Inside the court of King Donald: A who's who of Trump's White House
PUBLISHED: 15:22 07 February 2017 | UPDATED: 13:15 08 February 2017
© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP
It is claimed Donald Trump wants to be remembered like a king. Here we profile his courtiers, examining the influences which have sent the White House lurching to the far right
Reince Priebus – chief of staff
His sharp, dark suits and all-American smile hide a nervousness – Reinhold Richard “Reince” Priebus has a serious case of imposter syndrome. Priebus’ exalted role in Trump’s White House is due to his experience working within the Republican Party and the fact that he is seen by the Commander-in-Chief as someone who does what he is told. He doesn’t boast a stellar Wall Street career or years of populist political agitation. The President – who refers to the 44-year-old as “Reincey” and often talks of his “loyalty” – has a firm hold on Priebus because of two significant occasions when he has challenged the billionaire.
The first was back in 2015 when, as chair of the Republican National Committee, Priebus rang Trump with the intention of giving him a dressing down after he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and said he may not support the official candidate, assuming it was not him. Trump recalls the conversation ended with Priebus “knowing better than to lecture me”.
Trump often mocks his chief of staff publicly and loves to remind people of the second time he was right and “Reincey” was wrong. After the Access Hollywood tape revealing Trump’s crude comments about women was made public Priebus – backed by senior Republicans – advised him to stand aside. Now, following his extraordinary ascent to the White House, Trump enjoys retelling the story. At one recent meeting of staffers the President, with Priebus stood dutifully beside him, retold the story after first praising the chief of staff: “But you know, he wasn’t always there with me. He told me to drop out of the race, he told me I was going to bring the House and Senate down with me.” Priebus did not flinch but offered a weak smile. Trump asks a lot from his staff – not just loyalty but often subservience – and Priebus is more than willing to serve because he never thought he would get to the White House. During the campaign he openly discussed what his life would be like once Hillary Clinton became America’s 45th President. He mused that he might pick up his old law practice in Wisconsin.
But now this small-town lawyer with German Sudanese parentage has an office in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, albeit with a boss who expects him to agree.
Mike Pence - deputy president
The choice of Pence as Trump’s running mate baffled some but makes perfect sense – he is low profile, low maintenance and low risk.
He offers the Trump presidency a fleck of respectability with a 15-year career as an elected politician, first as a member of congress and then as Indiana’s governor.
He is a fiscal conservative, Tea Party supporter who not so long ago called the proposed Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional”. But those comments came before Trump asked him to be his running mate.
His main role – whether he has been officially told it or not – will be to connect the GOP with a White House many in the party are horrified by.
Sean Spicer - press secretary
In almost 20 years in communications Spicer has never dropped a clanger as big as he did during his first White House press conference. As the argument raged over who had the biggest inauguration crowd Spicer claimed the media had “framed” the picture to make President Obama’s audience look bigger. He immediately became an internet sensation – for the wrong reasons.
He is an odd choice to be the President’s protector-in-chief, with an unspectacular career and past instances of criticising Trump.
While working as head of communications for the Republican National Committee he said Trump’s comments about Mexicans were “not helpful to the cause”. And after that first press conference horror show Trump offered some harsh words to Spicer: “Wear a sharper suit”.
In his short time behind the White House lectern he has looked harassed, stressed and scared. To battle that he chews gum – lots of it. By noon each day he claims to get through more than two packets and bizarrely he swallows each piece.
Neil Gorsuch – nominee to Supreme Court
If his nomination is successful 49-year-old Gorsuch will tip the balance of Supreme Court judges 5-4 towards conservatism – and as it is a job for life he could long be a legacy of the Trump years. His nomination has sparked protests due to his perceived hardline reading of the Constitution – originalism.
His view is that the Constitution should be interpreted as perceived at the time of enactment.
He has previously taken a tough stance on death row prisoners appealing for clemency and, although he has never given a view on abortion, in his book The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia he states: “All human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
Kellyanne Conway – counsellor
The inventor of “alternative facts”, Conway is a pollster who became a regular face on political news shows in the 1990s. She was employed by Trump after initially being involved in Ted Cruz’s campaign, with the role of attracting female voters and highlighting women’s issues.
Just weeks after Trump won the election the pair were pictured together at a ‘Heroes and Villains’ party in New York City - Kellyanne was dressed as Superwoman. And after she turned around the potentially ruinous revelations about Trump’s “locker room” chat the super hero analogy is fitting.
Those now infamous unguarded Trump comments put Conway in a tricky position but instead of defending her boss she simply said women should vote for him because of his economic plan. Her plan worked.
But since taking power she has struggled in the glare of the world’s cameras, as with her claim the media and Spicer had presented “alternative facts” over the size of Trump’s inaugration crowd.
James Mattis – secretary of defence
His friends – and enemies – call him “Mad Dog” but, extraordinarily, General Mattis is emerging as the Trump administration’s most liberal voice.
He earned the moniker after leading British and American troops into battle against insurgents in Fallujah in 2004 and also after commenting during a panel discussion about the Taliban where he said: “It’s fun to shoot people”.
But, unlike Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, he believes in a two-state solution in the Middle East and is not an isolationist like the President, giving an “unshakeable” commitment to NATO.
The relish with which Trump both says and tweets Mattis’ nickname would suggest he got the job because of his battlefield reputation rather than his political views.
Stephen Miller – senior advisor
Alongside Bannon, Miller wrote Trump’s inaugural address – and he was determined it would be as bombastic and confrontational as a campaign rally.
His pet projects include the controversial ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’ executive order and he is determined to halt so-called “sanctuary cities”, where local lawmakers have adopted a policy of not prosecuting illegal migrants.
