When a freshly elected Barack Obama picked a famously aggressive veteran of the Clinton administration and Capitol Hill as his first White House chief of staff, he said it was because “no one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel.”
It was a signal that the cerebral Obama, despite his dreamy campaign rhetoric, knew he needed a pitbull in his corner — a foul-mouthed enforcer who would muscle through the new president’s agenda by any means necessary.
“This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil and govern from the center,” John Boehner, who was then House minority leader, tartly observed at the time. Emanuel’s tenure would go on to be controversial, but he helped enact some of the most consequential, far-reaching policies of any American president in decades.
So what do the two most prominent names floated as Donald Trump’s chief of staff say about him?
The Republican establishment’s choice is abundantly clear: Reince Priebus, who withstood a lot of heat and mockery during the election but proved both his loyalty to Trump and his organizational acumen, with the Republican National Committee essentially handling Trump’s ground game.
It was Priebus who Trump recognized during his victory speech early Wednesday morning, hauling the RNC chairman up to the podium and hailing him as an “amazing guy” and a “superstar” comparable to Triple Crown winner Secretariat. And it was Priebus who served as a bridge to mainstream Republicans, vouching for Trump in public and urging him to soften his rough edges in private.
Priebus is a Wisconsin political operative who has long been a close ally of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a relationship that would be crucial to any of the legislative priorities Trump has outlined thus far — from amending or repealing Obamacare to passing a massive infrastructure package.
But picking Priebus could provoke a revolt among Trump’s fervent supporters on the right, who thought they were voting for a president who wanted to “drain the swamp” of Washington — not stack his administration with the very people he vowed to overthrow. As Trump’s longtime confidant, Roger Stone, tweeted on Saturday: “The selection of @reince for COS in a @realDonaldTrump WH would cause a rebellion in Trump’s base. #RyansBoy.”
Choosing Stephen Bannon, the blowtorch boss of Breitbart News, would signal something else altogether.
Bannon stayed out of the limelight after being named CEO of Trump’s campaign in August, following the resignation of Paul Manafort. He was a steadying presence for Trump on the campaign trail, helping the GOP nominee sharpen his message.
Under Bannon’s guidance, Breitbart became a ferocious critic of Ryan’s tenure, casting him as a “saboteur” in favor of amnesty for undocumented immigrants and describing him as “universally despised” by conservatives. One article published under Bannon’s co-byline, headlined “Paul Ryan Betrays America: $1.1 Trillion, 2,000-Plus Page Omnibus Bill Funds ‘Fundamental Transformation of America’,” portrays the speaker as a sellout secretly working to boost Obama’s policies — complete with a photograph of a bearded Ryan posing with a grinning president.
“Yet Ryan’s omnibus serves a second and equally chilling purpose,” Bannon wrote. “By locking in the President’s refugee, immigration, and spending priorities, Ryan’s bill is designed to keep these fights out of Congress by getting them off the table for good. Delivering Obama these wins – and pushing these issues beyond the purview of Congress – will suppress public attention to the issues and, in so doing, will boost the candidacy of the Republican establishment’s preferred presidential contenders, who favor President Obama’s immigration agenda.”
Bannon reportedly described the mild-mannered House speaker as “the enemy” on conference calls, and once swatted down Breitbart staffers seeking a more conciliatory approach: “Long game is him gone by spring,” he wrote in one leaked email.
Then there are Bannon’s ties to the alt-right, which has made him a divisive figure in Washington. Many in the GOP establishment view Breitbart with scorn — not only for its scorched-earth attacks on fellow Republicans, but also for promoting views well outside the conservative mainstream.
Bannon’s own copious writings and commentary would likely come under intense scrutiny should Trump select him for any White House job, let alone chief of staff. In July, for instance, he weighed in on the racially charged topic of police shootings by musing: “[H]ere’s a thought: What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.”
Former Breitbart staffers have savaged their ex-boss for allegedly “verbally abusing supposed friends and threatening enemies,” though current employees, and the Trump campaign, have defended him in statements to POLITICO.
And within the campaign he has the support of many, particularly the conservative firebrands who’ve been with Trump since the outset of the campaign — the same group that doesn’t want to see Priebus elevated. But Preibus appears to have the support of Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to some reports.
The mercurial president-elect, of course, could choose to go in another direction entirely — other names in the mix reportedly include his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with current Chief of Staff Denis McDonough at the White House on Thursday, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who has been credited with keeping Trump more focused and on-message during the campaign’s final weeks.
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