President-elect Donald Trump is drawing fire for choosing Stephen Bannon as a top White House adviser, with critics from both left and right arguing that the former head of Breitbart News has helped propel a divisive strain of white nationalism.
Democrats, human rights groups and a handful of Republicans attacked the appointment, which was unveiled on Sunday alongside the choice of Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to be Mr Trump’s White House chief of staff. The appointments, which do not require Senate confirmation, are the first that Mr Trump has announced to his administration since his victory over Hillary Clinton.
“The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America,” tweeted John Weaver, a Republican strategist who works with Ohio governor John Kasich, a rival to Mr Trump in the party’s primary elections.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a US group that monitors hate crimes, accused Mr Bannon of being the “main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill”.
Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who challenged Mr Trump in Utah, called on Congressional Republicans to repudiate Mr Bannon’s appointment. “Will any national level elected GOP leaders condemn @realDonaldTrump’s appointment of anti-Semite Steve Bannon to senior White House role?” he tweeted. “In our lifetimes, it has never been more important for Americans to stand on principle for equality and liberty.”
Once a fringe news organisation that fuelled the “alt-right” brand of nationalist conservatism, Breitbart News took on a bigger role during the election with its vocal support for Mr Trump and opposition to Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House who clashed with Mr Trump during the campaign over the candidate’s divisive rhetoric about women, minorities, handicapped people, and war heroes.
When the GOP candidate fired Paul Manafort as his campaign chairman in August, he brought in Mr Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and Navy officer, to serve alongside Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager who was seen as more moderate.
Among those welcoming Mr Bannon’s appointment was David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. “You have an individual, Mr Bannon, who’s basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going,” Mr Duke told CNN. “And ideology ultimately is the most important aspect of any government.”
Democrats criticised Mr Bannon’s appointment as encouraging racist groups. “President-elect Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his top aide signals that white supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House,” said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Harry Reid, the top Senate Democrat.
“It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of white supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide.”
Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic minority leader, described Mr Bannon’s appointment as “alarming”.
Speaking on Monday to NBC’s Today Show, Mr Priebus defended Mr Bannon, and played down any sense of competition between the two men.
“He’s a guy who is very, very smart, very temperate. Together, we’ve been able to manage a lot of the decision-making . . . It’s worked very well,” Mr Priebus said.
The weekend’s dual appointments come as Mr Trump faces the daunting task of setting up his administration before his inauguration on January 20.
In recent days, Mr Trump has held phone conversations with Theresa May, the British prime minister, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. On Monday, his transition team said Mr Trump had told Vladimir Putin in a call that he was “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia”.
On Thursday, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, will become the first head of government to meet Mr Trump since his election last week.
Underscoring the populist campaign that propelled him to victory Mr Trump at the weekend met Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence party who spearheaded the campaign for Brexit, and has received strong support from Breitbart News.
Democrats and Republicans alike are looking for signs about the relative power of Mr Bannon and Mr Priebus, after the former was given top billing in the statement announcing their appointments. Steve House, the head of the Republican party in Colorado, said the two appointments would allow Mr Trump to have a coalition builder in Mr Priebus and a maverick in Mr Bannon, providing “the best of both worlds”.
Max Boot, a defence expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who supported Mrs Clinton in the election, said that while Mr Priebus had a bigger title and institutional role, it was unclear how the Trump White House would work but that there would be a battle for influence.
“We don’t know who will emerge on top — it will be like the campaign — chaotic, with competing advice for Trump,” he said.
He said Mr Bannon “should not be at the right hand of the president”, adding that his appointment sends “a message of uncertainty the likes of which you don’t want to send when you are the most powerful country in the world”.
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