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Barbershop: Changes At The White House And What The GOP Does Next


It's time for the Barbershop, where we talk with a group of interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. It's been another big week in Washington - no exaggeration. For now, the GOP health care bill is dead. The new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, has made himself known. And questions about the president's relationship with Russia continue to swirl.

We wanted to get a conservative take on all of this. Joining us now for a shape-up, our columnist Mary Kate Cary. She's a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. She's also a former speechwriter for the first President Bush. She's with us in D.C.

Welcome, Mary Kate.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

KING: Also with us in D.C. is Brian Wise. He's a political commentator and public affairs strategist. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN WISE: Hi. Good to be here.

KING: And joining us from our studios in New York is Republican political strategist Ron Christie. Ron is a former special assistant to the second President Bush. Ron, thanks for coming on.

RON CHRISTIE: Noel, nice to be with you.

KING: Ron, it has been a big week at the White House. Let's start out with the most recent explosive news. Reince Priebus is out. Why did he have to go?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think the most important job that the White House chief of staff is, is beyond being the gatekeeper, beyond being the one person who can stand up to the president and say, Mr. President, no, Reince Priebus did not exhibit strong leadership. No one in the Cabinet feared him. No one in the White House feared him. The president didn't respect him.

And the job - the severity of the task that you have as the White House chief of staff, if you don't have the trust of the president and you don't have the loyalty of the staff, let alone the fear of the staff of being displaced for any reason at all, you have to go. And I think the president did the right thing. He needed to bring in someone who could impose discipline, to impose order in the White House and, most importantly, to right the ship that team Trump right now is just not doing very well to advance our legislative priorities.

KING: Mary Kate Cary, before the word came out about Priebus leaving, he was in the news for some comments made by his colleague, the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. Mr. Scaramucci gave a very colorful interview to The New Yorker. He took shots at Priebus. He took shots at Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. I mean, you're a communications professional. What did you think when you saw all this?

CARY: I frankly was just appalled. It was, from a communications point of view, just jaw-dropping, to me. And, you know, I did hear one funny line in Washington which was his new nickname is going to be the Moochnado (ph), as in "Sharknado"...

KING: Oh, dear.

CARY: ...Which I think is, of course, the greatest film of all time. But the Moochnado really took everything - took all the oxygen out of the room in Washington and took the president off his agenda for the umpteenth time. And I think that was - that's the bigger problem here is all of this sideshow keeps taking away from the president's agenda.

KING: I mean, Mary Kate, we hear that the president likes his employees infighting, that he thinks feuding is good for them, it keeps them competitive. Do you think he recognizes, though, that if they are fighting, his agenda isn't moving forward? That's how it seems, anyhow.

CARY: Yeah, that's how it strikes me. There's - in every White House, there is backstabbing and infighting and all that. It just rarely spills over into the public like this and overtakes everything else. So that's what was so shocking about it, this week, was the level of public display.

KING: Brian Wise, you are a strategist. We've got a new incoming chief of staff, General John Kelly. And we assume he's a tough guy. He's a general. If you could give him some advice, at this point, what would you say?

WISE: Well, first of all, I wouldn't presume to give advice to one of the most highly respected military leaders of our time. But I do think it's important to understand that, in the White House, you have management officials and you have advisers. And General Kelly is going to be an exceptional manager of the White House. And that's one of the things that I think the White House has been missing for the last six months. However, someone like Anthony Scaramucci may be a great adviser to the president.

You know, every corporate executive needs a conciliary, if you want to talk about it in the way that maybe Scaramucci might understand. And Scaramucci is going to be the president's conciliary here. He is going to be the adviser that is loyal to the president, not necessarily loyal to the White House administration or even the country in general.

KING: But the idea is that General Kelly, being a general, may be able to keep things in line.

WISE: He'll bring the discipline, and Scaramucci will bring the color.

KING: All right, they could be a good team. The big legislative news this week was the collapse of the Senate health care bill, the so-called skinny repeal. Three Republicans bucked party lines to vote against the bill. It ended up going down by one vote. Ron Christie in New York, you and I have known each other for a while. And I know that you are very big on integrity. Senator John McCain's no vote got a lot of attention. And people said, the maverick is back. What did you think?

CHRISTIE: Well, the maverick is definitely back. And yes, we've known each other for several years. And I've been pretty consistent on saying that integrity and loyalty, those are your two calling cards in politics. And Senator McCain made a grand display of coming back to Washington to cast a vote to have the motion to proceed to move forward on health care. And then he stabbed his party in the back. He voted no.

