As noted yesterday, Trump has three constituencies rather than the usual two to please in appointing cabinet members and senior aides. He’s got his true believers, the people who voted for him; he’s got the people who worked for him and who actually helped him get elected, the spoils-system recipients; and he’s got the majority of the country, the Democrats, independents, and Trump-skeptic Republicans who watched the returns Tuesday night thinking Do I need to buy gold? The ideal pick for each job is someone who checks all three boxes. When push comes to shove, his voters need to be satisfied first. But if you can find a pick who makes everyone happy, why not pick them?
The only position I’ve seen Kellyanne Conway touted for so far is White House press secretary, which makes some sense. She was Trump’s most effective surrogate during the campaign by a country mile. If you’re looking within Trump’s inner circle for someone to be a day-to-day liaison to the national media, you couldn’t do better. But here’s the problem: Press secretary is a stupid, garbage job. The daily press briefing is one of the dreariest rituals in modern politics. Those who are good at it have perfected the art of saying nothing meaningful in a lot of words. Given what Conway accomplished in steering Trump to one of the unlikeliest national victories in American history, it’s borderline insulting to reward her with a position that lame.
Chief of staff, arguably the single most influential job in the White House apart from the presidency itself, would be better and would recognize the magnitude of her accomplishment. You could say the same for Steve Bannon, the campaign’s CEO and reportedly a top contender for the position, but between his Breitbart pedigree, his support for the alt-right, and the dirty laundry that the media aired this summer and will gleefully revisit if he’s named as COS, choosing him would freak out the third group I named above and will be treated by the press as confirmation of all their worst fears about Trump, rightly and wrongly. There’ll be headlines about how picking Bannon is a declaration of war on minority America — and on the rest of the GOP, given Bannon’s antipathy to Paul Ryan — and that’ll set the tone for everything going forward. (Besides, everyone understands that Bannon will be an eminence grise even if he’s not named to any formal position.) Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is another contender for the job. He seems capable and his instincts appear sound (he was reportedly in favor of dumping Corey Lewandowski over the summer), but he’s a political novice. As a friend said to me yesterday, Trump naming his daughter’s husband to a major position like COS without any experience would come off like something a Panamanian dictator would do. I think all three groups above would tolerate it, but there would be a lot of “huh?” and “amateur hour” reactions in group three, fairly or not.
Another alternative is Reince Priebus, who would be fine with group three given his mainstream cred and his nice-guy persona. Would Trump fans be okay with Reince, though? I assume so, as he was a loyal soldier for Trump all year and would make an excellent liaison to Capitol Hill because of his connections to the rest of the party (especially his buddy Paul Ryan). But Reince is Mr. Establishment. Trump came to Washington to “drain the swamp” and to “burn the system down” with … the head of the RNC as his top guy? That seems odd. But if Trumpers find him acceptable, I doubt anyone else would object. Question, though: Why go with Reince when you could have Conway instead? She worked for the campaign itself, not its partners at Establishment HQ. She was, as noted, Trump’s most effective spokesman on TV, and she’d have plenty of opportunities for that as COS — especially since her words would carry much greater weight as the gatekeeper to Trump. Conway has lots of experience on the Hill herself, having worked before for Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, and Jack Kemp, among others. And having a professional pollster close to Trump would be a nice guarantee that he won’t sink too far into a bubble where he thinks the public simply adores everything he does.
Beyond all that, for what it’s worth, my experience as a Trump-skeptic and in talking to other Trump-skeptics is that people who are wary of Trump find Conway very reassuring. She seems like the most sensible and seasoned politico in his immediate orbit, she clearly knows what she’s doing by dint of Tuesday’s big win, she’s not prone to fire-breathing rhetorical excess, and she’s showed before more than once that she’s not afraid to cross Trump by criticizing him publicly, however gingerly. She’s a breath of fresh air amid the “nationalist GoodFellas” vibe that Trump’s inner circle puts out. She’s respected on the Hill too so she can fulfill the liaison duties of COS just fine. And for what it’s worth, there’s never been a woman chief of staff since the position was created. After all the criticism of Trump for his comments about women over the years, becoming the first president to put a woman in charge at the White House would be a sharp way for him to show he’s more forward-thinking about having women in important jobs than his predecessors have been. He’d get a lot of good press out of it. And Trumpers, I assume, would be happy about it considering her role in leading the campaign to victory.
The mystery is whether she’d want the job or whether she wants out. Some of Conway’s tweets during the last month or two of the campaign, when she was nudging Trump to stick to the issues, had the air of someone who thought her candidate was on his way to defeat and wanted to disclaim responsibility for the loss. Maybe Conway expected she’d be off the Trump train soon and was eager to get back to normalcy. (If she thought Trump was headed towards losing, she wasn’t the only Trump advisor who did, reportedly.) The way she talked about reining in Trump’s self-destructive tendencies also had a sense of exasperation to it, like a mom talking about a kid who won’t behave. Again, all of this is good news to Trump-skeptics — Conway’s the “sane one” who’s steering Trump towards more productive directions — but if she was really that exasperated working for him for four months, chances are it’s not going to get better over several years as chief of staff involving very high-stakes decisions. Pretty big position for her turn down, though, if it’s on the table. It should be.
In the end, the counterargument will be that anti-Trumpers should say nothing about these decisions since they didn’t support Trump to begin with. Okay — although that’s hard to square with the “president for everyone” rhetoric — but if you want skeptics to take a second look at him and give him the benefit of the doubt, smart and conciliatory early decisions on big staffing matters are the best thing he could do to earn it. Conway as COS would earn him some.
Update: Whoops, made a silly error above about Kushner. He’s Ivanka’s husband, of course. Fixed now.