By Philip Rucker and Robert Costa
The transformation of power in Washington begins at President-elect Donald J. Trump’s ear.
There are the intimates: Stephen K. Bannon, the controversial provocateur and keeper of Trump’s populist, nationalist flame; Jared C. Kushner, the unquestionably loyal son-in-law who whispers his machinations; and Jeff Sessions, the firebrand senator from Alabama whose clout is all-encompassing and often unseen.
There are the Republican operators: Reince Priebus, the consummate party man who will manage the White House; Paul D. Ryan, the wonky House speaker from Wisconsin who stands ready to implement a wholesale overhaul of the tax code, health care and regulations; and Mitch McConnell, the wily Senate majority leader from Kentucky who intends to personally tilt the Supreme Court and federal judiciary to the right.
And then there is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who is positioned to exert sweeping authority on all matters foreign and domestic as Trump’s partner in running the executive branch.
These seven men, as well as Trump’s adult children and a few others, will make up an unusual power grid in a capital city used to a hierarchical structure. Trump is presiding over concentric spheres of influence, designed to give him direct access to a constellation of counselors and opinions.
Such an approach also risks bringing confrontation or even paralysis as feuding factions work to further their own goals, edge out adversaries or distract Trump – as happened more than once during his presidential campaign.
As president, his associates said, Trump will seek rather than shun competing advice. His presidency will be governance as a series of continuing conversations.
“He’s got this habit where he calls people every day to check in,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “He likes a lot of input, multiple, competing voices at the table. So a top-down White House is not him.”
So it is that in assembling his White House in meetings at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump announced that his chief of staff, Priebus, and chief strategist and senior counselor, Bannon, would be “equal partners” – a departure from President Obama’s West Wing, where Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough stands alone atop the pyramid.
The turbulent first week of Trump’s transition has revealed a tendency in the president-elect – one that was evident throughout his business career and during his campaign – to reject rigid chains of command.
So far, Trump has prized loyalty above all else. He demoted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chairman in favor of Pence. People linked to Christie have been purged from the team – including former Michigan congressman and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers – and acolytes of Sessions were elevated.
Word has gone out to those interested in serving in the Trump administration that the top positions will almost surely go to those who backed him in the campaign.
Jason Miller, communications director for the Trump transition, dismissed discussions of the emerging power matrix as “inside baseball, palace intrigue.” “If you know anything about Donald Trump’s leadership style, it’s that he’s the one who’s going to set the tone and the pace and the vision for what he wants to accomplish with the government that he’s forming,” Miller said. “You can talk about all the different people coming onboard to help implement that, but there’s one person who’s ultimately going to be driving it, and that’s the next president of the United States.”
People involved in the transition said Kushner, husband of Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka, is orchestrating nearly everything alongside Trump and Pence, from personnel to the new administration’s initial policy agenda. As quiet and discreet as his father-in-law is loud and combative, Kushner is said to have taken part in the ouster of Christie and the New Jersey governor’s network.
It is unclear whether Kushner will have a formal role in the administration or whether he and his wife will remain in New York City, where they run their own businesses and are raising three young children.
Regardless, though, Kushner is certain to be a regular sounding board for the new president.
“Jared Kushner’s role is to provide advice and counsel as requested by the president-elect, which he does very well,” Miller said.
On Capitol Hill, leaders are calculating how to maximize what they see as a rare opportunity with Republicans controlling both the legislative and executive branches. They believe that Trump will put an emphasis on velocity – hoping for a blizzard of accomplishments early on – but focus less on the granular details, which could allow lawmakers to inject their pet priorities into Trump’s big-ticket items.
Ryan or aides speak daily with Trump’s team, with Jonathan Burks, the speaker’s longtime policy adviser, serving as a liaison. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, an early Trump supporter, has also been a bridge between the House leadership and the Trump operation.
Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., said he and fellow Trump allies in the House would ensure that the president-elect’s populist views, as well as his hard-line approach to illegal immigration, are infused in every piece of legislation that it passes.
“For those of us who were with Trump when he had less than a 1 percent chance of winning, we want him to know that we’re here for him to rely on,” Barletta said. “We know he won’t settle for things being done slowly.”
McConnell is poised to be the ultimate dealmaker, considering how narrow the GOP majority is in the Senate, and already eyeing scores of vacancies in the federal judiciary, chief among them the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said he and McConnell are working along with other Senate Republicans to get Trump prepared to make a round of judicial nominations.
Former GOP presidential rival Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and a vice chairman of Trump’s transition committee, said the incoming team would work in harmony to transform the government. “Bannon and Priebus worked very well together during the campaign, so there’s certainly no reason to think that they won’t work well together here as well,” Carson said. “Usually things are dictated by ideology and relationships. With Trump, they will be dictated by common sense, by what’s practical and what actually works.”
But other Republicans offered warning signs about erecting rival power centers. Patrick J. Buchanan, a White House veteran of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, said Bannon and Priebus, regardless of their shared allegiance to the president-elect, carry with them different ideologies and experiences.
“Bannon is coming in with very strong views and ideas, and those are not the same ideas that Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan and the others have – on security of the border, on trade deals, on globalization, on war and peace,” said Buchanan, now a conservative commentator. “This is the reality. You’re going to have a clash in the White House – and the president is going to have to make the call.”