President-elect Donald Trump spent his first days after his improbable White House victory trying to come to terms with the immensity of the job ahead of him. His first staffing decisions showed how he hasn’t quite figured it out yet.
On Sunday, the real estate magnate-turned-reality television host and presidential candidate tapped RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, and Stephen Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart, as his “chief strategist.” The duo show the tension inside the next Administration, as Trump struggles with the impulse to carry on his freewheeling style with the imperative to grow more disciplined.
While every chief of staff in the White House adopts a different style, the job has come to be a combination of chief operating officer and therapist for the person occupying the Oval Office. And for the bombastic Trump, the first president never to serve in government or the military, the role may never have been more important. While Priebus doesn’t have detailed experience within the federal government, he brings a wealth of relationships in the nation’s capital to the post,
Priebus’ hiring to the top job was greeted by relief in Washington. An Establishment stalwart and a close ally of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite, Priebus, 44, proved himself a moderating force on the President-elect through the final days of the bitter campaign.
“You don’t tell Trump you can’t do this, stop doing that,” RNC strategist Sean Spicer told TIME recently, describing how Priebus has pushed Trump to stay on message. “You say, ‘You know what would be more helpful or more effective?’ Or, ‘Right now the Dems are taking advantage of how you’re saying this.'”
During the campaign, the RNC took on an unprecedented role in backstopping an inexperienced staff working for the party’s nominee, which drew praise from Trump, who called him a “superstar” on Election Night. Priebus is said to be looking at ways to bring more veteran staff to the Trump administration to assist lesser-qualified aides who are coming off the campaign.
While Trump considered elevating Bannon to the job of chief of staff, advisors—including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner—argued it’d be a poke in the eye to mainstream Republicans. Under Bannon, Breitbart has waged war against Ryan, on whom Trump will rely for any sort of legislative agenda, and has elevated the so-called "Alt-Right" movement, a movement of white nationalists and extreme conservatives that has sprung up online. The conservative news site has used epithets to describe minorities and highlighted the religious persuasion of those it disagrees with. Bannon himself has also been accused in court documents of anti-Semitism.
“If he picked Bannon, it would be total war,” said a Republican congressional aide. There is little love lost between Bannon and Priebus either. The party chairman has long been critical of Breitbart for sowing disunity in the GOP, and has been a frequent target of attacks from the website’s writers.
But even without the title, Bannon’s hiring to a senior White House posting may mark a mainstreaming of such controversial opinions. The Trump transition team announced that he and Priebus would work “as equal partners” in the White House.
“Steve and Reince are highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory,” Trump said in a statement. “Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who served as transition chairman throughout the campaign, also lobbied heavily for the chief of staff role, but fell out of favor with the nominee after the election. Christie was replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence as transition chairman, and has not been recently spotted at the transition team’s daily meetings in Trump Tower.
Priebus was a frequent critic of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, whether his proposed ban on Muslim immigration or the lewd language he used to describe women. Yet he resisted calls from some in the party to abandon Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump describing attempt at sexual assault.
The RNC chairman has told associates he has “no regrets” about his leadership of the party, and has expressed hope, like Ryan, that Trump will prove to be malleable to the traditional Republican form. In the days since becoming president-elect, Trump has sent just those signs, suggesting he would try to rock the boat in Washington far less than he indicated during the campaign. Trump has staffed his transition with a collection of lobbyists and special interest groups. He indicated he would not try to repeal Obamacare without a replacement and backed off a pledge to deport all of the more than 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. All of those decisions, transition aides said, pointed to the influence of Priebus and his allies over Bannon.
In the closing days of the campaign, Priebus, his chief of Staff Katie Walsh, Kushner, and Trump digital director Brad Parscale formed a key alliance that ran everything from the nuts-and-bolts of digital marketing to which states Trump invested his time in.
‘Trump legit listens to [Priebus],” said a person involved with the hiring discussions.
Republican operatives describe Priebus as expert at navigating overbearing egos. “He’s used to getting yelled at by donors and politely explaining to them why they’re wrong,” said one person who has witnessed those conversations.
But Bannon and Priebus represent just several of the power centers being arranged around Trump as he prepares to assume the White House. Former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has said she has been offered a senior White House job, while Kushner is eyeing how he can legally be involved in the administration despite strict federal anti-nepotism laws.
It will be up to Trump to decides who he ultimately listens to.