Learning from his father’s mistakes, President George W. Bush decided to have a chief of staff who was not a gatekeeper, but a “first among equals” in a close group of top White House advisers.
Eight years later, President Barack Obama chose a veteran Washington power broker as his chief, to accommodate for his own lack of experience — a guide who would consistently be the voice he consulted at the beginning and the end of each day.
President-elect Donald Trump is following neither of the models of the 21st century presidency as he sets up his own critical White House staff organization.
When he enters office on Jan. 20, Trump will be surrounded by a group of top aides who have spent limited time working together and have no federal government experience among them.
But in perhaps the biggest contrast to how White House organizations have been structured in the recent past, Trump’s chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, will have to compete with another top adviser who will have unprecedented access to the president in the private East Wing — typically a no-go zone for White House staff.
That dynamic was solidified on Monday when the Trump transition announced that the president-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will serve as a senior adviser. The official press release announcing his new post put him on even footing with both Priebus and Trump’s incoming chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
It may be how Trump is accustomed to running his family real estate company, with family members involved. But it’s a unique way to staff the White House — and presents a singular quandary for Priebus, who instead of focusing on how to run the nerve center of the government, will also have to jockey to keep himself in the loop.
“Every chief of staff would tell you, there’s the West Wing and the East Wing,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first chief of staff, said in an interview with POLITICO. The East Wing, Emanuel explained, is considered something of a sacred private zone, where work for the president ends and family life begins. In the Trump administration, however, Kushner will have unfettered access to both sides of the house. “This president has a son-in-law who works for him, and family coming over to the East Wing,’ Emanuel said. “None of us has ever experienced that.”
In announcing that Kushner would be joining the administration, the transition noted he is on solid ground avoiding any anti-nepotism statutes, and a senior transition official stressed how well he works in tandem with Priebus and Bannon, offering internal support for the former Breitbart chairman, and valuing Priebus for his inside-the-beltway connections. But with Kushner adding a big unknown to the chain of command, Emanuel said, “there’s no advice I could give. We all would say, ‘try to keep whatever’s in the East Wing in the East Wing.’ This is something no chief of staff has experienced.”
Thinking through the structure of the White House is no small part of the transition team’s work. Emanuel, who also served as a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said the main lesson he gleaned from the 1992 Clinton transition was that staffing the White House is more critical to a functioning government than filling top cabinet positions.
“The biggest mistake we made was that we did all of the government, and then we did the White House with 10 days to go,” Emanuel said of the Clinton transition, where the young president ended up appointing an affable but unqualified longtime Arkansas pal, Mack McLarty, as his chief of staff. When he joined the Obama transition, Emanuel said, “I made a decision to do the White House staff first and then get everyone else done. It’s the nerve center, and at the end of the day, the energy flows out. You have to have a structure that can handle doing multiple things at different levels.”
Indeed, Trump will enter office with North Korea announcing it is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the United States with a nuclear weapon; an ongoing civil war in Syria hanging over him; and the ambitious goal at home of repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Despite the lessons learned from prior administrations, Trump is still filling out his White House staff, with 10 days to go before Inauguration Day, after using the bulk of the transition to fill out his cabinet appointees.
Of the four-headed group currently in charge — Kushner, Bannon, Priebus, and incoming counselor Kellyanne Conway — it is Priebus, insiders said, who has concerned himself most with staff selections, and locking his own allies into key posts.
The former RNC chair, for instance, pushed for incoming press secretary Sean Spicer and incoming deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, both former RNC staffers who are expected to be important players in the West Wing.
But sources involved with the transition said Priebus is mindful of the potential pitfalls of a structure with multiple power centers — and plans to remain in close physical proximity to the president in order to keep himself central.
For now, insiders who have sat in on meetings Priebus attended with Trump notice that he often still appears to be endearing himself to the president-elect, boasting about “the brilliance that Mr. Trump showed” on a particular decision, for instance, and flattering the soon-to-be commander in chief in his presence.
Priebus declined to be interviewed for this story.
So far, Trump’s structure appears to be closer to Bush’s than to Obama’s, where a small group of top aides who bonded during the historic 2008 campaign could shorthand with each other — and where Emanuel, who joined after the campaign, relished the powerful role he was handed as the final voice communicating with the president.
But veterans of the Bush administration said the multiple chefs in the kitchen approach worked because they also knew each other well.
“We had a conversation about this during the campaign when he started thinking about naming Andy Card as chief of staff,” recalled Karen Hughes, a former counselor to President George W. Bush who followed him to Washington from the Texas governor’s mansion. “He said, ‘I always want you to have full access to me. I don’t want the chief of staff to be a gatekeeper. He called the chief of staff ‘first among equals in the government office.’”
The structure was a correction to George H.W. Bush’s White House, where Card, as deputy chief of staff, witnessed the infighting created by chief of staff John Sununu, who played the role of aggressive gatekeeper.
Hughes recalled approaching Bush on his second day in office for clarity on what, exactly, the role of counselor was to be. “I’ll never forget it,” she said, “he said, ‘I want you to go to meetings where major decisions are being made, help the people in the room understand the principles I would use to evaluate the decisions, and tell me what you really think.’” Because of her longstanding relationship with Bush, Hughes could serve as a sort of stand-in for the president, acting like an external hard drive.
“It’s important for a president to get unfettered input from several different people at least, as long as — and this is a big asterisk — the culture is a collegial one, where people are working on his behalf and not competing against each other,” Hughes said.
Bush’s longtime edict to staffers was that they should return each other’s phone calls before they returned his. “He didn’t want any end runs,” Hughes said. “Andy Card asked me as a courtesy if I would always communicate to him anything I discussed with the president — and I did that. I went and talked to the president, but then I went down the hall and told Andy what we had discussed.”
Hughes said the Trump transition team, in its early days, reached out to her for advice about how best to set up a West Wing staff structure. But after offering her guidance, she said she never heard back.
And Trump, according to several former officials, doesn’t foster a team dynamic — instead he thrives off creating teams of rivals. “He’s been very successful at playing staff against each other to get him to a position that he can justify,” explained one Trump insider.
He’ll grill aides about their colleagues, the insider added. “What do you think of Reince?” he’ll ask an adviser. “What do you think of Bannon?” he’ll ask others, constantly soliciting input about his own staffers. It’s a strategy that keeps everyone on edge, but also allows Trump to find his own position through the competing viewpoints of his staffers.
For now, Trump appears proud of the unique structure he has created. “We have no formal chain of command around here,” Trump bragged to a group of tech giants who came to meet with him at his Tower last year, urging them to simply ring him any time.
That has left many on both sides of the aisle wondering how such an unstructured organization will be able to function in the White House.
“What you have is a very complicated pattern in which Donald Trump is in charge, and no other single person has decisive influence,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, said in an interview. “You have to include [incoming vice president Mike] Pence in that equation. He is in virtually every meeting that matters. [Rick] Dearborn is the chief of staff for the entire transition, he matters. And then there is Bannon, Priebus and, to a lesser extent, Conway.”
And Gingrich hinted at another big question mark for the Trump West Wing team. “Trump is not just listening to them but calling a wide range of people,” Gingrich said. “How did he get to [Rex] Tillerson [for secretary of state], for instance, is a very complex, convoluted, and not staff driven, process.”