In an administration of hawks Miller and Bannon are vying to be the most hawkish.
As Trump’s warm-up man on the campaign trail, 31-yearold Miller delighted in whipping up already frenzied crowds into chants of “build that wall”. His understanding of the politics of fear – and how it links to power – is one of the reasons Trump won and he will continue his rhetoric of conspiratorial populism now he is in the White House.
Steve Bannon – chief strategist
The former US naval officer, investment banker and filmmaker has long courted politicians and harbours his own political ambitions. When he began to get close to then presidential candidate Trump, Bannon remarked to a colleague that he knew the billionaire was “an ‘imperfect vessel’ for the revolution he had in mind” but the pair quickly bonded anyway.
He was once a sharply-dressed Wall Street type but now cuts a more weathered figure with a scraggy beard and paunch – but those who know him are clear that looks are deceiving and Bannon is more driven and focused than at any time in his life.
He entered the world of alt-right politics after meeting Andrew Breitbart in 2004 at the screening of a documentary Bannon had produced about his hero Ronald Reagan. Breitbart would soon launch Breitbart News and Bannon was among the founding board members.
Breitbart began as a conservative news and comment website but when Bannon took the helm in 2012, after Breitbart’s death it quickly lurched much further right and the populist agenda grew. The 63-year-old has been described by colleagues as “combative”, “intense” and “passionate” but most fall short of calling him “racist”. However his alleged prejudices have been highlighted in the past, notably when, during divorce proceedings, his then wife claimed he did not want their daughter to attend a Jewish school because Jews raise “whiny brats”. Bannon denies the claim.
In a recent New York Times profile, former colleague Julia Jones said he had occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once even mused about limiting the vote to property owners. She claims to have replied that such a move would exclude a lot of African-Americans and alleges he said: “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing”. When Ben Shapiro quit as editor of Breitbart in 2016 he called Bannon a “bully” who had shaped the website into “Trump’s personal Pravda”.
But his political beliefs are not exclusively of the right – as a filmmaker he cited both left-wing documentary maker Michael Moore and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl as influences. Bannon’s beliefs are pure populist – he doesn’t care where he borrows from. He is perhaps the most controversial figure in Trump’s inner circle because of his links to the alt-right and the power he wields over the President.
He is credited with upping the tempo of the campaign when he took over as chief executive and Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager, said Bannon was “the general” who made many of the big decisions. Now, to the astonishment of many in Washington, Bannon has been appointed to the National Security Council, the committee that advises the President on foreign and security policy. If the website he presided over is any barometer he will likely be among the most hawkish members of the NSC in recent history. Just last year he predicted the US would go to war with China in the coming years. His strategies and thinking are evident even this early in the Trump administration’s reign but the true depths and extremities of Bannon’s politics are yet to be discovered.
Jared Kushner – senior advisor
The President’s son-in-law is very much the first among equals in Team Trump – but hopes he could be a stabilising voice in the Chief’s ear are fading. Kushner Properties, a multi-billion dollar real estate firm, is the family business. In 2006 the firm made the largest ever property purchase buying 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for $1.8 billion.
Kushner’s upbringing was gilded. He attended Harvard – following a reported $2.5million donation from his father – and even dabbled in property development while studying, earning himself $20m in the process. He soon took the helm of the family firm but his business ambitions went further and he used the cash he made in college to buy the weekly newspaper the New York Observer. The paper’s veteran editor Peter Kaplan remarked to staff: “This guy doesn’t know what he doesn’t know”. He was soon for the chop. But in time Kushner’s new regime increased sales and the title’s digital reach substantially.
In 2009 Kushner the property developer married the world’s most famous property developer’s daughter, but little is known about their courtship or indeed their subsequent marriage. It is known, however, that his parents objected on religious grounds until Ivanka converted to Judaism.
But Kushner was not destined to become just another New York billionaire, and he went out on the campaign trail with his father-in-law. He shared Trump’s disdain for traditional Republican campaign techniques, but it was not until Steve Bannon joined the team that Kushner’s influence really grew. The pair – although from very different backgrounds – became firm allies. Bannon said: “He threw the whole thing [traditional campaign rules] out. That’s why I bonded with him.”
A month after Trump’s victory, more than 400 business executives massed at the New York headquarters of Morgan Stanley. They came to hear Kushner speak in the hope the mild-mannered, young businessman they remembered from a few years previously – a progressive who understood the importance of stability for the financial markets – could gentrify the Trump presidency.
But instead the 36-year-old told them he had once lived in a “bubble” on the Upper East Side but that, after travelling around the US on the campaign trail, the scales had fallen from his eyes.
He went on to attack the media – naming CNN and The New York Times – saying they were “deluded” about America, but offered some reassuring words on immigration saying the Trump administration would be “rational”. The business leaders left with mixed feelings about whether Kushner remained the level-headed businessman or if he’d been infected by the populism that terrified them.
Rex Tillerson - secretary of state
As the former CEO of one of the world’s biggest firms, Tillerson is a vastly experienced leader – but nothing could have prepared him for the job of being Trump’s chief international diplomat. Former colleagues have noted his solid work ethic and integrity and few doubt his business acumen having risen to the top of ExxonMobil – the oil and gas behemoth. But his close links to the Russian regime have raised further questions around Trump’s apparent determination to build ties with the Kremlin. The 64-year-old’s work with ExxonMobil meant he was in charge of the oil fields in Russia and the Caspian Sea. In 2013 he was awarded the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin and two years later his firm won a contract to explore for oil in a Russia-controlled portion of the Arctic Ocean. That exploration was put on hold when the Obama administration placed sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea. Many inside the White House now expect the President to drop those sanctions to extend a hand of friendship to Moscow – expect Tillerson to be key to this policy.