WASHINGTON—President-elect Donald Trump made his first two key personnel appointments on Sunday, one an overture to Republican circles by naming GOP chief Reince Priebus as his White House chief of staff, the other a shot across the bow of the Washington establishment by tabbing Breitbart news executive Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and senior counsellor.
The two men had made up the president-elect’s chief of staff shortlist, and while Priebus received that job, Bannon’s post also is expected to wield significant clout. The media executive with ties to the alt-right and white nationalist movement was given top billing in the press release announcing their appointments.
Trump’s hires were, at first glance, contradictory, though they fit a pattern of the celebrity businessman creating a veritable Rorschach test that allowed his supporters to see what they wanted. Priebus, who lashed the RNC to Trump this summer despite some intraparty objections, is a GOP operative with deep expertise of the Washington establishment that Trump has vowed to shake up. He has close ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite.
“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,” Priebus said in the statement announcing his appointment.
Bannon, meanwhile, helped transform the Breitbart news site into the leading mouthpiece of the party’s anti-establishment wing, which helped fuel the businessman’s political rise. Ryan has been one of his most frequent targets.
“Steve and Reince are highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory,” Trump said. “Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”
Neither Priebus nor Bannon bring policy experience to their new White House roles. Chiefs of staff in particular play a significant role in policy making, serving as a liaison to Cabinet agencies and deciding what information makes it to the president’s desk. They’re often one of the last people in the room with the president as major decisions are made.
Trump’s adult children, who serve as influential advisers to the president-elect, are said to have been concerned about having a controversial figure in the chief of staff role and backed Priebus for the job.
In announcing the appointments, Trump said Priebus and Bannon would work as “equal partners”—effectively creating two power centres in the West Wing. The arrangement is risky and could leave ambiguity over who makes final decisions.
Trump has long encouraged rivalries, both in business and in his presidential campaign. He cycled through three campaign managers during his White House run, creating a web of competing alliances among staffers.
Priebus is a traditional choice, one meant as an olive branch to the Republicans who control both houses of Congress as Trump looks to pass his legislative agenda.
Ryan tweeted, “I’m very proud and excited for my friend Reince. Congrats!” Ryan made no mention of Bannon in that tweet, but earlier told CNN that he didn’t know Bannon but “I trust Donald’s judgment.”
The Bannon pick, however, is anything but safe.
Under Bannon’s tenure, Brietbart pushed a nationalist agenda and became one of the leading outlets of the so-called alt-right—a movement often associated with white supremacist ideas that oppose multiculturalism and defend “Western values.”
John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign, tweeted, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant, America.”
Bannon, who became campaign CEO in August, pushed Trump to adopt more populist rhetoric and paint rival Hillary Clinton as part of a global conspiracy made up of the political, financial and media elite, bankers bent on oppressing the country’s working people—a message that carried Trump to the White House but to some, carried anti-Semitic undertones.
An ex-wife of Bannon said he expressed fear of Jews when the two battled over sending their daughters to private school nearly a decade ago, according to court papers reviewed this summer by The Associated Press. In a sworn court declaration following their divorce, Mary Louise Piccard said her ex-husband had objected to sending their twin daughters to an elite Los Angeles academy because he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
A spokeswoman for Bannon denied he made those statements.
The appointments came after a day in which Trump’s tough-talking plan to rein in illegal immigration showed signs Sunday of cracking, with the president-elect seemingly backing off his vow to build a solid wall along the southern U.S. border and Ryan rejecting any “deportation force” targeting people in the country illegally.
Though Trump told CBS’ 60 Minutes in an interview airing Sunday night that his border wall might look more like a fence in spots, one thing didn’t change from his primary: the combative billionaire took to Twitter to settle some scores.
During a four-hour spree, Trump savaged The New York Times for being “dishonest” and “highly inaccurate” and gloated about the GOP stalwarts lining up to congratulate him, bragging that staunch critics and GOP rivals Kasich, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush had sent attaboys.
60 Minutes he would eschew the $400,000 annual salary for the president, taking only $1 a year.