The bitter infighting that plagued Donald Trump’s campaign during the Republican presidential primary is starting to spill over into his team’s efforts to establish an administration and political operation, according to more than half a dozen sources familiar with the planning efforts.
The tensions played a role in a Friday shakeup in which the president-elect replaced his transition team chief Chris Christie with his running mate Mike Pence. Sources familiar with the move say it was precipitated partly by clashes between Christie’s allies and rival factions on the transition team, as well as Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Those rifts and others are complicating what was an already a herculean task for Trump’s team: building a massive new government for a man who has never held public office.
“It’s the same situation as in the primary – everyone has the knives out for each other,” said a Republican operative who worked with the campaign and is now advising people on the transition team.
Asked about the tensions, and about Kushner’s role in the leadership change at the transition team, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said, “Anybody seeing today’s news about the appointment of Vice President-elect Mike Pence to run the Presidential Transition Team realizes that President-elect Donald J. Trump is serious about changing Washington whether the town likes it or not. This might ruffle the delicate sensitivities of the well-heeled two-martini lunch set, but President-elect Trump isn’t fighting for them, he’s fighting for the hard-working men and women outside the Beltway who don’t care for insider bickering.”
It’s not uncommon for rivalries to emerge inside campaigns and administrations as advisers jockey to place allies in key roles and advance their policy priorities. But the level of internecine conflict during Trump’s drive toward the GOP nomination was so extreme that it sometimes resulted in conflicting directives for even simple hiring and spending decisions.
People who witnessed that infighting up close see signs of similar patterns emerging, with some of the same players involved. And they fear that the dynamic could cripple Trump’s operation before it ever gets off the ground, since launching an administration requires hiring thousands of employees and setting up far more intricate chains of command than those in place during Trump’s bare-bones presidential campaign.
In fact, some of the clashes stem from the tension between early Trump loyalists and the GOP establishment. There’s lingering distrust, for instance, between allies of Trump’s initial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who is being discussed as a possible chairman of the Republican National Committee, and allies of Reince Priebus, the current RNC chairman.
Priebus, who bitterly collided with Lewandowski and played a role in the campaign manager’s firing in June, is considered a leading candidate for chief of staff in the Trump White House. That has irked some of Lewandowski’s allies, who view Priebus as embodying an establishment that scoffed at Trump early in the campaign.
Other fault lines are newer, such as the fraught relationship between Trump’s New York-based confidants who worked on the campaign, and the Washington-based transition team that has been quietly laboring for months to build an administration-in-waiting.
Some of the Washington staff grumble privately that their work was ignored by the New Yorkers who only turned their full attention to the transition after Trump’s shocking Election Day upset win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
A handful of sources in and around the Trump transition team said there was no evidence that the president-elect had even reviewed any of the binders of policy and personnel proposals produced by the team. Trump’s only contact with the transition staff, the sources said, had come through Christie, the New Jersey governor and transition team chief who was demoted on Friday from transition team chairman to being one of several vice chairs.
Meanwhile, some campaign officials, fresh off months in the trenches, are dismissive of the transition team, viewing its members as paper-pushers with no buy-in from Trump.
And even within the Washington transition team, there are distinct factions that sometimes appeared to be at odds.
A group of social and fiscal conservatives on the team, including many from the Heritage Foundation and both
administrations, regarded Christie and his allies as big-business-backing centrists who were insufficiently conservative on cultural issues.
The conservatives’ influence on the transition team figures to increase with the elevation of Vice President-elect Pence, whose tax-slashing, anti-abortion record as governor of Indiana made him a conservative favorite.
Some of the personnel moves proposed by Christie’s team drew the ire of both conservatives and early Trump loyalists, who viewed them as rewarding, instead of punishing, Republicans who were less than fully supportive of — if not downright hostile to — Trump during the primary.
A third faction on the transition team is aligned with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an early Trump backer whose allies on the transition team handle congressional outreach and immigration policy.
But perhaps the biggest power base is Trump’s own family. His adult children and especially his son-in-law Kushner have unrivaled clout with the president-elect, and have not shied away from using it to spur personnel changes.
Two people familiar with the transition said Christie’s top deputy, Rich Bagger, had run afoul of Kushner.
“That’s a fight you can’t win,” one of the people said. “The Christie people are from New Jersey, they act like they’re in charge, and Jared Kushner is like, ‘You’re not really in charge.’”
The other pointed out that Kushner’s father was prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering by Christie during his time as a U.S. attorney.
“Jared doesn’t like Christie,” the person said. “He’s always held that against Christie.”
Rick Dearborn, a top Sessions aide, was elevated to transition team executive director in place of Bagger, who the Trump team said in a statement “will return to the private sector” but remain an adviser.
In a Friday statement explaining the elevation of Pence and Dearborn, President-elect Trump praised “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.”
In addition to playing a role in Friday’s unceremonious replacement of Christie, Kushner also had a hand in Lewandowski’s firing as campaign manager in June.
Sources said Kushner — as well as other close Trump confidants — remain leery of Lewandowski, whose feud early this year with then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort was the source of much of the campaign’s infighting.
Nonetheless, Lewandowski continued advising Trump during the campaign, and several sources said he is quietly working behind the scenes to shape the transition effort and the RNC.
Lewandowski’s Friday afternoon announcement that he was resigning as a paid on-air analyst for CNN — which came after he was spotted entering Trump Tower earlier in the day — escalated talk that he was preparing for a significant role with either the RNC or the administration.
Lewandowski on Thursday night denied that he has discussed any formal role with Trump, and on Friday he denied that he has any problems with either Priebus or Kushner. “I have good relationships with both,” he said.
Several close Lewandowski allies also are thought to be headed for plum gigs, though there is steep competition, said one veteran GOP operative working with the transition team.
“This is like the Oklahoma landgrab,” said the operative. “It’s gonna get vicious the next 70 days as people try to place their people where they want them. And Christie’s people ain’t the same as [Trump campaign CEO Steve] Bannon’s people ain’t the same as Sessions’ people.”
Isaac Arnsdorf and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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