Who still works for President Trump? Perhaps more importantly, who still has real power in the administration? Last year, I described seven wings of the Trump administration, grouping staff with similar backgrounds or policy goals, along with an eighth bloc of figures not clearly aligned with any one faction. More than a year into the Trump administration — and with the recent departures of communications director Hope Hicks and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn — it’s now clear that a few of these wings have outsized power, others are in decline, and a new power bloc has emerged.
The wings with diminished power
The Friends and Family Wing: Hicks, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and the since-departed Omarosa Manigault Newman were among a group of aides who had little connection to Republican politics before Trump but long-standing relationships with the president himself.
In the early stages of the administration, some Democrats hoped that Kushner and Ivanka Trump — two New Yorkers who had donated to Democratic candidates in the past — would push the administration to the left. Conservatives saw that possibility too (and were very worried about it). How could Kushner and Ivanka Trump not possess a great deal of power? Not only did both have the formal title of assistant to the president (the top designation in the White House for a staffer), but they also held amorphous jobs that seemed to give them the freedom to interject themselves into anything happening at the White House.
But recent developments suggest the power couple is running low on wattage. Two White House aides who were close to the pair resigned. (Hicks and Kushner press aide Josh Raffel). Kushner’s access to classified information has been curtailed. And Ivanka Trump’s proposal to create a national paid leave program for new parents has stalled. Whether they keep working at the White House or opt at some point to return to New York, “Javanka” is having fairly limited influence in Trump’s Washington.
The Party Wing: Reince Priebus, the former National Republican Committee chairman, brought along some of his longtime aides at the RNC when he became Trump’s first chief of staff. By last summer, Priebus and his allies had resigned in circumstances suggesting that Trump was not dying for them to stay, and the Party Wing is now basically defunct.
The Not-in-a-Wing Wing: I listed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House counsel Don McGahn as potentially powerful figures who were not necessarily aligned with others in the administration.
It’s hard to look at the number of legally dubious decisions Trump has made, such as the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the process that led to his dismissal, and think that the White House counsel is having a lot of influence. (We should note that McGahn reportedly urged Trump not to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, important advice the president has heeded so far. )
Tillerson’s words are regularly undermined by Trump, who at times doesn’t seem particularly interested in using diplomacy as a foreign policy tool. It probably doesn’t help that stories have been published not just suggesting Tillerson is on the way out but also actually naming his potential replacement (CIA Director Mike Pompeo). And it’s just not totally clear how much influence Conway has on the Trump administration’s decision-making, even as her regular television appearances keep her public profile high.
The wings with power but also major tensions with Trump
The Bannon Wing: This wing was named after a figure, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who resigned in August and seemed frustrated by his lack of influence. But these wings aren’t completely dependent on one person, so even if there’s a personality clash, or whatever the precise issue was between Trump and Bannon, that doesn’t torpedo the whole cohort. The Bannon wing itself — with some views outside the mainstream of both parties — lives on and seems to be shaping policy in the areas that matter to it most, particularly immigration.
The more conservative views long advocated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller — such as attempting to limit legal immigration — are the policies of the administration. (It’s not clear whether Miller and Sessions are pushing Trump toward these views or the president already shared them.)
Trump is constantly complaining about Sessions, arguing that the attorney general should not have recused himself in the Russia investigation and that he should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Democrats on the Russia issue. But one reason that Sessions is staying might be that Trump does not seem to be getting in the way as Sessions acts on many of his own long-held views, including rolling back Obama-era measures to more closely scrutinize police departments and making enforcement of immigration laws a top priority of the DOJ. For all the drama about Sessions’ role, he is now leading the Trump administration in filing a lawsuit against California, the nation’s largest state, over immigration law.
