Trump adviser Steve Bannon becomes 'the story'

NEW YORK — Donald Trump's new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, did a string of television interviews Monday, but took almost as many questions about the president-elect's other major appointment: chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Trump's critics are bashing the Bannon appointment by saying the website he once headed — Breitbart News — traffics in racism and anti-Semitism, while the president-elect and his aides defend the newly appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to the Trump White House.

"That's not the Steve Bannon that I know and I've spent a lot of time with him," Priebus said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "And here's a guy who's a Harvard Business School, London School of Economics, (and) 10-year Naval officer advising admirals. He was a force for good on the campaign at every level that I saw, all the time."

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Bannon turned Breitbart into a platform for the so-called "alt-right,": which he described as "simply a re-branding of white nationalism and is the energy behind the avalanche of racist and anti-Semitic harassment that plagued social media platforms for the entire presidential campaign."

Bannon left Breitbart for the Trump campaign in August. Larry Solov, Breitbart’s chief executive, declined to answer a New York Times question about whether the former Goldman Sachs banker still has a financial stake in the website.

In the meantime, Breitbart plans to capitalize on its increased readership by expanding its Washington bureau and perhaps opening offices in other countries.

In announcing the appointments of Priebus and Bannon, Trump described both as "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.”

Kellyanne Conway, the campaign manager for Trump, said Priebus and Bannon would "make a great team" because "they complement each other. They both have the most important thing: the ear of the boss."

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, pounced on the Bannon appointment. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., said "there must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration."

Prominent White House jobs are challenging for anybody, analysts said, especially for those who come from outside the political system -- and the criticism of Bannon makes the challenge even tougher.

"First of all, you never want staff to be the story," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who specializes in White House organization. "When the staff becomes the story, it has a negative impact on the White House and the president."

Many analysts see Trump as picking from different sides of the Republican coalition. Priebus represented the party establishment as chairman of the Republican National Committee, while Bannon became a leader of a more aggressive conservatism that opposed various trade and immigration policies.

Breitbart News clearly backed Trump during his presidential bid and attacked numerous Republicans for being insufficiently conservative. That group includes House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Priebus ally.

Historian Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, said Bannon turned Breitbart — "and then the Trump campaign" — into an advocate for the alt-right.

Bringing Bannon into the White House is a signal that, "despite his reach-across-the-divide rhetoric, Trump has no intention of distancing himself from the alt-right or the racist, sexist, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric that shaped his campaign," Hemmer said.

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, a Trump critic once labeled a "renegade Jew" in an infamous Breitbart headline, asked in a tweet if there is a  "precedent for such a disreputable & unstable extremist in WH senior ranks."

Several analysts noted that Trump announced the Priebus and Bannon hires in tandem, and that their different forms of influence with Trump sets up the possibility of competing power centers. The announcement from the Trump transition team said that Priebus and Bannon will be "working as equal partners to transform the federal government."

Republican consultant Bruce Haynes, founding partner of Washington-based Purple Strategies, said Priebus is more likely to the "power center," given the chief of staff's control over personnel and organization, while Bannon will be more of a "sounding board" for the presidency.

"Bannon will provide insight into some aspects of the movement that was behind Trump, but his role is likely to be more advisory," Haynes said. "Bannon won't have the relationships inside the government and the Congress like Priebus has to drive an agenda."

Rick Tyler, a conservative Republican who is an MSNBC analyst, said this can go one of two ways. One is "the healthy way" in which Trump solicits a variety of views and acts on some of them.

"Or it can go the Machiavellian way," he said, "and there will be a power struggle."


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