WASHINGTON — While Donald Trump faces persistent questions regarding the lineup of his nascent administration, a former policy adviser to president Bill Clinton thinks the president-elect may be deliberately creating an environment of “conflict” within his staff to maximize his ability to govern.
Since former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney emerged as a seeming favorite of Trump’s for the role of secretary of state, and top aide Kellyanne Conway responded by publicly airing her opposition to such an appointment, infighting in the Trump camp has been fully on display.
William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former top aide to Clinton during his White House years, said the incoming president may be deliberately sowing seeds of discord.
Having a “team of rivals” comprise an administration, as Abraham Lincoln’s staff was described, is a way of “maintaining control,” Galston told The Times of Israel recently. “If your most senior people are not always on the same page, then you always get to make the decision.”
Galston, who was Clinton’s deputy assistant for domestic policy, said he first saw such a dynamic unfolding when Trump announced Republican national committee chair Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, along with a more controversial pick — former Breitbart boss Stephen Bannon — for chief strategist.
Some presidents, like Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general who was supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II, institutionalize their White House under a “military hierarchical relationship where it’s clear who’s on top and who’s reporting to whom,” Galston said.
But others want to “institutionalize conflict at the top ranks,” he said.
That may be what Trump did by giving both Priebus, who is popular with the Republican establishment, and Bannon, a provocateur who until recently led an incendiary website accused of peddling racism and xenophobia, an equal future rank in the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“He may see it as a way of making sure a wide range of voices and views are represented, or that a single, all-powerful chief of staff is not screening out important dissenting opinions,” Galston said.
Under an arrangement in which there is no single chief of staff controlling which issues command the president’s attention, Trump will have access to a greater flow of information and ultimately will be able to make more of his own decisions, according to Galston. “Perhaps that’s what Mr. Trump is very deliberately doing,” he said.
Bannon has been a source of much controversy during these early days of Trump’s transition. Democrats, Republicans and various Jewish organizations have denounced his appointment, saying that Bannon represents a brand of populist nationalism that emboldens racists and should not be near the Oval Office.
As executive chairman of Breitbart News from 2012 to 2016, Bannon pushed a nationalist agenda and turned the publication into what he called “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement associated with white supremacist ideas that oppose multiculturalism.
Including someone like Bannon in the administration, Galston emphasized, will keep happy a large portion of the base that helped catapult Trump into office. “They will certainly feel as though they have a powerful voice about as close to the seat of power as you can get,” he said. “They will not feel that they’re on the outside peering in.”
But while the entry of a man like Bannon into presidential politics marks a clear break from the staffing policies of past administrations, an arrangement whereby the president retains both a formal chief of staff and a chief strategist is hardly unprecedented, according to Anita McBride, former assistant to president George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
If you look at the beginning of the previous two presidencies, they too relied on similar arrangements.
President Barack Obama appointed then-congressman Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff and David Axelrod, who was chief strategist on his campaign, to be his senior adviser.
Likewise, Bush appointed Andrew Card as chief of staff and brought in Karl Rove from his campaign to be senior adviser.
“It takes people around you that you trust, that you have confidence in, that can work with each other, to make sure that what you have promised and the way you want to govern is executed in the way that you want,” McBride, who is now the executive-in-residence at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, told The Times of Israel.
“[Trump] obviously valued the way [Bannon] contributed to the campaign, someone who took over the reins and ultimately delivered a winning campaign,” she added. “Presidents want to have people around them whose way of work they’ve seen and who got them through the unbelievably difficult period [of the campaign], people who got them across the finish line.”