PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Top Rhode Island Republicans say they hope President Trump’s decision to replace his chief of staff just seven months into his administration will help get the White House back on track.
Trump announced Friday he was replacing Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman, with retired Gen. John Kelly as his top aide. The move followed months of controversy over the Russia investigation, a failed bid to repeal President Obama’s health law, and a fall in Trump’s job approval.
In interviews with Eyewitness News, a number of prominent local Republicans indicated they still think the Trump administration can succeed, but generally agreed the president was right to make a high-level change.
“Staff shakeups happen,” said Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the 2014 Republican nominee for governor and a likely candidate again in 2018. “Sometimes it’s good to have a reset. If you take a look at my administrations, I’ve had people go in and out within the administrations – it’s always nice to have fresh blood.”
“The bottom line is, if it’s true that he’s listening to a respected individual like General Kelly, I think that he’s listening to some advice from someone who’s taking the chief of staff role very seriously to get things done,” Fung said.
Rhode Island’s most prominent Trump supporter – former state Rep. Joe Trillo, who was honorary chairman of the president’s campaign in the state – made his thoughts known nationally Monday when he was prominently featured in a front-page New York Times story about the White House turmoil.
Trillo, who has formed an exploratory committee to run for governor in 2018, told The Times he thinks Trump has “made some mistakes.” The president “didn’t have political experience, and I think some of the biggest mistakes are some of the people he has surrounded himself with,” Trillo said.
A third GOP gubernatorial candidate – House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who began formally exploring a bid last month – said she thought Priebus “was probably in over his head” as chief of staff. “I’m hoping that Mr. Kelly will be able to control the White House and that staff a little better so that they can more effective for the American people,” she said.
“I’m hoping that President Trump rights the ship, because I want him to be successful,” Morgan said. “I think every American should want him to be successful, and as part of how he affects Rhode Island I want be able to work with an administration that is working well.”
Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the conservative advocacy group the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, said he met with administration and congressional staffers in Washington earlier this year as part of a trip organized by the influential anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and came away with the impression the Trump administration is operating on “two levels.”
On one level, Stenhouse said, there are the dramatic topics that are capturing public attention, from the health bill and staff infighting to Trump’s tweets. But there is also “a lot of work getting done” that is lower-profile, such as executive orders, smaller bills and efforts to trim agency regulations, he said.
“As a conservative, I’m thrilled with a lot of the medium to small stuff that’s been getting done that nobody talks about,” said Stenhouse, who emphasized he is not a Republican but a registered independent.
“It’s not good enough, though, because the unnoticed stuff is not the stuff that wins elections and keeps you in power,” he continued. “They’ve got to find a way to figure out all their other stuff. … As a potential voter, I could see where people that voted for Trump, unless things change, might not do so again in the future.”
Yet Stenhouse said he’s not convinced yet that Trump’s tweets are causing his problems in Congress. “I think it’s just differences within the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives,” he said, adding that it’s even possible Trump’s use of Twitter is distracting attention from smaller-bore initiatives that might otherwise cause significant controversy.
John Robitaille, the 2010 Republican nominee for Rhode Island governor and a former aide to Gov. Don Carcieri, agreed that Trump’s problems so far have generally been due to his lack of political experience, as well as Preibus being overwhelmed in the chief of staff job.
“It’s been a rough start for him, I think, in terms of people selection,” Robitaille said, arguing Trump “didn’t select the best people at the time.” He added, “Will he learn? He’s going to have to learn, or nothing will get done.”
Still, Robitaille said he sees no sign the administration’s rocky start has caused Trump supporters to rethink their backing for the president.
“I think the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is going through an evolution,” he said. “There’s a split in both parties and I think your more mainstream, traditional Republicans are having a difficult time with Trump’s methods of operation – not so much what he wants to get done, but how he’s going about it.”