WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Donald Trump is making an overture to warring Republican circles by appointing GOP chief Reince Priebus as his White House chief of staff and Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor.
The two men had made up the president-elect’s chief of staff shortlist, and while Priebus received that job, Bannon’s post is expected to wield significant clout. Trump gave top billing to the former media executive, who led a website that appealed to the so-called “alt-right” – a movement often associated with efforts on the far right to preserve “white identity,” oppose multiculturalism and defend “Western values.”
Priebus on Monday defended the media mogul, saying the two made an effective pair as they steered Trump past Democrat Hillary Clinton and toward the presidency. He sought to distance Bannon from the incendiary headlines on his website, saying they were written by unspecified others.
“Together, we’ve been able to manage a lot of the decision making in regard to the campaign,” Priebus told NBC’s “Today.” ”It’s worked very, very well.”
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.
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 Sunday in a statement announcing his picks. “Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”
Neither Priebus nor Bannon brings policy experience to the White House. Chiefs of staff in particular play a significant role in policymaking, 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.
In announcing the appointments, Trump said Priebus and Bannon would work as “equal partners” – effectively creating two power centers 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.
The Bannon pick, however, is controversial.
Under Bannon’s tenure, Breitbart 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 which aired Sunday night that his border wall might look more like a fence in spots, one thing didn’t change from his statements on this matter during the primary season: the combative billionaire took to Twitter to settle some scores.
During a four-hour spree, Trump gloated about establishment Republicans congratulating him and savaged The New York Times for being “dishonest” and “highly inaccurate.”
“The nytimes states today that DJT believes ‘more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.’ How dishonest are they. I never said this!” Trump tweeted late Sunday morning.
But in a March interview with the Times, Trump was asked whether he would object to Japan acquiring its own nuclear arsenal, which it does not now have. He replied, “Would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”
Trump also told “60 Minutes” he would eschew the $400,000 annual salary for the president, taking only $1 a year.