The president-elect creates a dueling power structure in his still-developing White House.
President-elect Donald Trump made an overture to establishment Republicans on Sunday, tapping Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, but the reassuring gesture was tempered by his decision to name Steve Bannon, an insurgent firebrand, as his chief strategist.
The move creates a dueling power structure within Trump’s still-developing White House and shows how the incoming president is attempting to navigate the oppositional forces in his nascent administration — staying true to the populist base that delivered him a victory while reckoning with the realities of governing.
It also provides a window into Trump’s management style. The president-elect has a reputation for pitting top aides against one another, sometimes with disastrous consequences. This spring, Trump’s two top aides, Paul Manafort and Corey Lewandowski, were consumed in a bitter turf battle that became a major distraction for the campaign.
The news release announcing the moves presented the Republican National Committee chairman and the Breitbart News executive as “equal partners” — though it listed Bannon’s new position first.
To some, Trump’s decision to name Priebus, who has longstanding ties to congressional Republicans, as his chief of staff provided a measure of relief.
“Congrats to @realDonaldTrump for outstanding choice of @Reince to be Chief of Staff. This shows me he is serious about governing,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fierce critic of Trump’s candidacy, tweeted on Sunday evening.
Whether Trump ultimately succeeds in reassuring a still-nervous Republican Party about his incoming presidency, however, remains an open question. Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO and leader of the so-called alt-right movement, is a savvy but controversial figure who has collided bitterly with the party establishment, particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan. He will take on the title of Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.
“I am thrilled to have my very successful team continue with me in leading our country,” Trump said in a statement. “Steve and Reince are highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory. Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”
During meetings last week with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the leaders pressed Trump to select Priebus, on whose committee the president-elect relied heavily during the election. “Reince, given the names discussed, is the best choice. He is well liked on Capitol Hill. He has a great relationship with Paul Ryan,” said one person who spoke to Trump about the pick on Sunday.
Many Republicans, however, remain wary of Bannon, who has a reputation for being a bomb-thrower. “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America,” John Weaver, a veteran GOP strategist and outspoken Trump critic, wrote on Twitter.
Also, soon after Bannon’s title was announced, he was met with renewed criticism about a domestic violence issue in his past and allegations from his ex-wife, first reported in August, that he didn’t want his children going to school with Jewish people. Bannon has denied the charges.
The moves raised other questions. Priebus and Bannon got along well during the campaign, though it remains unclear whether their jobs will overlap in the White House. Typically there are fine dividing lines between the chief of staff and the president’s chief strategist, with the chief of staff in command of White House operations.
“We had a very successful partnership on the campaign, one that led to victory,” Bannon said in a statement. “We will have that same partnership in working to help President-elect Trump achieve his agenda.”
Chief of staff, the top White House employee, is traditionally the first post a president-elect fills after Election Day. Bannon had also been in the running for the job.
The announcement caps days of speculation about which aides will oversee the White House, roles that will be particularly important because the president-elect lacks Washington experience. Trump decided on Friday to tap Priebus as chief of staff and spent the weekend working out the details, according to a source familiar with the president-elect’s thinking.
“It is truly an honor to join President-elect Trump in the White House as his Chief of Staff,” Priebus said in the statement. “I am very grateful to the President-elect for this opportunity to serve him and this nation as we work to create an economy that works for everyone, secure our borders, repeal and replace Obamacare and destroy radical Islamic terrorism. He will be a great President for all Americans.”
Not everyone in Trump world is happy with the Priebus choice. The RNC chairman had a tension-filled relationship with some Trump loyalists, including onetime campaign manager Lewandowski. At moments over the summer months, there were questions about whether the RNC would ditch Trump and refocus its resources on down-ballot races — a step the committee ultimately didn’t take.
One Trump aide said over the weekend that a Priebus hire would spawn a “revolt” among supporters who wanted him to fulfill on a promise to govern as an anti-establishment president.
The RNC, however, played a major role in Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton, providing his campaign with a formidable ground game. Trump hauled Priebus up on stage during his victory speech, calling him a “superstar” who was like Secretariat.
Other Trump campaign aides are expected to take on key advisory roles. Among them are Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Trump son-in law Jared Kushner. Kushner, a wealthy real estate executive who serves as publisher of the New York Observer, accompanied Trump to Washington, D.C., last week and strolled the White House grounds with President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Lewandowski, the controversial former Trump aide, is also expected to play a role, either in the White House or in Trump’s political operation.
Priebus’ ascendancy to chief of staff means it will be up to Trump to name a successor to him at the RNC. That selection must then be approved by the committee’s 168 members. One senior Trump aide said Lewandowski is among those being considered for the post. Another possibility is David Bossie, a Trump adviser who also serves as an RNC committeeman.
The RNC is scheduled to host a members-only conference call on Monday evening, presumably to discuss the committee’s next steps.
On Sunday afternoon, Priebus wrote an email to the committee thanking it for “your tireless work, drive, and vision that energize our Party — and it has been the highest privilege of my life to have served as your chairman over the past six years.”
“What we have achieved together will set America on a new and better path for a generation; together, we made history,” he added. “I cannot tell each of you how much it means to have been able to count on your guidance, input, and support. Now our work continues as we execute on implementing President-Elect Trump’s agenda.”