President Trump is a man who likes conflict. He sees life, and politics, as a survival of the fittest. He has built a senior White House team designed to foment competition and conflict, with his four top aides fighting for his ear.
The dynamic between that quartet and Trump sits at the heart of understanding why the president does what he does and when. Aides rise in his estimation, then fall almost by the day. Trump seems to keep a running list in his head of who's up and who's down among his top advisers.
So why not keep our own list — updated weekly — of who's the most powerful aide in Trumpworld at the moment?
That's exactly what I'm going to do. Today I introduce the White House Power Rankings, a definitive weekly guide to who's hot and who's not among the four top advisers in the Trump White House. Each week, the power rankings will update based on a carefully-crafted formula — so, yes, this is my assessment based on my own reading of White House tea leaves — that includes what Trump has said about each, their influence on his policy (and tweets), their TV appearances and the media coverage of them.
Before we get to the inaugural rankings, let's meet the players!
* Reince Priebus, chief of staff
Priebus is the establishment guy in the quartet. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, he saw the writing on the wall early in the GOP primary process and worked to build bridges with Trump. Priebus and Trump's connection is a sort of Mutt and Jeff deal. Priebus is the low-key, behind-the-scenes operator, Trump is the front-of-the-camera performer.
* Kellyanne Conway, counselor
It's easy to forget but Conway was a late arrival to the Trump orbit. She spent much of the Republican primary running the universe of Ted Cruz super PACs. But once Conway got into the Trump orbit, she stuck. Her understanding of Trump's cable TV obsession and her work as one of his most effective TV surrogates has endeared Conway to Trump.
* Stephen K. Bannon, chief strategist
The most controversial of Trump's foursome, Bannon arrived amid a staff shakeup in summer 2016. The former publisher of Breitbart News, he has widely been painted as a hero of the alt-right and Trump's id.
* Jared Kushner, senior adviser
Jared Kushner is family. (He's married to Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump.) And, from the beginning of Trump's presidential candidacy, Kushner has been at Trump's side. His portfolio — peace in the Middle East, stabilizing U.S. relations with Mexico — is both deeply challenging and evidence of how much trust the president has in him.
Okay, now that we're all acquainted — without further ado, the first White House power rankings!
Bannon holds the pole position after the first 25 days of the Trump presidency. He was the lead agitator behind Trump's flurry of early executive orders, including the travel ban and the start of the construction of the famed/infamous wall. Bannon's placement on the National Security Council was a coup for him. Trump's constant harping on "fake news" and his unapologetic tweeting also come right out of the Bannon playbook. The ascendance of Stephen Miller, the young senior policy adviser to Trump, as a prominent surrogate also means another Bannon loyalist sitting in a prime position. And Trump appears to blame Priebus more than Bannon for the botched rollout of the travel ban. (More on that below.) One hiccup: Bannon making the cover of Time magazine might look like a good thing at first but likely cuts both ways with a president who likes notoriety but doesn't like sharing the spotlight.
Conway nearly edged out Bannon for the top spot after a very strong start to this week. She was a major force behind the scenes in the decision to jettison Mike Flynn as national security adviser and remains Trump's favorite TV surrogate. The kerfuffle over Conway's urging of people to go buy Ivanka's clothing line drew tut-tuts from good government types but almost certainly endeared her to Trump, who views defending family as the sine qua non of life. And Conway clearly feels good about where she stands; witness this tweet Tuesday afternoon.
I serve at the pleasure of @POTUS. His message is my message. His goals are my goals. Uninformed chatter doesn't matter.
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) February 14, 2017
For someone with such a broad palette of issues and such an amorphously defined job, Kushner has been relatively quiet in the early days of the Trump administration. Most of the news about Kushner has been tied to his wife, Ivanka Trump, and the couple's new status as socialites on the Washington scene. (Yes, people in New York City, that does exist.) Then there was this Vanity Fair story in late January that cast Kushner on the outside looking in, due, in part, to his Orthodox Jewish faith that prevents him from working from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night. Kushner bounced back, however, with a series of stories that credited Ivanka and himself for kiboshing a planned executive order that would have rolled back LGBT rights granted in the workplace under former president Barack Obama.
It's been a rough few weeks for Priebus. A storyTuesday in Breitbart News quotes "sources close to the president" (whoever could that be!) suggesting that Trump is unhappy with the job Priebus is doing, and there is already a list circulating of potential Priebus replacements. That comes just days after longtime Trump friend Christopher Ruddy told The Washington Post — after meeting with Trump! — that Priebus "is the problem" and is "in way over his head." Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a Priebus confidante, finds himself subject to the same leaks and back-stabbing from within the administration about his future. The good news for Priebus? There's always next week!