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The Eight Power Centers Of The Trump Administration
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Illustrations by Gluekit

Whenever a new administration starts, top aides to the president battle for authority and power, and the Washington press corps pushes for scoops on the “palace intrigue.” Those senior aides try to get reporters to write profiles that pump up the aides’ influence, while the reporters hope a favorable profile results in a grateful aide leaking them information in the future.1

Usually, no part of this process matters to anyone outside of Washington. In 2009, President Barack Obama named a combination of ex-Bill Clinton aides, senior Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, veteran Washington figures and a few of his longtime allies from Chicago politics to key jobs in the White House and in the Cabinet. The people in top jobs may have been slightly different than if Hillary Clinton had been elected president but not by much. Obama, like Hillary Clinton, was a center-left Democrat from the party’s congressional wing, campaigned as such and picked a team to govern that reflected the prevailing ideology in his party.

But now, White House staffers, Cabinet secretaries and other advisers matter. Bigly. President Trump didn’t come from any existing wing of the Republican Party. He didn’t run as a tea party-type like Ted Cruz or in the center-right style of George W. and Jeb Bush. There is no nationalist, Trump-style faction of the Republican Party in Congress that can be plucked to fill out an entire administration.

More importantly, there is no comprehensive Trump agenda. During his campaign, Trump laid out far fewer policy plans than Clinton. He had a few big ideas, like banning Muslims. But many of them weren’t well-fleshed out. And Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress last week also didn’t address a long list of issues and was vague in his policy direction on many others.

So some policies in the Trump administration, more than either the George W. Bush or Obama tenures, are likely to be a jump ball: Since there is no existing policy or ideology on many issues, the persons best able to sell their ideas — or, alternatively, smartly deploy the federal bureaucracy — can win policy arguments. The view that has gained currency over the last month, that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is all-powerful (“President Bannon?” the editorial board of The New York Times wrote on Jan. 30) is overly simplistic. Bannon has never worked on Capitol Hill. Congress has a number of levers of power to influence a presidency, and is closely aligned with another member of Trump’s team, Vice President Mike Pence. Bannon has strong views on foreign policy, but so does Jim Mattis, who runs a 2 million-person Defense Department with staffers all over the world.

Indeed, Trump’s administration has at least eight major factions, which has become clear based on statements and decisions by his advisers since the November election but also confirmed by interviews with veteran Washington figures who are dealing with his team. And to understand what is happening and will happen in this administration, it is crucial to understand these power centers, which are cooperating but also competing with one another.

 

The Bannon Wing

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Members: Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; Jeff Sessions, attorney general; Stephen Miller, senior adviser to the president for policy; Sebastian Gorka, White House senior staffer on counterterrorism and national security issues; Peter Navarro, head of White House National Trade Council

This is the most important group to understand, but not because they necessarily have the most power. (It is too early in the presidency to know which faction will ultimately have the most sway.) Rather, this group has the most potential to change U.S. policy dramatically, both at home and abroad, because some of its views are well outside of the traditional orthodoxy of both the Republican and Democratic parties. These aides, particularly Bannon, are the intellectual force behind the nationalist white identity-style politics that Trump often espouses, from his fierce antipathy to NAFTA to his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement.

The views of some of these aides include strong opposition to illegal immigration; some skepticism about even legal immigration (Bannon and Miller have argued increased immigration depresses wages for U.S. workers); a confrontational attitude toward China (Navarro wrote a 2011 book called “Death by China”); wariness about Islam (Gorka strongly advocates using the phrase “radical Islam” when referring to terrorists’ groups, which both the Bush and Obama administrations avoided); resistance to globalization and big international trade deals; and a very antagonistic attitude toward the system in Washington — the press, the federal bureaucracy and the establishments of both parties. They are determined to steer Trump to govern in a style distinct from the more traditional Republicanism of George W. Bush or Mitt Romney.

Sessions obviously runs a major department in the government. But Bannon and Miller have another power center: the mouth of the president. Policy and speechwriting were separate departments in the Obama White House. Miller is the lead policy adviser to Trump but also oversees the speechwriting process. Bannon, as the White House political strategist, is also heavily involved in the president’s speeches and his broader message effort.

