Donald Trump has made his first key decision as president-elect, sidelining Gov. Chris Christie, who had been tasked for months with preparing his transition team, in favor of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the first hint of the internal power dynamics in the nascent administration.
Trump had largely ignored his transition efforts ahead of Tuesday’s election, out of both a combination of superstition and the unlikeliness of his ascent, Trump advisers have said. But now that a Trump administration is a reality, he has dived into the task, with meetings in Trump Tower where Pence, the most experienced government executive in Trump’s tight circle of advisers, has emerged as a key player.
On Wednesday, the morning after Trump’s victory, Pence and Trump met separately with some aides ahead of the meeting held with a wider circle of advisers that same day. On Thursday, Pence joined Trump for his meetings on Capitol Hill with Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a visible expression of the expanded portfolio Trump is expected to hand to Pence.
“Donald Trump understood the message the town would take from it and trusts Pence completely,” a top Trump ally said of the decision to put Pence in charge of the transition operation. “It strengthens Pence in D.C. as having the trust of Donald Trump.”
A second Trump confidante said Pence was in line to be “more important than any other vice president in history.”
A third Trump adviser said that Pence was being tasked, in particular, with helping Trump navigate Capitol Hill, given his longstanding relationship with Speaker Paul Ryan. Pence has already been on the phone with House Minority Nancy Pelosi, her office has said, and he spoke with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a person familiar with the call said.
“Everybody in our conference likes and respects him,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.
On the transition, Pence won’t just be a figure head at the top. Christie’s loyalists who had been orchestrating the transition were also pushed aside Friday, including Rich Baggard and Bill Palatucci, both of whom were now named simply as advisers.
Rick Dearborn, chief of staff to Sen. Jeff Sessions, will step in as the new executive director. Three Pence aides are now involved as well: Nick Ayers, Josh Pitcock, and Marc Short.
In New York, Trump, and his inner circle, have been focused most urgently on filling the role of White House chief of staff. It is a job that Christie and his allies have pushed for him but that possibility appears to have faded. Two of the top contenders are Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon of Breitbart.
“This will all come down to, what is Donald Trump looking for in a chief of staff, how is Donald Trump defining a role of chief of staff and, based upon the role, who is the most competent person in his very limited circle of trust to fill it,” said one Trump confidant.
Trump’s team has wrestled with the mixed message that naming Priebus as chief of staff would send to his impassioned supporters: picking the head of the political party as his most important aide after railing against the political establishment from the start of his candidacy.
Bannon, in contrast, has led the charge against the GOP establishment from his perch at Breitbart and would be an ideological match for Trump’s populist base.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is widely expected to wield significant influence in the West Wing but his title and exact role remains unclear. The sidelining of Christie — who as a prosecutor a decade ago put Kushner’s father in jail— is seen as one more sign of the influence of Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump.
As Trump met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Thursday, Kushner was spotted roaming the White House grounds with Obama’s current chief of staff, Denis McDonough.
The lobby of Trump Tower was busy Friday as many of the real estate mogul’s campaign staff and key advisers made their way in and out of the president-elect’s Manhattan office, including former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, Kushner, Anthony Scaramucci, Rudy Giuliani, digital director Brad Parscale, senior communications adviser Jason Miller, senior adviser Stephen Miller and campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
The transition team’s formal staff, announced Friday, is a who’s who of the campaign, from Kellyanne Conway and David Bossie, Trump’s campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, respectively, to Trump originals Dan Scavino and Hicks.
There was one notable addition, though: Katie Walsh, who has served as chief of staff to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Christie will remain one of several vice-chairs of the transition, including Dr. Ben Carson, Newt Gingrich, retired Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani and Sessions. A source close to Trump said Christie “will still be around”— hardly a ringing endorsement.
Trump also named a 16-person executive committee to oversee the transition. It included three of his children: Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric Trump.
The president-elect issued a brief statement on Friday announcing the changes, saying, “Together this outstanding group of advisors, led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, will build on the initial work done under the leadership of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to help prepare a transformative government ready to lead from day one.”
Powered by WPeMatico