The “economic nationalism” backed by this wing had been largely sidelined by Trump until his decision to push forward tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, a policy backed by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
The McCain Wing: National security adviser H.R. McMaster, like Sessions, seems to have a bad personal relationship with Trump. And Trump is breaking with his national security team on some key issues, most notably the president’s reluctance to take the hawkish approach against Russia favored by McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Still, much of Trump’s national security agenda is little different from the perspective of Arizona Sen. John McCain, long a leader in the Republican Party on defense issues. Trump, who suggested during the campaign that the U.S. military was too involved in conflicts abroad, has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and kept up the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists abroad. Aside from his bombastic rhetoric and his policy on Russia, much of Trump’s approach is fairly normal for a Republican on national security issues.
The Wall Street Wing: Until the last two weeks, much of the Trump campaign’s populist rhetoric, like labeling China a currency manipulator, had gone away. Instead, Trump pushed an agenda favored by Wall Street: securing tax cuts for corporations and winding down Obama-era regulations on businesses.
Trump’s economic policy seemed to mirror the priorities of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council. But Trump’s decision to push tariffs appears to have caused Cohn to resign. It’s not clear who will replace Cohn and if that person will be Wall Street-aligned too. But this wing may be at an inflection point — either it will keep getting what it wants out of a Trump administration, or there will be a big break.
The wing gaining power and in sync with Trump
The Pence Wing: It’s hard to say exactly how much influence the vice president has. Pence usually does not talk publicly about the advice he gives Trump, and disagreements he might have had with the president have not emerged publicly. That said, we defined the Pence Wing as a broader group of the more ideological, deeply conservative figures in this administration, people like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Scott Pruitt, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency.
Whether they have convinced Trump of their agenda, he already agreed with it or they are just doing what they want while the president isn’t paying attention, DeVos, Pruitt and other agency leaders in the Trump administration are rolling back regulations at an aggressive pace with little interference from the White House. The administration has either tried to enact or actually adopted a number of limits to abortion, a priority of Pence’s. In fact, it’s hard to think of many major decisions Trump has made that break with the ideology of his vice president.
That’s why I don’t take too seriously the idea that Trump will sign a major gun control bill, no matter what he has said over the past two weeks. Trump almost never makes moves that upset the deeply conservative wing of his administration.
The wing gaining power at Trump’s expense
The Bureaucrats: I listed the federal bureaucracy as a potential source of power and tension with Trump because the president ran a campaign against Washington (“drain the swamp”). Trump and his appointees have frustrated staffers at agencies like the State Department and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau who feel like the administration is not letting them execute the mandates of their departments.
But a trio of figures who either were not yet appointed or whose roles were not clear at the start of the administration has become very important — to Trump’s dissatisfaction: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Chief Christopher Wray and Mueller. Rosenstein and Wray are both Trump appointees, but amid the Russia investigation, they seem to be acting more as defenders of their agencies and norms around the rule of law instead of aligning with Trump, who wants to end or limit Mueller’s Russia probe.
You might even call this trio the “Comey Wing,” as all three were appointed to top posts by Republican presidents but are now in tension with the current GOP commander in chief, similar to Comey. Like with Sessions and McMaster, Trump seems unhappy with these three men and in theory could seek to dismiss them, but so far Trump seems unwilling to face the anticipated political backlash if he were to do so.
I haven’t detailed the power and influence of some people in this administration with big titles, such as Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. I might be underplaying the sway of some key people, but I think we have captured the broad forces here.
The rise of some wings and the decline of others tell us two important things about this administration. First, aside from the tariffs decision, Trump has largely governed like a traditional Republican on policy. So advisers pushing more liberal ideas, like Ivanka Trump, are just out of step with the president, while Pence and his allies are moving policy in the direction that it appears the president wants to go anyway.
And second, the number of departures from the administration should not obscure a broader story of policy stability. Cohn is leaving, and he was perhaps the administration’s most important figure on economic policy. But the dominant figures on other issues remain, including Mattis (national security), Miller (immigration), Pence (abortion and priorities of social conservatives), Pruitt (the environment) and Sessions (criminal justice). Trump may seem erratic. But generally, his policy preferences — perhaps shaped by these powerful advisers — are somewhat predictable.