Donald Trump is considering a conservative bomb-thrower and the face of the GOP establishment, among others, for White House chief of staff — a major post that could set the direction for his presidency.
The Republican president-elect is days away from naming his chief of staff, according to people with direct knowledge of his thinking.
No position is considered more important than chief of staff, a behind-the-scenes power player who typically controls access to the president, guides the enactment of his policy priorities and oversees White House hiring. Trump already has narrowed his list to a handful of high-profile loyalists that includes Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, campaign CEO Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.
The incoming president repeatedly vowed to “drain the swamp” during his campaign’s final weeks, yet both Priebus and Conway have operated for years in that same Washington “swamp.” Bannon, by contrast, would represent a dramatically different direction, having spent recent years leading a conservative news site that fueled conspiracy theories popular with the “alt-right” movement of white nationalists.
Trump ran as an outsider, but some suggest it would be risky to tap another outsider to serve as his right hand in the Oval Office.
“I’m trying to think of who was successful as chief of staff as an outsider, and I can’t think of one,” said John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who served as chief of staff for the first three years of former President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
A president’s chief of staff sets the tone for the White House, guarding who has access to the president and what problems land on his desk. The role blends both policy and politics, working with congressional lawmakers and Cabinet officials. The chief of staff is also typically among the closest advisers to the president, providing counsel on domestic and foreign policy decisions.
In 2013, President Barack Obama made the decision to abruptly pull back plans to launch air strikes on Syria while walking on the South Lawn with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough.
The chief of staff “is often the last person who speaks to a president before a decision is made,” said Sara Fagen, who worked under two chiefs of staff in the George W. Bush White House. “This person has to have the confidence of the president, and they have to have the kind of relationship with the president where they can give him candid advice and tell him things he does not want to hear.”
It’s also helpful, said Sununu, if the chief of staff “understands the nuances and the politics of policy so that the president doesn’t accidently get himself into a bind.”
There are few people in Trump’s inner circle who are experienced in the nuances of politics and policy.
The businessman and reality television star is expected to lean heavily on Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a sitting governor who previously served in Congress for more than a decade. But with Trump having been shunned by most of the political world’s most respected leaders for much of the last year, few of his closest campaign advisers have governing experience in Washington.
Trump has only about 70 days to form a new government, including hundreds of senior-level employees across various federal agencies. The jobs — and the selection of his Cabinet — will be filled only after a chief of staff is selected. And with so many questions about Trump’s specific priorities as president, his early personnel decisions become major signals of his intentions.
“Personnel is policy,” said Republican operative Ron Kaufman, who also served in H.W. Bush’s White House.
The leading candidates for chief of staff include Priebus, who has served as chairman of the Republican National Committee since 2011. The Wisconsin native is close friends with House Speaker Paul Ryan and is also popular among RNC members. He thrived in fundraising as the GOP chairman and led the party’s voter-outreach efforts that helped fuel Trump’s stunning victory.
Priebus has no governing experience. He became the national chairman after serving as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Priebus is perhaps Trump’s most trusted member of the GOP establishment, having traveled with him often during the campaign’s final weeks.
Bannon joined the Trump campaign in August after a second major staffing shake-up. He has little national profile, but became well-known among Washington’s conservative fringe as the combative head of Breitbart News, a pro-Trump website that frequently targeted Republican leaders like Ryan and promotes false conspiracy theories.
The site is popular among white nationalists. One Breitbart headline under Bannon’s leadership referred to conservative columnist Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.”
Conway is a veteran Republican pollster who took over as Trump’s campaign manager at about the same time Bannon was hired. She was viewed as an effective messenger on cable television and was largely credited with helping to keep Trump focused on his Democratic opponent in the campaign’s final days.
She previously led a super PAC that supported Ted Cruz’s presidential bid and was funded by the Mercer family, who would later become prominent Trump backers.