Many of president-elect Donald Trump’s detractors are settling in for a long fight to prevent “normalization.” To be clear, the election normalized Trump. The voters did that.
Normalizing Donald Trump as President of the United States is the official job description of the presidential transition team. The team’s website has the look and feels of a normal political website, for example. There, the team regularly post readouts of the president-elect and vice president-elect Mike Pence’s meetings that are intentionally hinting about the positions they intend to fill. They’ve been meeting with some well-qualified individuals, most notably former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Chief of Staff
Trump has formally announced that his White House Chief of Staff (CoS) will be Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). A conventional establishmentarian, Priebus got closer to Trump after he secured the party’s nomination and has become one of Trump’s most prominent spokesmen, but CoS is a huge responsibility requiring long hours and a strong commitment to the president. If he became a confidante to Trump because of his role as Chairman, he better prepare for ditching the party insider role for something far more personal.
In a way, Priebus is the perfect choice for CoS. With the other choices Trump has made, and more to come, it’s clear he’s going to have one of the toughest jobs in Washington.
In an “equal” role as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President, Trump has appointed Steve Bannon: a move that has many concerned Trump will not be as he promises, “the president for all Americans.” Bannon has said that his website is “the platform of the alt-right” - a nefarious group of racists and anti-semites that seem to relish dehumanizing immigrants and anyone that questions the greatness of Donald Trump. Some see in Trump evidence of a white supremacist ideology and Bannon’s presence has reportedly fueled support for their cause.
But in various interviews, Bannon explains that he is getting the job because he kept Trump on the winning path. Bannon was behind-the-scenes telling Trump to focus his fight against the elites. Bannon could sense that Trump was speaking out in a way that resonates with working-class voters in battleground states and figured he’d win the election or go down fighting. That fighting spirit is why Bannon, a man with a multifarious personality to match his eclectic past, got the ear of the candidate and will now be a powerful voice behind-the-scenes of the Trump White House. According to the transition team, “Bannon and Priebus will continue the effective leadership team they formed during the campaign.” Their relationship will probably be of much interest as they balance the competing agendas of D.C. politicians and the president.
National Security Advisor
For the crucial role of Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly referred to as the president’s National Security Advisor, Trump chose retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, renowned for his prowess as an intelligence officer. His background as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama suggests a prickly personality and perhaps a penchant for self-aggrandizement - perfect for President Trump! The National Security Council currently counts close to 400 positions, all of which Flynn will oversee. Presidents typically refine this role so perhaps Flynn will serve as an advisor instead of the director of a huge policy-coordinating bureaucracy. He has also drawn negative attention for tweeting “fear of Muslims is rational” and railing against Islam as “a political ideology” but, as this post does not require Senate confirmation, opponents are focused elsewhere.
Trump has selected Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. This is causing the most controversy because Sessions already tried to join the federal judiciary, but was rejected because of accusations that he made racist remarks and pursued a federal case in retaliation against a civil rights leader. The presidential transition team is well-aware of this reputation, blasting out press releases showcasing support from law enforcement, minorities, and the legal community. Almost all of them point out how politicized the Department of Justice has been in recent years and emphasize Sessions’ commitment to the rule of law. That would be a relief, but Democrats are keen on messaging, and have very little left to lose. If something offends the Democratic base, especially African-Americans, Democrats will fight “tooth and nail” to make it the centerpiece of every discussion. Getting the Senate to confirm Sessions’ appointment quickly will probably be Priebus’s first test as CoS. Sessions will benefit from serving in the chamber for 20 years. A quick and easy confirmation would be best for the Trump Administration but the country would benefit from on a real debate about the role of the Attorney General and law enforcement. Democrats don’t want that, but if they try to torpedo Sessions’ nomination, they’ll surely get it in return.
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