President-elect Donald Trump’s first major appointments announced on Sunday signalled an approach that will engage the establishment he railed against as nominee and pit it against outside, populist forces that helped him win the White House.
Trump named Reince Priebus, the widely acceptable three-term chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Washington insider, as his chief of staff, indicating his willingness to engage with the party establishment that he disparaged on the stump.
He also named Steven Bannon, a hard-charging media executive closely aligned with the party’s extreme right elements that fuelled Trump’s candidacy, as his chief strategist. He has been accused of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks, which he has denied.
“I am thrilled to have my very successful team continue with me in leading our country,” Trump said in a statement. “Steve and Reince 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.”
Priebus and Bannon will work “as equal partners to transform the federal government”, the statement said, signalling the creation of competing centres of power in a Trump White House. They will directly report to Trump.
Priebus, whose experience in Washington and close friendship with Speaker Paul Ryan will help Trump work with Congress to push his legislative agenda, got the vote of Trump’s children, who wanted a non-controversial chief of staff.
Bannon has been a deeply divisive figure who headed Breitbart News, an extreme right publication that became a Trump campaign mouthpiece, and who, according to divorce papers filed by his former wife, has said he didn’t like Jewish people.
While looking at a school for their daughters in Los Angeles, the ex-wife said Bannon described “the biggest problem he had with Archer (a school) is the number of Jews that attend. He said that he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiney brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews”.
Breitbart News, which he headed, ran headlines such as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”, “Hillary Clinton’s Muslim Brotherhood problem”, and “Data: Young Muslims in the west are a ticking time bomb, increasingly identifying with radial, terror.’
His appointment expectedly drew widespread criticism. “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house’,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks and battles anti-Semitism, said in a statement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations’s Nihad Awad said in a statement, “The appointment of Stephen Bannon as a top Trump administration strategist sends the disturbing message that anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and white nationalist ideology will be welcome in the White House.”
Even Republicans were concerned. “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office,” John Weaver, a former adviser to Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, wrote on Twitter, adding, “Be very vigilant America.”
And some Trump supporters as well. George W Bush’s chief of staff John Sununu conceded in an interview to CNN that Bannon was a controversial pick.