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What Bannon and Priebus mean for the Trump administration

November 15, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
President-elect Donald Trump has announced two key White House positions: RNC chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff and the controversial appointment of Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, as chief strategist and senior counselor. Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek and Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine join John Yang to discuss the picks.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Just this past weekend, president-elect Trump announced his picks for two key posts in the White House. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus will serve as White House chief of staff. And Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, will serve as Mr. Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.

Our John Yang has more.

JOHN YANG: For more on these two men tapped to advise the president, we’re joined by Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for “The New York Times” magazine, and Joshua Green, senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Josh, Mark, thanks for joining us.

Josh, let me start with you.

You profiled Steve Bannon more than a year ago, before a lot of people realized who he was. That’s the employment that’s gaining a lot of controversy. Just this afternoon, Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, took to the Senate floor and criticized Bannon in pretty harsh terms.

SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader: If Trump is serious about seeking unity, the first thing he should do is rescind his appointment of Steve Bannon. Rescind it. Don’t do it.

Think about this. Don’t do it. As long as a champion of racial division is a step away from the Oval Office, it will be impossible to take Trump’s efforts to heal the nation seriously.

JOHN YANG: Josh, who is Steve Bannon, and why is he attracting all this criticism?

JOSHUA GREEN, Bloomberg Businessweek: Well, Bannon is an odd and interesting character.

He’s a former Goldman Sachs banker who sort of became radicalized into the Tea Party movement and eventually wound up as the publisher of Breitbart News, which is the hard-right populist Web site that was an early champion of Trump’s.

I think the reason he’s so controversial is that Breitbart publishes a lot of things that are vaguely racist, anti-Semitic, far, far outside the bounds of what would ordinarily be considered acceptable in U.S. politics.

And so I think there’s quite a bit of shock at the fact that he’s been elevated to a senior position in the Trump White House.

JOHN YANG: You talk about Breitbart News. We have got some headlines that we can show to give people an idea of what Breitbart News is.

“Bill Kristol, Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”

“Gabby Giffords, The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield.”

“The Solution to Online Harassment Is Simple: Women Should Log Off.”

How much of Breitbart is Steve Bannon, and how much of Steve Bannon is Breitbart?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, Bannon doesn’t write often, and I don’t think he writes the headlines, but he’s sort of the pirate captain and the guy ultimately responsible for what’s published there.

And if you know Bannon and if you read Breitbart News, essentially, what they do is they set out to shock and scandalize and upset people by targeting both political establishments. In Internet language, they’re essentially a trolling operation.

And ordinarily these people exist on the fringes of journalism and on the fringes of politics. And what’s so unusual here is that Bannon has now been brought into the West Wing of the White House.

JOHN YANG: But, Josh, I guess what I’m asking is, you spent a lot of time with Bannon last year. How much of what you see on Breitbart News is reflective of who Bannon is?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, he is certainly a controversialist. He’s someone who enjoys being an outsider and throwing rocks.

I can only speak to what I saw personally. And Bannon, as I mentioned, he’s a former Goldman Sachs banker. He reminded me a lot of other Wall Street bankers I have encountered, sort of testosterone-addled and vaguely sexist, but certainly not racist or anti-Semitic or some of the more serious charges we have seen throw him and at Breitbart News.

JOHN YANG: And, Mark, you spent a lot of time with Reince Priebus earlier this year for a profile you did in “The Times Magazine.” Tell us who he is and why his appointment is sort of being looked on as a reassuring thing among establishment Republicans.

MARK LEIBOVICH, New York Times Magazine: Well, Reince Priebus is the ultimate party guy.

He’s basically worked for the Republican Party his entire life. He’s a lawyer by trade, but he’s been the RNC chair for the last five or six years now. And he’s come up through the ranks through Wisconsin. And he really much — very much is actually the establishment that Donald Trump ran against, that Steve Bannon has built a lot of his career sort of trying to target and trying to embarrass and trying to take down.

So, it’s a really kind of interesting, if not somewhat bizarre coupling there. Now, Reince Priebus, it’s been said, had maybe the most thankless job in American politics over the last six to eight months, trying to make — turn the party of Lincoln or shepherd the party of Lincoln into the party of Trump essentially without alienating everyone.

And then, I think to his surprise and everyone’s surprise, he wound up on the winning end last week. And now he developed a good relationship with Donald Trump. And, lo and behold, Donald Trump has named him his chief of staff.

So, in a way, Priebus goes from being — having the most thankless job in American politics to having the most thankless job in American government. So, we will see how he handles the transition. He’s obviously uniquely qualified for thanklessness.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN YANG: Well, Mark, if he was what Donald Trump was running against, why do you think Donald Trump picked him, and what do you think Priebus’ goals are in the Trump White House?

MARK LEIBOVICH: If there is one unifying thing we have seen in every appointment or even rumored appointment that Donald Trump has made or is yet to make, it’s that he is loyal. And he likes having his people around.

And Paul Ryan — Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan are very, very close. Priebus spent a lot of time trying to broker some kind of working relationship between the Republican speaker of the House and the Republican nominee, who had very much cross purposes.

Now, Steve Bannon, very different in outlook and temperament and personality than Reince Priebus, but they both became sort of first among equals, or have become first among equals, in that they both were very loyal to Trump. And that seems to be the first thing that Donald Trump looks for in ordering his world, who has been nice to him, who has been loyal to him, who he feels he can count on.

And that’s what we’re seeing. And I think they both have those qualifications.

JOHN YANG: And, Josh, you know both Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. Based on what you know, why do you think Donald Trump has picked this team, has picked these — and he says they’re going to be co-equals? Why do you think he’s put them together, and what do you think Steve Bannon’s goals in the Trump White House will be?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, I think the reason Trump picked these two is that they have essentially been two of the leading powers in his presidential campaign since Bannon came aboard last August.

In a sense, all Trump has done is ratify the existing power structure and move it from the campaign into the White House. I think what Bannon would like, by all accounts, is to take over the Republican Party and steer it in a more populist, hard-right direction, more along the lines of the populist movements we have seen sweep across Europe, across Great Britain.

I think he believes that Trump is the American manifestation of those ideas, and he’s going to do everything he can to keep Trump as someone positioned outside the party establishment in Washington and able to kind of speak for that grassroots, populist anger that really carried Trump to victory on November 8.

JOHN YANG: Josh Green, Mark Leibovich, we will see what this team does in some 60 days. Thanks for joining us.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Thanks, John.

JOSHUA GREEN: Thank you.

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