WASHINGTON — “Busy day planned in New York,” President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Twitter on Friday morning, two days after his astonishing victory. “Will soon be making some very important decisions on the people who will be running our government!”
If anything, that understates the gravity of the personnel choices Mr. Trump and his transition team are weighing.
Rarely in the history of the American presidency has the exercise of choosing people to fill jobs had such a far-reaching impact on the nature and priorities of an incoming administration. Unlike most new presidents, Mr. Trump comes into office with no elective-office experience, no coherent political agenda and no bulging binder of policy proposals. And he has left a trail of inflammatory, often contradictory, statements on issues from immigration and race to terrorism and geopolitics.
In such a chaotic environment, serving a president who is in many ways a tabula rasa, the appointees to key White House jobs like chief of staff and cabinet posts like secretary of state, defense secretary and Treasury secretary could wield outsize influence. Their selection will help determine whether the Trump administration governs like the firebrand Mr. Trump was on the campaign trail or the pragmatist he often appears to be behind closed doors.
“A new president is really vulnerable and open to all sorts of influence by strong-willed advisers,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. “Trump’s appointments over the next six weeks will be very significant because they can show whether he wants to create some unity in the country, or whether he really intends to deliver on his ideas.”
One of the influences on Mr. Trump could come from an unlikely quarter: President Obama. Meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday, Mr. Trump said he looked forward “to dealing with the president in the future, including counsel.” A day later, in interviews with The Wall Street Journal and “60 Minutes,’’ he said he had decided to retain elements of Mr. Obama’s landmark health care law after their conversation — a hint, at least, that he might govern less radically than he had campaigned.
White House officials expressed hope that Mr. Obama would be able to impress on Mr. Trump the importance of other parts of his legacy, like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. The two will have the kind of peer-to-peer relationship that only fellow presidents can have — something that administration officials hope will appeal to Mr. Trump’s pride, as well as his desire to succeed, and make him view Mr. Obama less as a rival.
They conceded, though, that there was little historical precedent for such a relationship, especially when the incoming president had ousted the incumbent’s party after such an acrid campaign, and that Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama were never likely to become buddies.
Mr. Trump is drawing mainly from a pool of trusted aides and supporters, according to people familiar with the campaign. On Friday, he named three of his grown children — Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric — as well as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his transition team, an arrangement that rang alarm bells in Washington because they will also manage his businesses. The Trump family, it is clear, will wield unusual power in the composition of an administration that is already shaping up as remarkable for its clannishness.
Even within Mr. Trump’s tight circle, however, there are sharp differences in ideology, background and temperament that could play out in how the White House deals with Congress and how the United States deals with the rest of the world.
Perhaps the deepest schism is between Stephen K. Bannon, the conservative provocateur and media entrepreneur who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman, and Reince Priebus, the Republican Party chairman who came to terms with Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Both are on a short list for chief of staff, according to people close to the campaign, and whoever is chosen, the other is likely to get another senior White House post.
Each would bring a radically different approach to a job often called the second-most powerful in Washington — gatekeeper to the president and often the first and last person he sees in the Oval Office.
Mr. Bannon, the executive chairman of the conservative website Breitbart News and onetime Goldman Sachs executive, is an avowed enemy of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. An anti-establishment verbal bomb thrower with ties to the alt-right movement, Mr. Bannon may have little interest in compromising with the Republican-controlled Congress under its current leadership. He is an unabashed critic of the current immigration system and repeatedly encouraged Mr. Trump to appeal to the party’s base in the closing days of the campaign with arguments against globalization.
Mr. Priebus, a party loyalist who tried to reconcile Republican leaders with their renegade nominee, would most likely build bridges to Mr. Ryan and other Republican leaders. A Washington insider with a reputation for being easy to work with, Mr. Priebus would operate a more traditional White House, though given Mr. Trump’s flamboyant personality, traditional is a relative term.
In some ways, Mr. Bannon and Mr. Priebus are proxies for the larger battle over what kind of president Mr. Trump will be. Some former Republican officials held out hope that Mr. Trump would be receptive to moderating influences, but others worried that he would simply listen to the last person he spoke to.
“You always have that tension between what he said to get elected and what he actually believes,” said John D. Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush. “How selective will his amnesia be?”
Mr. Negroponte, a Republican who supported Hillary Clinton in the campaign, said he could imagine senior members of Mr. Trump’s National Security Council warning him about the dangers of “cutting loose countries from our nuclear umbrella,” which Mr. Trump threatened during the campaign to do in reference to Japan and South Korea.
But there could be a parallel battle for Mr. Trump’s soul in foreign policy. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a retired career intelligence officer who is Mr. Trump’s closest foreign-policy adviser, is a candidate for national security adviser, according to an internal transition document obtained by the conservative news site The Daily Caller, as is Stephen J. Hadley, who served in that capacity for Mr. Bush.
Mr. Hadley, who might also be considered for defense secretary, pushed Mr. Bush to undertake the troop surge in Iraq and is closely identified with the military interventionism of that administration. A key figure in the Republican foreign-policy establishment, Mr. Hadley had a hand in Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address, in which he called for the United States to be an evangelist in spreading democracy — something Mr. Trump has flatly rejected.
General Flynn, a registered Democrat, has criticized the neoconservative policies of the Bush administration for leading the United States into quagmires like Iraq. “They’ve gotten us into mess after mess for the wrong reasons,” he said, echoing Mr. Trump’s harsh criticism of Mr. Bush during the Republican debates. And like Mr. Trump, General Flynn is withering about the foreign-policy establishment of both parties.
It may seem counterintuitive for Mr. Trump to recruit a Bush administration veteran. But Peter D. Feaver, who worked on President Bush’s national security council and now teaches at Duke University, pointed out that Mr. Obama had campaigned “vociferously against the Iraq surge, and then asked the architect of the surge” — Robert M. Gates — “to stay.” Mr. Gates, as defense secretary, later persuaded Mr. Obama to deploy a similar surge in Afghanistan.
“You can say one thing in campaigns, and mean it,” Mr. Feaver said, “and in personnel matters, do the opposite.”
The contest for top economic posts does not expose the same ideological fault lines as those for the White House or national security jobs. But it does raise red flags, given the anti-establishment, anti-Wall Street sentiment that Mr. Trump stoked during the campaign.
The New York Times