Why would you do that when we have the largest governing majority since 1929 in the House and the Senate and the presidency and undermine your party's efforts for the last seven years of saying that we're going to overhaul the Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act legislation? What did I make of that? For one who claims that he's a man of honor and dignity, I thought this was the ultimate betrayal that Senator McCain did to his party and to his country for so many millions of people who are hurting by this health care law.

KING: Mary Kate, what do you think about that?

CARY: I felt earlier this week, when I saw that speech, that that was a speech for the ages. Just as a person in that world, I thought it was tremendously well-written and well-delivered and...

KING: And this is the speech in which McCain...

CARY: Spoke on the Senate floor and apologized for his role in the increasing lack of bipartisanship in Washington and called for a return to regular order. But he did say in that speech, I will not support this bill as it stands. So I was not totally surprised that he did not support the bill because he warned that he would do that if it didn't change. And it, as far as I could tell, it didn't change between then and the vote.

KING: Brian, at this point, the GOP is so internally divided with so many factions pulling in so many different directions. What is it going to take for Republicans to get past this internal gridlock?

WISE: I think the important thing to understand is that this is not a single party. This is a party of three different distinct factions. You have the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives and the defense hawks. And in order to bring those people together, you need a kingmaker. The GOP has not had a kingmaker, really, in 10 years since Karl Rove left the White House. And without a kingmaker, you can't unify the party or exert influence over members that may be inclined to vote against the party line.

And so what we need is that leader empowered to come in and bring the party together. I think the only person for that, at this point, is Mike Pence. The vice president has the power, has the support of all of those different factions. And if he was empowered by, not only the president, but also party donors, party leaders and other stakeholders of the party, I think the vice president could really be the savior of the Republican Party here in 2017 and moving forward.

KING: Do people - Mary Kate, you're shaking your head...

CARY: Yeah...

KING: ...You agree?

CARY: ...I would agree...

KING: Yeah.

CARY: ...With that. His former staff from the Hill is throughout the White House in legislative affairs, in communications, and I think that could be the way forward for a lot of people.

KING: We're six months into this legislative term. We haven't even talked today about the ongoing Russia investigation, the open tension between President Trump and his attorney general. With all that said, Republicans have control of the White House and of the Congress. What is it going to take for them to pass legislation? Ron Christie, let me start with you.

CHRISTIE: Well, they need to grow up. I mean, they actually need to figure out how to govern. And as I said a few moments ago, I mean, we've had the largest governing majority since 1929, and they can't even move forward on a motion to proceed. Republicans need to say, you know what? Here's who we are. This is what we stand for. And if we can't govern, we need to get out of the way. It almost looks like they're the party of being the complainers rather than the party of being governors.

KING: Mary Kate, what's it going to take?

CARY: Well, you know, I'm a speechwriter, so I come from that angle here. Unlike tweets, speeches bring a tremendous amount of consistency, fact-checking, policy guidance, a lot of buy-in from a lot of people. And I think one of the reasons the health care bill went down was because the president did not travel the country making the case publicly in speeches to rally the American people behind it. So that would be my advice would be to get him out on the trail and giving policy addresses where he's not ad-libbing as much as he was this week and see if he could take back the agenda.

KING: Keep some of those speeches on message...

CARY: Right.

KING: ...It sounds like you're saying. Brian Wise, there's been a lot of talk that this has been a very bad week for the president and for the party. Ultimately, though, does that matter?

WISE: You know, at the end of the day, this is no surprise to the American people. This is the president that they voted for. This is the deal that they made with him. This is a transactional president. This is not an ideological president. And after having experienced an ideological president for the last eight years, I think it's a little bit of a shock to people that there could be someone who was so transactional as President Trump.

So it shouldn't be a shock to anyone that he is managing the White House in this way, he is managing public policy issues in this way because that's the deal that he made with the American people. Moving forward, I think that that leadership - I think General Kelly coming in and the changes that are currently happening at the White House will be good for, not only the White House, but good for America.

KING: All right, there you go. We're just about out of time. Thanks so much to Mary Kate Cary - she's a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia - political strategist Ron Christie and public affairs strategist Brian Wise. Thanks, you guys.

CARY: Thanks.

CHRISTIE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.