So everybody wants bipartisanship, but not a lot of people are all that interested in hearing about it because of the cleaving bases that we have.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Which is why to me, even though it's not popular with most Republicans or Democrats, I think term limits are very necessary in America and are necessary in the federal government. And I think it would help a lot.
STEVE ISRAEL: Impeachment is likely to even further polarize the country. Do you see any scenario where Democrats and Republicans can work together during impeachment--
REINCE PRIEBUS: On impeachment?
STEVE ISRAEL: No, no, not on impeachment.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I know. I was just kidding.
STEVE ISRAEL: We're one year away from a presidential election. Is there any scenario where you can see Democrats and Republicans coming together on a single issue?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Maybe drug prices, because the president's pretty progressive on that, maybe. I thought there was a chance on immigration, to tell you the truth. We had an opportunity on Dreamers and a border wall agreement almost on inauguration day.
I almost had something put together on that, and it kind of got blown up. But the president's willing to deal on Dreamers. I know that. But I think right now, you're looking at maybe USMCA on the trade deal, maybe drug prices, but that's about it.
STEVE ISRAEL: That's about it?
REINCE PRIEBUS: I don't see anything else. They'll do a CR in the next budget extension. And they'll do that. They'll get right to the cliff in December and probably cut a deal.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right. Today--
REINCE PRIEBUS: And nothing else after that.
STEVE ISRAEL: Again, if you can't comment on anything, we understand. Today, the president or it was made known or reported that one of the president's hotels will be used for I guess it's a G8 gathering. What--
REINCE PRIEBUS: You mean a G7?
STEVE ISRAEL: G7.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I thought maybe you were ribbing me a little bit on the G8 part.
STEVE ISRAEL: And so it certainly would seem to be problematic for most Americans. And yet the president kind of just says, no, we're going to do it at my place. Why?
REINCE PRIEBUS: I'm cautious to a fault.
STEVE ISRAEL: He seems to beg for trouble.
REINCE PRIEBUS: So I'm cautious to a fault type. I think you are, too.
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah.
REINCE PRIEBUS: But the president fears nothing. And I mean that in a sense of there is no man, there's no person, there's no amount of stars on a shoulder, that he's fearful of. I've never seen it.
It could be a compliment. It could not be a compliment if that's how you want to think about it. And to him, I'm sure-- I don't know the details of this. So I'm going to guess.
But to me, this is something where the committee came to him, I think somehow or another legitimately recommended this. They looked at it. The team looked at it and said, this is what they're recommending.
But maybe you want to go here. He'd say, well, if that's what you're recommending, that's what I'm going to do. That's my only guess.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right.
REINCE PRIEBUS: And he just doesn't-- I've never seen a person in politics handle and move forward through as many controversies as him. You guys remember even the Sharpie with the hurricane?
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah.
REINCE PRIEBUS: But in some ways, it's brilliant, because there are so many things that go on, there's not really one thing that is able to get him. Maybe if it was just one thing, it would be a problem. But he had this all through the campaign, too. And it's almost like he has complete immunity to all controversy.
STEVE ISRAEL: So were there times when you said to him, Mr. President, you may think you have immunity here. But this is going to be a problem?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Oh, I would do that all the time, because I was the nervous Nellie of the bunch. I was always the one saying, you can't do this. You can't tweet that. Don't do this.
By the way, I always loved that advice I got when I was first in the White House, like, just get him to stop tweeting. I'm like, oh, I never-- that's brilliant! I never thought of it! Are you kidding me?
But my point is that I was the guy that said, don't tweet this. Don't do that. Let's not talk about the Miss Universe over here and this and that.
And the problem for someone like me is that he heard me saying that all the time, and he won. And so those are the same geniuses-- in his mind, he's thinking, oh, yeah. Those are the same geniuses that told me not to do this, this, this and this.
And you know what? I think he's right. If he would have listened to people like me more, he probably wouldn't have won, because people weren't looking for that. They weren't looking for Republicans like me. They wanted to find the biggest middle finger they could find.
And you know what? Elizabeth Warren knows that that's true, too, because the Democrats are looking for the biggest middle finger they can find, too. They're not looking for Joe Biden.
And so even though it's hard to hear-- I know we're not all in agreement-- I think it's the truth. People like the conventional Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of the country, they're not going to win this race.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right. Right.
Bob Roth is here. He is the head of the David Lynch Foundation, and he is a national leader on transcendental meditation-- wrote a wonderful book. Now, we're not going to meditate right now. But seeing him triggers a question.
So what does the president do to collect himself? What does he do? Every president needs that thing where they just have to kind of get a sense of the challenges and kind of disconnect. What does President Trump do?
REINCE PRIEBUS: He is on 24/7. So as much as we talk about "executive time" and what does he do, I have never-- and I said at the beginning about being able to outwork anybody. I always thought the secret to my success, if you'd call it that, was just the fact that I would never be outworked by anybody, except Trump.
He would call at 11:30 at night, 6:15 in the morning. Only one time I saw him fall asleep on an overnight international flight to Saudi Arabia in the front cabin. I had never seen it in my life.
