Donald Trump’s transition team announced its first two hires over the weekend. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will be White House Chief of Staff, and Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon will be chief strategist and counselor to the president.
In a statement, Trump praised both highly: “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.”
But who are they, and what will their roles mean?
Bannon is the former CEO of the Trump campaign who joined the campaign in August this year. He was brought in from his role as executive chairman of Breitbart News, a media conservative website that is aligned with the so-called Alt-Right. Bannon is a controversial figure because his association with the alt-right movement has been described as enabling white nationalism in the United States.
Known as a brash and “combative propagandist” with a “desire to destroy the left” and reform the conservative base to that end, Bannon refined much of Trump’s anti-establishment message in the final months of the campaign. Bannon has little regard for tradition or convention, instead choosing to dispense with restraint. This was in stark display during the campaign when, among other notable moments, he orchestrated for Trump to appear at a news conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers just before the second debate.
Bannon is also a co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute, a conservative non-profit that was formed with the purpose of publishing investigations aimed at undermining the establishment of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The Government Accountability Institute has particularly targeted the Bush family and the Clinton family.
The role of counselor to the President is ill-defined and varies widely in importance from President to President, sometimes not existing at all, and sometimes being shared by two or three different advisors. It has the potential to be a powerful role that defines the strategic direction of the administration, or it can be a sidelined role with no formal powers.
Priebus has been Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) since 2011. In that role, he oversaw the now-infamous 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project, a so-called ‘autopsy’ of the party in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election. The report envisioned a more inclusive Republican Party that made a positive conservative argument and embraced diversity. Priebus is widely credited with running the RNC very effectively and overseeing the expansion of its digital and fundraising operations .
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus [Gage Skidmore]
When Trump secured the nomination, Priebus immediately went to work to ensure that the party stuck together and got behind Trump with relatively little open resistance. During that time, Priebus appears to have built a strong working relationship with Trump, thanks to his ability to deliver.
As White House Chief of Staff, Priebus will act as an administrator who oversees the vast executive apparatus of the United States. The Chief of Staff is also traditionally a close advisor to the President.
Shotgun Marriage, or Savvy Politics?
On the face of it, Priebus and Bannon could hardly be more different. If Bannon represents zealous anti-establishmentarianism, Priebus represents the careful bureaucrat who patiently ensures the trains run on time. It is not yet clear how this apparent contradiction will play out in the Trump administration.
Trump’s voter base was galvanized by calls to “drain the swamp,” and so the pick of Priebus as Chief of Staff may seem as if Trump is immediately being co-opted by the establishment he promised to destroy. This could anger many who voted for Trump because he represented change. At the same time, Republican establishment leaders and main-stream conservatives, whom Trump needs if he wants to get anything done as President, have expressed horror over Trump’s inclusion of Bannon in a top position.
On the other hand, the two could turn out to be savvy picks by Trump.
Priebus serves to calm the nerves of the thousands of bureaucrats and experienced Republican staffers whose talents Trump needs if he wants the various agencies under his control to run well. If they were to leave their jobs, or refuse to join the administration en-masse, the policy making ability of the administration would be severely stunted. Bannon meanwhile serves to satisfy the voters who want to see Trump take the country into a radically new direction.
The big question will be how the two interact with each other. Will Priebus act as counsel that counterbalances Bannon, or will he be a tool for Trump and Bannon to help them implement their agenda?