Is Donald Trump staffing his White House or scripting it?
His campaign in many ways was reality television brought to politics, full of outrageous action, constant twists, and narrative tension. It’s possible the president-elect is using this same approach in his transition. Call it “West Wing Apprentice,” or “Survivor: Bureaucracy.”
Consider his first big personnel moves: Reince Priebus as chief of staff, and Steven Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor.
Mr. Priebus, currently chairman of the Republican National Committee, is the button-down, by-the-book character in this formulation. His job is nominally more important. He’ll be the protagonist around which lots of Oval Office drama will revolve.
Many Trump skeptics are greeting his appointment with relief.
“Congrats to @realDonaldTrump for outstanding choice of @Reince to be Chief of Staff. This shows me he is serious about governing,” tweeted out Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former Trump primary opponent and past harsh critic.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bannon, chief of Breitbart News, is the renegade in the White House cast – or villain, to some. He’s the provocateur, the self-proclaimed leader of the alternative right. Bannon says it’s all about national identity, and opposition to immigration and the excesses of globalism. His critics say the alt-right is actually about race.
“Bannon is a longtime professional bigot, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center among others,” writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein today in his Bloomberg View column.
The storyline here is obvious, first-season stuff. Priebus and Bannon will represent rival power centers. It’ll be inside versus outside, clean-shaven versus scruffy, the quiet operator versus the loud guy who breaks all the rules.
The most logical plot would have Priebus winning. Chief of staff is the second-most powerful job in the United States government, by many measures. They are the person who controls access to the president and shapes the policy options from which the president chooses. They can set much of the Executive Branch agenda. The rest of the White House staff will be concerned about Priebus.
Many chiefs of staff have become Washington legends: think of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s guard dog (later jailed for his Watergate role); James Baker, Reagan’s tough advocate (later named secretary of State); or Rahm Emmanuel, spearhead of the Obama administration (now mayor of Chicago).
Perhaps a dominant chief of staff is what Trump intends. Bannon’s appointment could be a sop to his loudest, most angry voters, the ones who wore T-shirts with obscene comments about Hillary Clinton to Trump rallies. The job Bannon now has is in fact a difficult one; an adviser without portfolio has to create his or her own purpose. They’re not always automatically included in meetings. They have to find the room where things are happening themselves.
But in reality TV, the dark stars do sometimes triumph. Much depends on their relationship with the president and their ability to set strategic goals and stick with them. Maybe the most successful staffer-without-portfolio in recent administrations was Karl Rove. As senior adviser (and deputy chief of staff) to President George W. Bush, Mr. Rove pushed Mr. Bush to back the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, among other things. He was instrumental in shaping W’s 2004 reelection agenda.
In the moves, there are perhaps the faint outlines of an underlying practicality. Trump agreed to put Priebus in the chief of staff position after his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said the “job should not be held by someone too controversial,” The New York times reported. Moreover, President Obama said of his meeting with Trump: “I don't think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic.”
But comparing Trump’s staff moves to casting a reality show is not totally over the top. Trump won a stunning victory in large part by providing the media a campaign story they could not resist, producing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free coverage. Why should he stop the drama now?
Maybe Priebus and Bannon will peacefully coexist. But given their roots in very different constituencies, conflict seems inevitable. Abraham Lincoln famously cultivated a “Team of Rivals” staff. Trump has done the same thing in his businesses. So buckle up.