Chief of staff Priebus? Some Trump loyalists still dubious

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2016 3:01 AM
Chief of staff Priebus? Some Trump loyalists still dubious

WASHINGTON (AP) — When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Reince Priebus as his chief of staff Republican leaders cheered the prospect of a close ally having a top White House job.

But as Priebus tries to wield his influence and bring more structure to the president-elect's freewheeling political organization, he's frustrating some longtime Trump allies who see him as too conventional a pick for an unconventional president. Others fear being left behind as Priebus fills out West Wing jobs.

The dismay over Priebus stems in part from a belief among some Trump loyalists that the outgoing Republican National Committee chairman expected Trump to lose the election. They resent the president-elect "rewarding people who thought he wasn't going to win," according to one top adviser.

Still, Priebus appears to have Trump's trust. He's been given wide authority to name senior White House staff, according to people involved in the transition, and in shaping the decision on who will succeed him at the RNC, though deliberations over that post continue.

"Reince Priebus has done an outstanding job," Trump said in a statement to The Associated Press. "All you have to do is look at all of the Republican victories and one in particular."

If Trump runs his White House like past presidents — and that's hardly a sure thing — Priebus, 44, could hold enormous sway over what issues reach the Oval Office. Chiefs of staff also typically control who has access to the president — no easy task given Trump's penchant for consulting a wide network of associates before making key decisions.

Priebus, a Wisconsin native and father of two young children, comes to the White House with no significant experience in foreign and domestic policy. He has close ties with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP congressional leaders. And he's seen by those who have worked with him previously as a well-organized manager with little appetite for drama.

"One of the things he'll bring to the White House is an ability to work well with people, to be inclusive, not to get in to intrastaff squabbles," said Henry Barbour, an RNC member and Priebus ally.

Yet internal squabbling and competing factions are a hallmark of Trump's political and business organizations. He cycled through three campaign managers during his White House run, with the feuds that led up to each shake-up playing out messily in the media.

In tapping Priebus as chief of staff, Trump appeared to be setting up another rivalry. He put Steve Bannon, the controversial conservative media executive, at the White House as a senior adviser and called him an equal partner with Priebus. Trump's influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also weighing a White House role, but will remain a personal power center even without a formal position.

Transition officials say Priebus and Bannon have a respectful relationship, and there's no outright control struggle underway. But Trump's deliberation over whom to name as secretary of state is seen as an indicator of a tug-of-war, with Bannon among those said to be against Mitt Romney. Priebus is seen as an advocate for Romney and was notably the only adviser who joined Trump for a private dinner with the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

Several Trump advisers described Priebus' role only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the chief of staff.

Josh Bolten, who served as President George W. Bush's final chief of staff, said he was concerned by the description of Bannon as Priebus' equal. While presidents usually have multiple influential advisers, Bolten said, it's imperative for the lines of authority to be clear.

"If that were to mean that there's more than one chief of staff, that's a recipe for disaster," Bolten said.

Bolten is among several former chiefs of staff Priebus has consulted since the election. He's spoken at least twice with Denis McDonough, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, as recently as last week.

Priebus was frequently by Trump's side in the final weeks of the campaign. After the release of a videotape in which the businessman was heard bragging about predatory behavior with women, Priebus stood by Trump and made clear the RNC would not abandon the party's nominee.

But some Trump advisers contend Priebus and the RNC believed he would lose the election. Indeed, on the Friday before Election Day, top party officials told reporters their data showed Trump falling short by about 30 electoral votes.

Some Trump advisers have also blamed Priebus for the messy spectacle around the president-elect's interview with The New York Times. Trump accused the Times of changing the terms of the interview and tweeted that he would cancel. Then the Times said the terms had not changed, and the interview was back on.

One person involved in the situation said it was Priebus who incorrectly led Trump to believe the Times had changed the terms of the interview.

"No matter how loyal the overall collection of personalities is to the president, there are always internal rivalries and tugging and pulling," said John Sununu, who served as chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and has spoken with Priebus in recent weeks. "It's up to the chief of staff to deal with all of that."

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AP writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report.

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