And guess what? He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. I've never seen him drink one drop of anything. He's just wired from beginning to end.
Now, the one thing he does do and he loves is golf, which we know about.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right.
REINCE PRIEBUS: And that's the one place. And he likes to go out to dinner when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster. And he likes the fellowship of the members and the guests.
And he truly enjoys people. He's very good one on one. So even people in the room that may not like Trump, most of you, one-on-one half an hour with Trump, would walk away saying, I like this guy. He's good like that.
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah. What does the media, left and right, get wrong about Donald Trump? And what do they get right about Donald Trump?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Oh, that's a tough one.
STEVE ISRAEL: Yeah
REINCE PRIEBUS: Look, I think they get right that he's very complicated. I think that he's an interesting person. He's hard to read. He's not easy to work for.
I think all that's true. When you see these glimpses of the West Wing and you wonder if this is the way it is all the time, you're seeing life in the West Wing.
I think what they get wrong, I think he's actually very, very smart and very bright. The reason is I feel like I've been wrong a lot when it comes to his political tactics. I used to think that his tactics were wrong and that he didn't need to say this.
He didn't need to say that Obama tapped my wires. He didn't need to-- some of the things with Comey. And it turned out that over time, it almost worked to his benefit because mark my words. I think this impeachment thing, unless there are other things that come out-- maybe there will be.
I don't know what Rudy was doing all over the place. Who knows? But I think this could be a huge problem for the Democrats, because one thing about Trump World is it's not three-dimensional chess so much. It's like instantaneous victory is the approach. So the evidence is pretty instantaneous in return.
So I think all the evidence is there. I don't think the Democrats are going to get anywhere. I think they want to convict him before they know everything. They're not going to get support in the Senate.
Hunter Biden and Joe Biden are suffering because of this, so he's going down. Elizabeth Warren-- so in many ways, my point is you second-guess the tactics. And then you go forward six months from now. And you look back and say, wow, I think the Democrats really misplayed this.
And now, they're sitting with Elizabeth Warren as their nominee. And Sanders isn't going anywhere. I'm kind of at a loss at analyzing the tactics, because like I said, I think I've been wrong.
STEVE ISRAEL: Question-- "I've lost track of what it means to be a conservative. How would you define a political conservative today? And do you think it's changed over the last three years?"
REINCE PRIEBUS: No, I don't think that it's changed. I just think that we have a president in office that adheres to most of those principles, but not all of them.
And one of my very closest friends is a guy named Stephen Hayes, who used to write for The Weekly Standard-- teamed up with a guy named Jonah Goldberg. I see a very similar mindset as those two fellows. There are still those folks, and there are still those outlets for people.
But right now, the president, he's running the show. He's running the party. And the party's very loyal to the president. He's got a 94% approval rating within the party.
And like I said, when you have 90% of your congressional districts that are completely safe within base messaging, there's not going to be a lot of movement away from that. But Trump is unique to Trump and to this point. I get a question in reverse.
A lot of people like to ask the question because they don't like Trump. And so their question would be, is the Republican Party forever damaged because of Trump? And I answer it in reverse. And I say, well, can the Republican Party forever benefit because of Trump?
We didn't win Pennsylvania since 1988. We didn't win Wisconsin since 1984. Can I make those people Republicans forever? And I don't think I can, just like I don't think the people who are turned off by Trump are forever turned off to the Republican Party because of Trump, because I look at those rallies.
And I don't see people-- who has 20,000 people in a rally, with 10,000 people outside? And they're not in that rally, saying, I'm so happy I'm a Republican. I've finally found a home, and I finally found people that I could agree with, the Republican Party.
No, they're saying, I love Trump. So he is a unique brand in American politics that he owns. And he guides, and he steers.
And he's the chief of staff. I used to say, I'm the chief of stuff. He's the chief of staff. And he's the comms director. And he runs the show.
STEVE ISRAEL: Couple more questions-- I want to go back to your tenure as chief of staff. You mentioned Denis McDonough. And so we clearly have an unorthodox and untraditional president, but the presidency is an institution.
And I'm curious about the advice that you did receive from your predecessor and the extent-- who is a Democrat-- and the extent of the counsel that you've received from other chiefs of staff and whether it did see you through those very difficult days.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Not really. And I did seek their counsel. Denis was great. Actually, Rahm Emanuel and I spoke a lot when I was in the West Wing, because he had a kind of similar thing, where you had Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod. And he was being rumored to be fired every week, like me.
And so I had some interaction. Denis had an event for me at the West Wing with a bunch of former chiefs of staff. And President Obama came in, and we talked. There was a lot of that in the transition. But I knew that they didn't have the same situation I had.
It was nice listening to Josh Bolten, who's brilliant and smart. And he runs the Business Roundtable. But I knew as I was sitting there eating Chinese food with Josh Bolten, giving me advice, that he had no understanding of how President Trump runs an operation.
I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm just saying it's totally different. And so I don't think there's any individual that could do it any differently.
