The transformation of power in Washington begins at President-elect Donald Trump’s ear.
There are the intimates: Stephen K. Bannon, the controversial provocateur and keeper of Trump’s populist, nationalist flame; Jared 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 operators: Reince Priebus, the consummate party man who will manage the White House; Paul D. Ryan, the wonky House speaker who stands ready to implement a wholesale overhaul of the tax code, health care and regulations; and Mitch McConnell, the wily Senate majority leader who intends to personally tilt the Supreme Court and federal judiciary to the right.
And then there is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is positioned to exert sweeping authority on all matters foreign and domestic as Trump’s partner in governing.
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.
President-elect Donald Trump, left, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus shake hands on stage at Trump’s election night celebration last week in New York. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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 ongoing 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, 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 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 transition 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 certainly go to those who supported him during the campaign.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) arrives at Trump Tower in New York for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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 on board 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 is orchestrating nearly everything alongside Trump and Pence, from personnel to the 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 wife Ivanka will remain in New York, where they run their own businesses and are raising three small 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 take maximum advantage of what they see as a rare opportunity with Republicans controlling both the legislative and executive branches. They believe 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.
It is a careful dance. While Ryan (Wis.) and McConnell (Ky.) are busily preparing a spate of bills to take up in concert with the White House, they are treading cautiously, wary of getting ahead of the president-elect and cognizant that he is driven more by relationships and instincts than a political ideology.
To that end, Ryan is promoting his “A Better Way” agenda as a guide for Trump on taxes, health care and regulatory issues.
“We’re ready to roll in the House with a set of policies that we think Mr. Trump will buy into,” said Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.). “I know he’ll want to put his fingerprints on it, but it’s almost a plug-and-play scenario.”
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-N.Y.), 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 the president-elect’s populist views, as well as his hard-line approach to illegal immigration, are infused in every piece of legislation the body 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, meanwhile, is poised to be the ultimate dealmaker, considering how narrow the Republican 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.
“He’s working with us, and I suspect we’ll do just fine,” Hatch said. “He has said he’d accept someone from the Federalist Society list, and we’ll be weighing in as he makes his decisions. We know he’ll listen, because he knows this issue is one of the reasons why he won the presidency.”
Trump’s ability to work with Senate Democrats remains a variable, although he and new Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer — both brash New Yorkers; Trump is from Queens and Schumer from Brooklyn — could find bipartisan bonhomie on economic issues such as infrastructure spending.
“To do big, huge stuff you have to have bipartisan support,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “We have a 52-seat majority in the Senate, a thin margin for majority votes. When it comes to huge things, you’ll need 60. His instincts probably get that already, but if you want to move on your issues, that’s the reality.”
Throughout his life, Trump has followed a pattern, said Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal.”
“Trump sees himself as the straw that stirs the drink,” Schwartz said. “He has almost no interest in the details of how things happen, but he has an intense interest in being the decision-maker.”
As Trump assembles his White House, he is reimagining the traditional staffing chart in the mold of his personality, with a group of aides and outside confidants expected to have direct lines to the Oval Office, members of his transition team said.
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 veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, pointed out that 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,” Buchanan said. “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.”
Schwartz, who was a critic of Trump’s candidacy and informally advised Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign on her opponent’s psychology, said Trump seeks a variety of opinions in part out of necessity.
“He doesn’t have a clear set of guiding principles inside him,” Schwartz said. “He doesn’t have values that he feels compelled to live by. He doesn’t have a significant store of knowledge about the subjects he’s dealing with. So it would make sense that he’s casting around for intelligence, even if he doesn’t end up trusting or relying on it.”
As with all things Trump, there are always people in his ear. His orbit extends to friends who may not join the government but whom he considers peers: investors Carl Icahn, Andrew Beal and Tom Barrack, and casino magnates Phil Ruffin and Steve Wynn.
Amid this week’s hubbub about filling the Cabinet, Icahn took it upon himself to break some news. “Spoke to @realDonaldTrump,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Steve Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross are being considered for Treasury and Commerce.”