Donald Trump wants to have it two ways, creating what appear to be rival centres of power in dual advisory roles and introducing an element of reality TV competition to his White House.
The president-elect, who campaigned as an outsider candidate, has tapped a right-wing media agitator with ties to white nationalism and an alleged history of spousal abuse to be his new chief strategist.
His other top confidant, taking on the chief of staff role, will be a Washington insider applauded as a conventional, if not sensible, choice.
While the two picks — Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus — will ostensibly work as equals reporting directly to the president, they embody opposing conservative ideologies.
Bannon, executive chair of the far-right media outlet Breitbart, represents the interests of more radical grassroots activism in the chief strategist and senior counsellor role. Priebus will bring more institutional legitimacy to the administration.
Both men will compete for Trump’s ear. But in a campaign statement, Bannon’s name came first in the announcement of the power-sharing structure in which the advisers are listed as “equal partners.”
Unless a hierarchy is properly defined, there’s likely to be friction over influence in the West Wing.
“If people don’t know who’s in charge, it’s going to be a mess,” says Jim Pfiffner, who worked as a personnel manager during the transition between the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.
“Any time you split a chief executive position, which is a chief of staff, it’s going to get difficult. And these two guys have really different perspectives, different backgrounds — they’re just different kinds of operators.”
Reminiscent of The Apprentice
The joint announcement made Sunday aligns with how Trump reportedly ran his casinos, as well as his presidential campaign, with former employees revealing that he fostered rivalries in scenarios reminiscent of The Apprentice, the competition-based reality show in which he starred.
Bannon’s top billing on the press release might be an indication of who Trump is more prone to listening to, says Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in federal hierarchy and political appointments.
That’s because “proximity is power,” he says, noting former Democratic vice-president Walter Mondale demanded a West Wing office during his four years serving under Carter.
“White House staffers will know who’s in charge by watching the hallways. Who is the one who is closest to the president? That’s going to tell you who has access,” Light says.
For now, he says, the structure appears to have the makings of a wrestling “cage match.”
“I’m not sure this plays well in the White House, and I’m not sure that it works well in business.”
As chief of staff, Priebus told Fox News he will be tasked with “day-to-day operations.” The role is that of a gatekeeper who also takes heat for any administration failures.
Washington insider vs. wild card
Bannon will likely have exceptional access to the president, but Pfiffner’s advice to Trump is to ensure that Priebus also knows how empowered he is.
Priebus will be valued for his deep Republican connections and ability to act as a go-between for Congress and the government. His friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, with whom Trump has had a testy relationship, will also be seen as an asset as he seeks to score early policy wins for the Trump administration.
‘White House staffers will know who’s in charge by watching the hallways. Who is the one who is closest to the president?’ - New York University professor Paul Light
With Bannon by his side, Trump will continue to lean on a wild-card provocateur whose confrontational style and use of innuendo helped him pave a populist road to the White House.
Bannon is known as the editorial godfather and executive chair of Breitbart, which openly trades in alt-right conspiracy theories and has published anti-immigration and anti-Muslim articles. Bannon has described the outlet as “the platform of the alt-right,” a fringe group of online users identifying with white nationalist sentiment.
Bannon — also a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and an early investor in the sitcom Seinfeld — has been accused of anti-Semitism. In 2007 court documents, Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, alleges he choked her and forbade their twin daughters from attending an L.A. school because “he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t the girls going to school with Jews.”
Three hate watch groups — the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations — issued a statement condemning Bannon’s appointment.
Steep learning curve
But Pfiffner notes while Bannon had a winning strategy as the architect of the Trump campaign, operating the machinery of government will be a steep learning curve.
“Once you’re in office, the process of the White House is extremely elaborate,” he says. “It’s going to be frustrating figuring out which papers get to the president, who signs off before they go to the president, and it’s good Priebus has been designated in charge of that.”
Priebus’s appointment has already garnered support from skeptical Republicans such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who expressed relief that Trump was apparently “serious about governing.”
But while it was under Bannon’s campaign guidance that Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics, the Priebus pick amounts to a refilling of it, anti-establishment types say.
Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone warned in a tweet on Saturday that choosing Priebus would “cause a rebellion in Trump’s base.”
The New York Times’s Alex Burns, describing the reaction from institutional Republicans on CNN, called it the political equivalent of having “an arsonist and a firefighter in the White House together.”
Pfiffner advises that the politically inexperienced Trump look to the example of Reagan, who deployed his “Troika” — chief of staff James Baker, deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver and counsellor to the president Edwin Meese — to great effect by dividing their responsibilities. He retained Baker as chief co-ordinator at the White House.
“If Trump splits it up so Priebus gets full run of the White House and does the ordinary duties of a chief of staff, allowing Bannon to be used as a sounding-board and an ideas man, that might be workable,” Pfiffner says.
“Of course, in all administrations, there are bound to be problems.”