This week, Trump Tower was a hive of scurrying courtiers, from a prime minister, media mogul and nonagenarian diplomat to senators, congressmen and businessmen. And as the palace intrigue deepened, it was apparent that three men, in particular, had the ear of President-elect Donald Trump.
“I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told the Hollywood Reporter, likening himself to Henry VIII’s right hand man and master manipulator (who, in a fact he may have overlooked, was ultimately executed for treason). Bannon did not propose historical roles for Reince Priebus, chief of staff, or Jared Kushner, an intimate adviser married to Trump’s daughter, but they are his rivals for Trump’s attention.
Shaun Bowler, associate dean of political science at the University of California, Riverside, likened the plot to Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall. “Her account of people tiptoeing around a character like Henry VIII strikes me as providing lots of insight into what life for advisers will be like inside the White House from now on,” he said. “What we probably can say is that – whatever the actual pattern of influence – we can be pretty sure that at least one of them will end up leaving after a blow-up.”
The scenario seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago, when polls showed Hillary Clinton on course for the White House and the Republican party hurtling towards civil war. Then, in the most stunning upset in US politics for at least half a century, Republicans swept the board and Democrats plunged into despair. What was supposed to be a valedictory foreign tour for Barack Obama became a glum mission to soothe a panicking world, a plea to keep calm and carry on.
Until Obama hands over power to Trump on inauguration day, on 20 January, the political spotlight is on the former US capital, New York, where Trump is huddled with his transition team. Police have been forced to barricade sidewalks near Trump Tower and a no-fly zone has been imposed above it.
Last Sunday, the president-elect made his first move. He announced that Bannon would be chief strategist, triggering a fierce backlash because of the adviser’s executive role at the website Breitbart, which has run white nationalist and antisemitic headlines. At the same time, Trump appointed the more conventional Priebus to the more conventional role of chief of staff. The chairperson of the Republican National Committee (RNC) had been unswervingly loyal ever since the end of the primaries, even while the candidate ignored pleas to tone down the rhetoric.
But there is also a third centre of power, unofficial but no less important. Kushner, a property developer, investor and newspaper publisher married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is said to have called the shots throughout the campaign and is now doing the same in the transition. He was present at Thursday’s meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and reportedly behind a “Stalinesque purge” of the transition team.
There are other major players in the Trump universe. They include Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, a vital bridge to Congress and the conservative movement; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse Trump and now the nominee for attorney general; Paul Ryan, the House speaker with whom Trump has made a fragile peace; and Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate.
But it is Priebus, Bannon and Kushner, vying for 70-year-old Trump’s infamously short attention span, who could form the most potent triumvirate in the Oval Office since the days when Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove counseled George W Bush. Given Trump’s track record of pitting rivals against each other in his business, campaign and reality TV show, they probably face an uncertain future.
“Apparently Trump likes to manage with concentric circles of chaos,” said Michael Steele, Priebus’s predecessor as RNC chair. “He doesn’t mind that. He likes the tension between the different sectors of influence. So far you’ve got the Kushner circle, you’ve got the Bannon circle, they all interrelate into Trump’s circle but when they have to work with each other, that’s where the challenge is going to be because their interests are very different interests.”
Priebus, a technocrat and consummate party man, will be the voice of the Republican establishment, and a vital conduit to Congress, including Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite.
“Reince is not Donald Trump’s guy,” Steele added. “Bannon is. Reince is Paul Ryan’s guy and so Trump is doing what he thinks he needs to do to create some olive branches to the establishment types because he knows he needs them. But, quite honestly, they need him just as much. I suspect, as much as they will try to play it down, there will be some tough times where those interests will conflict.”
During the campaign, Kushner, well-mannered but guarded, emerged as operational guru, helping with recruitment, online fundraising, drafting policy and even selecting a running mate. Over the past week Kushner was said to have orchestrated the removal of transition team leader Chris Christie and his allies; Christie had successfully prosecuted his father for tax evasion 11 years ago.
Kushner, 35, is taking legal advice on whether he can get around anti-nepotism laws to join the new administration, the New York Times reported. Like Trump, he is steeped in the property world and has no political experience. “I’m sure he’s a very smart young man, a very successful businessman,” Steele said. “But he doesn’t know foreign policy, he doesn’t know national security, that’s not the world in which he has operated.
“Trump has to be very careful how close in he has someone and the advice he’s taking from someone who has no real background or appreciation or understanding of the obvious stuff, let alone the nuances of policy and government.”
Kushner and 62-year-old Bannon are, in many respects, polar opposites. One is clean cut and favours crew-neck sweaters; the other is dishevelled and looks in need of a shave. One is the son of a multimillionaire; the other was born into a working-class family. One is an Orthodox Jew (Ivanka converted before their marriage), the other a Catholic who has been accused of antisemitism.
“Jared Kushner’s the most interesting to me,” said Rick Tyler, a former member of Ted Cruz’s campaign team. “Billionaires don’t trust everyone who walks through the door but Trump trusts Kushner and Kushner trusts Bannon. They believe in Bannon and the advice he’s given. People can complain about it, then get over it.”
All week Trump has hunkered down at his headquarters, with journalists gathered at 8am each morning in the atrium, clad with 2,400 tons of salmon-coloured marble, to watch his guests come and go.
Among the parade of luminaries come to honour the new king was 93-year-old Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Richard Nixon; Rupert Murdoch, 85, the media tycoon and another bete noire of the liberal left; Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, worrying about traffic snarl-ups in central Manhattan; even an impromptu turn by “the naked cowboy”, best known for his performances in Times Square.