A president’s chief of staff sets the tone for his administration, and President-elect Trump had two very different options before him. He could go with Reince Priebus and assuage the fears of Establishment Republicans, who see the longtime Republican National Committee chair as a known quantity with knowledge of the D.C. political system and conservative goals that are similar to their own. Or he could give the job to Steve Bannon, his campaign CEO, who formerly led Breitbart News as it waged war on the GOP Establishment and worked to normalize white-nationalist and anti-Semitic ideas.
Somehow, Trump went with “all of the above.”
Technically, Priebus won the top job. He’s Trump’s pick for White House chief of staff, according to a statement released by the campaign on Sunday. Bannon got the No. 2 job, chief strategist and senior counselor to the president, a role filled in previous administrations by figures like John Podesta and Karl Rove. However, the statement lists Bannon’s role before Priebus’s, and it says that they will be “working as equal partners.”
Trump said the two men are “highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory. Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”
While initially several Republican lawmakers expressed relief at the selection of Priebus, the focus quickly shifted to the man former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro called a “legitimately sinister figure” getting a key role in the White House.
Ryan and Priebus have been friends for decades, but earlier on Sunday, the House speaker claimed he had “no concerns” about Trump potentially making Bannon chief of staff instead. However, Ryan can’t be excited that Trump’s chief strategist is a man who reportedly stated many times that Ryan was “the enemy,” and talked about destroying his career and “globalist” agenda.
Obviously, having Priebus and Bannon feuding over whether to work with Ryan or destroy him is not a recipe for effective governing. But, of course, that’s not why many have an issue with Bannon’s appointment. Bannon boasted in July that Breitbart is the “platform for the alt-right,” and under his leadership for the past four years, the site has peddled alt-right conspiracy theories and promoted various racist and sexist views. Classic headlines include “Bill Kristol, Renegade Jew” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”
Bannon’s ex-wife also accused him of domestic violence and anti-Semitism in police reports and divorce papers from the mid-’90s, which were unearthed in August.
On Sunday night, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, tweeted other examples of Breitbart’s work, including an article that argues “rape culture” is “integral” to Islam, a post urging readers to fly the Confederate flag “with pride” two weeks after the Charleston massacre, and another comparing Pamela Geller’s “draw Muhammad contest” to Selma.
“Stephen Bannon was the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill,” the organization said. “Trump should rescind this hire. In his victory speech, Trump said he intended to be president for ‘all Americans.’ Bannon should go.”
They were joined by the Anti-Defamation League …
… and political operatives from both sides of the aisle. “It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of White Supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide,” said Adam Jentleson, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s deputy chief of staff.
“The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America,” tweeted John Weaver, a veteran GOP strategist and Trump critic.
So far, the Trump camp has not responded to the criticism of Bannon, and what has come out of the campaign has not been encouraging. “Bannon is going to be keeper of the image of Trump as a fighter against the status quo, and Reince is going to utilize his personal connections with the speaker and others, to make the trains run on time,” Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio state official and a member of the Trump transition team, told The Wall Street Journal. When you are trying to convince America that its new leader is not a fascist, it’s best not to make any Mussolini references.