Why is this wing not all powerful? Because many of its views are actively opposed or not supported by the other seven wings of Trumpworld or on Capitol Hill, which can either oppose or not fund Trump’s ideas.

 

The Pence Wing

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Members: Vice President Mike Pence, White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Pence rose to power by casting a president as insufficiently conservative: George W. Bush.2 During the Bush years, Pence became head of the Republican Study Committee, which was at the time a group of the most-conservative House Republicans.3 Tom Price became the head of the RSC two years after Pence’s tenure.

Pence and Price both parlayed running the RSC into membership in the official leadership of the House Republicans. This history matters because Pence and the allies he was able to bring into the administration (such as Trump legislative director Marc Short, who worked with Pence in Congress) are deeply connected with the Republicans in Congress and come in with a ton of knowledge about legislative processes, such as the yearly cycle of appropriations through Congress. And accomplishing your goals in Washington is often done through slipping tiny provisions into big pieces of legislation, not getting the president to mention your idea in a speech. The Pence Wing is in a great position to get Congress to do its bidding.

What do they want? Pence, unlike Trump, has passionately worked on moral values issues, such as limiting abortion, throughout his career. He and his allies will likely push for policies like defunding Planned Parenthood. Social conservatives can rely on this group to deliver for them. Pence and his allies are also more small-government types than Trump. Trump’s proposal for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, for example, is likely not something that Pence and his allies would have come up with, since it is kind of a big-government idea to create jobs. So if Trump doesn’t push this idea himself, he shouldn’t expect his vice-president to get Congress to do it.

The Pence Wing doesn’t share the Bannon Wing’s breaks with conservative orthodoxy. They are not as leery of free trade agreements or immigration. Their politics are more aligned with Sen. Ted Cruz’s than Bannon’s.

Pruitt and DeVos, while not personally linked to Pence, are best understood as his kind of conservative. They are interested in shifting their agencies towards conservative priorities — like school vouchers in DeVos’s case and limiting regulations on private companies in Pruitt’s. They are unlikely to take these agencies in a Bannon-style, nationalist direction.

 

The McCain Wing

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Members: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly; H.R. McMaster, national security adviser

John McCain, while not part of the administration, is trying to do something unusual: assure the rest of the world that Trump’s comments about NATO, the European Union, Russia and other issues during his campaign don’t truly reflect broader U.S. policy, even though Trump is the American president.

But McCain isn’t doing this alone. Mattis, as he travels abroad, seems almost intentionally determined to contradict Trump, for example slamming Russian intervention in elections in a way Trump never has. After the president sharply criticized reporters at a recent press conference, the defense secretary, instead of ducking the issue, said he had no problems with the press. McMaster, according to Politico, has told Trump he should avoid using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

After the debacle in rolling out Trump’s travel ban on people coming to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim nations, Kelly said he would take more control of that process in the future. Miller was heavily involved in managing the initial ban, as Kelly had only just been sworn in as head of DHS. But on this issue, Kelly should be able to outgun even a top White House aide like Miller, since Kelly manages the staff who would implement the ban.

The danger from the Bannon Wing’s point of view is that this group pushes Trump toward a more traditional foreign policy that is tough on Russia, more aligned with Germany and the rest of Europe and hesitant to use aggressive rhetoric against Islam. In short, a foreign policy along the lines advocated by McCain. There were rumors in January that Trump would lift the sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama for the election hacking. That has not happened yet, and it will be a sign of the strength of the McCain Wing if those sanctions remain in place, since Trump was unenthusiastic about them when they were imposed.

The danger from the McCain Wing’s point of view is that Trump put them in top jobs because they lend his administration credibility and prestige (Kelly, Mattis and McMaster are well-respected generals) but that he will ignore them. Call it the “Cautionary Tale of Colin Powell.” In the Bush era, Powell was a very famous and popular secretary of state. But he was the administration’s leading skeptic of the Iraq War and failed to persuade his boss to be against it. Trump used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his joint address to Congress last week, choosing the Bannon approach over that of his national security adviser.

