President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of conservative provocateur Steve Bannon is creating complications for the Republican House leaders his website site has long eviscerated and is sparking fury among Jewish groups who charge that the new chief White House strategist incites hate groups.
Trump on Sunday afternoon named Bannon – the controversial conservative firebrand executive editor of the Breitbart website and CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign – as chief strategist and counselor to the president.
The reaction was fast and furious, with some Jewish groups calling on Trump to let Bannon go.
“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,’” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League.
It also complicated matters for the House Republicans who have been a constant target of Breitbart, the right-leaning website that the Southern Poverty Law Center says has become a favorite with white nationalists and the alt-right.
In May, Breitbart ran a story referring to The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” And a September Breitbart column about Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum suggested that “hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”
In a July interview with Mother Jones, Bannon described Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right.” Also in the interview, he stated, “Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe. Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy defended Trump’s right to make his choice at a sometimes testy news conference on Monday, as a reporter read McCarthy headlines from Breitbart, as well as a story about Bannon's ex-wife saying in a sworn 2007 statement during divorce proceedings that he made anti-Semitic remarks when selecting schools for their twin daughters. A spokeswoman for Bannon in August denied that he made the remarks.
“I’ve always believed in giving somebody a chance,” McCarthy said of Bannon. “I don’t like to prejudge people from others. Did he say it or are we putting everything that was in Breitbart under him?”
Breitbart has made no secret of its disdain for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., often questioning his conservative credentials. Ryan said Sunday he’d trust Trump’s judgment.
The Congressional Black Caucus called Bannon’s appointment a “cold slap in the face to those of us who are working to mend race relations in America.” Chairman G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said the appointment “sends an alarming signal that (Trump) remains loyal to the animosity and hatred that was the core of his campaign.”
Bannon’s appointment also raises questions about Trump’s promise to be Israel’s “biggest friend.” Support for Israel has been a target for many on the alt-right. The closing ad of Trump’s campaign drew criticism from Jewish groups, who said it played on Jewish stereotypes by railing against “global special interests” with shadowy footage of several prominent Jews.
But Republican Jews rejected the criticism of Bannon and said they remain confident in Trump, noting that his Jewish-son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is one of Trump’s closest advisers. His daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism before the couple wed.
“I read these articles they are saying about (Bannon), I have yet to find a quote that I find offensive,” said Sid Dinerstein, a Trump supporter and former chairman of the Palm Beach, Fla., Republican Party. “We Republicans have always had a saying that George W. Bush was the best president for Israel. Come back in four or eight years and it will be Donald Trump.”
Jay Lefkowitz, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, said he didn’t know Bannon, but is confident with Trump.
“There’s a little bit of hysteria on the subject,” he said. “Obviously, the Jewish community was very strongly supportive of Secretary Clinton, and if anything Donald Trump has gone out of his way to assure us of his support.”
He noted Bannon ran a news organization: “Part of his mission was to be provocative. But what I expect to see is someone who genuinely wants to focus on real issues.”
Others reserved judgment. Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks said he did not know Bannon, but noted he was looking forward to talking with him and “hearing his answers to some of the questions that have arisen.”
Trump’s selection of Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus as chief of staff drew mostly plaudits. And Brooks said with Priebus, Kushner and others that Trump “has surrounded himself with the type of people he needs to succeed, and will be a true friend and ally to Jews at home and around the world.”
The position of chief strategist is not new to the White House and not without influence: Those who have held similar roles for other presidents include David Axelrod for Barack Obama, Karl Rove for George W. Bush, David Gergen for Bill Clinton and Edwin Meese for Ronald Reagan.
A chief strategist advises a president on a range of issues, both policy and politics, domestic and foreign. He helps the president work with Congress and special interest groups. And he can also help create a big picture vision.
The chief strategist is one of the most crucial aides in a president’s first year as he weighs what issues to take on, when to negotiate with lawmakers and whose advice to seek. Bannon's position does not require Senate confirmation.
“There is no real definition,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, who wrote The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership. “It’s whatever the president wants. In this case, it would be a little bit of everything.”
The loose definition means that Bannon could be involved with nearly any decision Trump wants him to be involved in. Many strategists were longtime advisers on the campaign trail, though Bannon only joined Trump’s campaign in August.
But he made a mark: It was Bannon’s idea to invite the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to be Trump’s guests at the second debate with Hillary Clinton.
Sophie Ota and Sean Cockerham contributed to this report.