In the year of the outsider, Reince Priebus was the face of the Republican establishment.
Yet the Republican National Committee chairman would come to earn the trust and confidence of President-elect Donald Trump, who on Sunday named Priebus as his chief of staff, along with flame-throwing media executive Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist.
The position puts Priebus at the power center of the new Trump administration. The 44-year-old Wisconsin political operative will help guard access to the president-elect, guide policy and political decisions, and if past practice holds true, will often be, along with Bannon, the last person Trump consults before making major decisions.
Priebus has no governing experience in Washington.
Yet his extraordinary ability to build and maintain relationships with his party’s power brokers and grassroots sets him apart from other prospective chiefs of staff. The affable and slow-talking Priebus maintains a particularly close relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is also from Wisconsin. At the same time, Priebus may have been almost as popular among the Republican National Committee’s 168 members, who represent many different factions of the GOP and come from every state in the nation.
Trump’s new chief of staff and the House speaker met in the late 1990s when Priebus was a party activist in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and Ryan was running for Congress. Priebus eventually became the party chairman of Kenosha County, the First District (the speaker’s district) and then Wisconsin party chairman. He’s been a friend and adviser to Ryan all these many years.
Priebus was already the longest serving chairman in party history, having worked in that role since January 2011, but he easily could have been re-elected early next year had he wanted to seek another term.
More than anything, he served as the chief fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, a job he did very well. He used the tens of millions of dollars he helped raise to create a nationwide voter outreach operation that fueled Trump’s stunning victory.
Still, his status as a party insider caught the attention of Trump supporters such as tea party leader Jenny Beth Martin. She warned on Saturday that, “No Washington insider, regardless of who it is, should serve as President Trump’s chief of staff.”
“It’s time to drain the swamp – not promote insiders beholden to the Washington establishment who helped create it,” she said.
Priebus’ ability to earn Trump’s trust and confidence ultimately outweighed any political concerns.
He was perhaps the only major establishment leader to stand with Trump over the campaign’s final weeks as much of the political world predicted the Republican nominee would lose the election. Priebus became Trump’s regular traveling companion and confidant. He was optimistic until the very end.
“I don’t buy this conventional wisdom that somehow or other, things are bad. I think things are going well,” he told The Associated Press a few days before the election.
Priebus, a big Green Bay Packers fan, likes to talk sports, he plays the piano and is quick to poke fun at himself. His easygoing personality, self-deprecating humor and lack of knowledge of the legislative process, mark a particularly sharp contrast with President Barack Obama‘s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
He married his high school sweetheart, Sally. They have two school-age children.
Priebus “gets along with pretty much everybody,” said Lanhee Chen, a former top adviser to the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Chen called the pick “a terrific decision.” ”I think it reflects an understanding that, first of all, you have to have someone who understands the politics of Washington,” he said.
Priebus has long favored a “big-tent” political philosophy that encourages the GOP to adopt a more welcoming and inclusive tone. Back in December, he condemned Trump’s plan to ban Muslim immigrants in December.
“I think it’s the party for everybody. It’s for everyone,” Priebus told the AP days before Trump’s victory. “That the message that we’re trying to get out across the country, which is it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, what your faith is, what gender you are, or what age you are. This is a party of freedom, opportunity and equality. That’s what our party is.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.