STEVE ISRAEL: Did you think long about accepting the position of chief of staff when the president offered it to you? You knew that he was going to be an unorthodox president.
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yeah. I know because remember, the RNC was the campaign. So on election night, President Trump brought one person up the stage. And that was me because we were the campaign.
STEVE ISRAEL: Right.
REINCE PRIEBUS: My point is I was part of the operation, unlike most RNC, DNC. When you have a nominee, the DNC and the RNC kind of goes away. I was still front and center. So no, I wasn't hesitating, because look, I didn't know if I was going to last long.
I remember telling my parents and my cousins and my wife. Even during the transition, I said, listen, you guys come to the inauguration. I don't know if I'm going to be the chief of staff when it comes to January. But we'll have fun, but I don't know if I'm going to be the chief of staff or not, because it was not easy.
So yeah. But I knew I wanted to do it. Believe it or not, I got to be friends with Steve Bannon. I know there's a lot written about that, that we didn't get along. We actually got along just fine, got along great.
There was a point to which Steve-- remember, when I was named chief of staff, as hard as the job was, you might recall I was named as a co-equal. Remember that? Well, that didn't last long.
And Steve did finally say, hey, you just run the operation after about a couple months into the White House. But at the time, I didn't know if I could trust Steve. And he didn't know if he could trust me.
And so it was either I took the chief of staff job or Steve Bannon was the chief of staff. And I said, you know what? I'm going to be the chief of staff.
And then after me, John Kelly came in for a year and a half and now Mick Mulvaney. So I don't think anyone's delusional and says it's an easy job. It's definitely the hardest job--
STEVE ISRAEL: How many hours a day, typically?
REINCE PRIEBUS: 5:30 in the morning, ready to go-- 5:15 in the kitchen, suited up at 6:00 to watch CNN and MSNBC for a segment, make sure I knew what the president was watching and what he was going to be-- usually--
STEVE ISRAEL: Not Fox?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yeah, he watches Fox. But there's usually nothing on Fox that's going to get him upset. So I don't have to worry about that.
So I'd watch those two shows. And then I'd be in the SUVs at 6:15, 6:18, usually a call 10 minutes after that from the president on the way into the White House, security briefing at 7:30, senior staff at 8:00, and then off to the races and probably home through Sunday about 11 o'clock.
STEVE ISRAEL: 11 o'clock. You have children?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yep, Jack and Grace, 14 and eight.
STEVE ISRAEL: Tough on them?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Yeah. Now, it would be, even though I think when-- so Jack's like a Boy Scout. He's 14-- really good kid. And so is Grace. She's nine.
They're very different. Jack, if I said, Jack, you didn't listen and you should have, he'd still kind of well up. If I'd said that to Grace, she'd be like, I don't like you anymore. You're mean. They're totally different that way.
But at the age--
STEVE ISRAEL: She may have learned from the president.
REINCE PRIEBUS: The age is good now. It's good to be home now. 14 and nine, I think it's really important to be around. So I really like that.
STEVE ISRAEL: Final question-- I see, again, turning to those students from Cornell, Ellie and Grace and Sarah-- and anybody else from-- raise your hand if you're a student from Cornell? Stephania, I see you.
So what's your message to college students who look at politics and see the vehemence and the volatility and how virulent it is? As the former chief of staff of the White House, somebody who worked on that campaign when you were 16 years old, doing all those jobs-- spent your entire life, not just in politics but public service.
Speaking to students at Cornell University, what's your message to them about the value of politics and public service? What would you say to them?
REINCE PRIEBUS: Well, I would say that the old saying is true, that one person can make a difference and that you can be that person and that if someone like me-- with my background from Kenosha, Wisconsin doing all these crazy jobs-- could do what I did, you can, too. And plus, you're at Cornell. You have even a bigger advantage than I did.
So I think that's the first thing. The second thing is to be passionate about what you love. If you're passionate about politics, if you're passionate about being an engineer, you'll go run the space program.
You'll go be a surgeon or whatever your passion is. If you love what you do and you pursue it because you love it, not because of the money but because of what's inside of you, then you can be successful.
And the last thing's for people who love Trump, great. For people who don't love Trump, look, my last day, when I left the White House-- even though I've been back since. But that last moment and your last ride out, I looked back at the White House.
And the White House, when you look at that thing at night, it stands for everything we love-- opportunity, freedom, democracy, our unique country that's so precious. But there's nothing on the outside that tells you what party and what president's on the inside. It's still that great, awesome place that stands for this fantastic country that we live in and we owe so much to. So I'd always keep that in mind.
Last thing, Republicans and Democrats do get along. We're evidence of that. But there are challenges within our system that are very difficult to fix. And I think we're in a political environment now that on both sides of the aisle are very base-centered. And it's going to take a lot of people trying to work together to change that.
STEVE ISRAEL: November 19, ladies and gentlemen-- we're going to properly thank Reince in a moment. But November 19--
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A conversation with Reince Priebus, former White House Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump and former chairman of the Republican National Committees. Moderated by Steve Israel, U.S. Representative from New York (2001-2017) and director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.