What is a “Senior Advisor” Anyway?
And How Much Power Will Steve Bannon Have at His Fingertips?
One must only follow politics passively to know the names of some of the people that have held the title of Senior Advisor to the President. Rahm Emanuel for Bill Clinton. Karl Rove for George W. Bush. Valerie Jarrett for Barack Obama. For better or worse, each of those individuals played central roles in the successes and failures of their respective administrations. Yesterday brought news that President-elect Trump has appointed Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to this principle role.
There’s a common aphorism in Washington: the President’s Chief of Staff is the second most powerful person in town. Who’s the third? While there’s a strong case to be made for the Vice-President or the Speaker of the House, when it comes to the daily operations of the Executive Branch, the title is best bestowed upon the President’s Senior Advisors.
Senior Advisors are tasked with helping presidents advance their political agendas. They oversee the West Wing’s public messaging, manage intergovernmental relations and execute political strategy. Presidents place their legacies in the hands of their staff so it goes without saying that Senior Advisors are, by nature, the most trusted members of the president’s professional inner circle. Their offices are literally steps from the Oval Office. They’re his taskmasters and gatekeepers. They brief the president every morning, they confer throughout the day, and they travel with him too. They’re omnipresent figures in a president’s daily life.
Its hard to overstate the power and influence Senior Advisors wield in modern administrations. When people think of a president’s inner circle, thoughts often turn to cabinet-level, Senate-confirmed appointees like the Secretaries of Defense or State. In reality, full cabinet meetings are rare and presidents confer with department secretaries on a situational basis. The staff of the Executive Office of the President (overseen by the Chief of Staff and Senior Advisors) are the heart and soul of every administration.
A lot of ink has been spilled on Steve Bannon’s role in promoting the rise of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, his alleged anti-semitism and his goal to “destroy the state.” In response, the Anti-Defamation League announced it “strongly opposes” Bannon’s appointment, the Chairman of the American Nazi Party wrote “Perhaps The Donald IS for ‘REAL,’” and Democratic lawmakers are apoplectic. Problematic, to say the least.
Some will argue that the President’s Chief of Staff is the West Wing’s ultimate gatekeeper. That nothing gets to the president’s desk without the Chief’s approval. On paper, this is true but each administration has its own informal hierarchy. One would be hard pressed to make the case that Andy Card had a more important role in the Bush Administration than Karl Rove. And while President Obama has had five Chiefs of Staff throughout his tenure, Valerie Jarrett has been by his side since January 2009. We already have clues to how the hierarchy of Trump’s West Wing is shaping up. In a press release, the President-elect announced that Bannon and the Chief of Staff will serve as “equal partners to transform the federal government.” Bannon’s power will be real and his influence, incalculable.
So if you’re worried about a man that once told a colleague that “only people who own property should vote,” you should be. Senior Advisors serve at the pleasure of the president. They don’t face Senate Confirmation and there’s very little public accountability once they’re in office. There’s no way to sugar-coat it, Steve Bannon, as Senior Advisor will not only have the president’s ear but the power to influence the culture of the West Wing, the president’s agenda, and the priorities of the Executive Branch.