 

The Friends and Family Wing

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Members: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser; Ivanka Trump; Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer; Omarosa Manigault, adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement

This is a group of people personally tied to Trump and would likely not be serving in another administration — even if it were run by another Republican.4

Three things are important about them. First, unlike all of the wings previously discussed, this group had few ties to the Republican Party or the conservative movement before they started helping Trump’s campaign. This should worry both the Pence and Bannon wings. If Trump’s job-approval ratings crater, his daughter and son-in-law could encourage him to abandon right-wing politics, which they may not be as committed to. (According to Federal Election Commission records, Kushner has donated money to a number of Democratic Party candidates and organizations, mostly in New York and New Jersey, including the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign of Cory Booker, who later emerged as a major critic of Kushner’s father-in-law. Among her contributions, Ivanka Trump has given to Booker and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand).

Second, they (Ivanka and Kushner in particular) have direct, regular contact with the president that even most Cabinet members do not. If you are a key White House aide and Ivanka and Kushner sour on you, your days could be numbered. The couple was reportedly involved in dumping Trump’s first campaign manager during the 2016 process.

But this wing may have limited operational power. It’s not clear who in the White House really reports to them. They don’t have longstanding relationships on Capitol Hill.

During the campaign, Ivanka Trump touted her father’s proposal to create a federally funded program that would give mothers six weeks of paid leave after they had a child. The president mentioned this idea in his speech to Congress last week. But Republicans generally have not backed such leave programs, viewing them as another federal entitlement.

Does Ivanka Trump have the influence to put this kind of idea on the agenda of the broader GOP and get it funded and adopted?

 

The Party Wing

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Members: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; Katie Walsh, deputy chief of staff; Press Secretary Sean Spicer

In the Bush years, Sean Spicer was the spokesman for the U.S. trade representative. The Bush administration strongly favored international trade agreements. By 2013, Spicer was a top aide to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who that year released a report detailing how the GOP needed to change its rhetoric to better appeal to women and people of color.

Spicer is, of course, now the press secretary for the most anti-international trade president in recent memory, and Priebus is the chief of staff for a man whose campaign rhetoric was constantly criticized as racist. So Priebus and Spicer, like generations of staffers in both parties, may have put personal ambition and loyalty to the party ahead of whatever personal views they have. (Walsh also worked at the RNC under Priebus before joining the administration.)

Neither Walsh nor Spicer nor Priebus has a longstanding relationship with the president. But the Party Wing of the Trump White House is important. They are trying to steer Trump toward an approach that will help the party: working closely with the GOP on Capitol Hill, maintaining decent approval ratings and potentially winning a second term.

Bannon and Priebus, while being interviewed jointly on stage last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, were asked about the future of the Republican Party under Trump. Bannon talked about the creation of a “new political order.” In contrast, Priebus said, “We have to stick together and make sure that we’ve got President Trump for eight years.”

Priebus, particularly if he is joined by the McCain and Pence wings in the administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill, could be a moderating force at the White House, limiting the Bannon Wing and Trump himself. The chief of staff could point out, for example — whatever the merits of the policy — the political perils of lifting the Russian sanctions, which are strongly supported by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

 

The Wall Street Wing

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Members: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council

Trump sounded like a populist at times during the campaign. But those who likened Trump’s economic views to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s are likely to be proved wrong by his governing choices.

On economic policy, Trump has tapped several figures from big business and Wall Street in key posts. They are already saying that tax cuts for corporations, a very un-populist idea, are a big priority for the administration.

And Mnuchin may be a big barrier to the anti-China, anti-trade views of the Bannon Wing. Navarro has proposed huge tariffs on imported goods from China. During the campaign, Trump talked about having the U.S., on his first day in office, formally accuse China of improperly devaluing its currency. This did not happen on the first day. Mnuchin now runs the department that would label China a “currency manipulator,” and in interviews, he seems very unenthused about this idea.

 

The Bureaucrats

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Members: The 1.8 million workers at federal agencies, according to data from the federal Office of Personnel Management

Federal employees are often associated with Washington, D.C, which is about 48 percent black and where Hillary Clinton won about 91 percent of the vote in 2016. But Washington’s liberalism does not completely correlate to the people who work in government. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, only about 7 percent of full-time employees at federal agencies live in Washington, D.C., proper, and about 22 percent in the combined areas of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The rest are in states across the country. The median federal employee has been in the government for 11 years, meaning that he or she likely served in the Bush administration. Agency employees are about 18 percent black, 6 percent Latino, 64 percent white.

A post-election poll of federal employees conducted by Government Executive and Government Business Council found that about 62 percent favored Clinton, compared with about 28 percent who backed Trump. So federal employees are strongly anti-Trump, but less so than residents of Washington.

A plurality, 38 percent, of the federal employees surveyed told Government Executive that they believe the president will be “not at all effective” in managing the government, compared with 18 percent who said “very effective” and 15 percent who said “somewhat effective.” And there is already evidence of resistance from the bureaucracy, from the leaks of phone calls Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, made to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. to the EPA employees who publicly protested against Pruitt running theagency.

Leaks to the media are a particularly powerful tool for the bureaucrats to create a public debate and potentially opposition to ideas from other wings of the Trump administration. Leaks resulted in the resignation of Flynn, whose anti-Muslim views put him in the Bannon Wing.

At the same time, some of the early policy fights between Trump’s team and the bureaucracy are not that unusual. A bloc of State Department employees recently circulated an internal memo bashing Trump’s travel ban executive order. This is not unprecedented. Another group, although much smaller than the one that opposed the travel ban, issued a so-called dissent memo last year to criticize Obama’s Syria policy.

Unions representing employees of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement services endorsed Trump during the campaign, suggesting workers in those agencies favor his get-tough policies on immigration and the border.

 

Other important figures

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Members: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president; White House Counsel Donald McGahn; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

These three are in high-profile roles. But it’s not yet clear if their views fall squarely into any one of the other camps — and how much sway they have in the administration

Tillerson appears to already be in some conflict with the Bannon Wing. Tillerson’s choice to be his No. 2 at the State Department, former Reagan and George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams, was nixed by Trump.

“The only person on the White House staff that I know was opposed to my being hired was Steve Bannon,” Abrams said in an interview on CNN after his rejection became public. (Bannon has not confirmed his opposition to Abrams).

The New York Times reported this week that Ivanka Trump and Tillerson are urging the president not to withdraw the U.S. from a 2015 climate change agreement that includes more than 100 nations. Trump campaigned on withdrawing the U.S. from the so-called Paris Agreement, which was strongly supported by Obama, and Bannon is reportedly pushing internally for Trump to follow through on that promise.

The job of secretary of state is traditionally to build relations with other nations, so it’s not surprising Tillerson took this position. But the Bannon Wing of the administration is wary of these broad, international agreements, setting up the potential for regular clashes with the secretary of state.

Conway has become a famous defender of Trump, most notably on TV. But it’s not clear how much actual authority she has since most White House staffers report to Priebus, not to her.

In contrast, McGahn, as the top lawyer at the White House, is involved in everything, from meeting with Neil Gorsuch before Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court to running an internal White House review of Flynn’s calls to the Russian ambassador. His reach is far, and has the potential to affect every person in the Trump White House, including the president.

Last month, McGahn issued a memo telling White House officials to preserve any records that might relate to the Russian involvement in the 2016 elections. McGahn is considered a strongly partisan Republican, but his instructions were designed to prevent administration officials from destroying documents that might hurt Trump’s team if they become public.

CORRECTION (March 7, 10:55 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the White House counsel. He is Donald McGahn, not Donald McGhan.

Footnotes

  1. These stories to flatter advisers have even been given a name: beat-sweeteners. It’s not an accident Slate published a story about these kinds of stories in 2009, at the start of former President Barack Obama’s tenure.

  2. Pence slammed Bush for increasing the federal budget deficit, expanding Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit and inserting the federal government more into education policy, which is usually set at the state and local level.

  3. A smaller, more conservative bloc, called the House Freedom Caucus, emerged during the Obama years.

  4. Manigault worked as a lower-level aide in the Clinton White House.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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