WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday picked Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, the favorite of the party’s establishment and a low-key Washington insider, to serve in the influential position of White House chief of staff.
Priebus is a Wisconsin native who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and served as the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin from 2007-11 until becoming the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is also a partner at Milwaukee-based law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, and is on leave from the firm.
The choice of Priebus, a loyal campaign ally to Trump who has close ties with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, signaled a willingness to work with Ryan and the Republican-led Congress to get his agenda passed.
The other front-runner for the job had been Stephen Bannon, Trump’s campaign chairman and former head of the conservative Breitbart News. Trump named Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor.
The chief of staff position, which serves as a gatekeeper and agenda-setter for the president, is typically one of the most important early choices for an incoming president.
“I am thrilled to have my very successful team continue with me in leading our country,” Trump said in a statement. “Steve and Reince are highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory. Now I will have them both with me in the White House.”
Trump, who will succeed Democratic President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, has been contemplating the candidates for top jobs in the White House and in various Cabinet positions since Tuesday’s election win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The selection of Priebus as chief of staff could anger some hardline Trump supporters who were counting on Trump to keep his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of business-as-usual Washington insiders.
Trump and his advisers already have hedged on some of his major campaign promises, including on immigration, health care and appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton.
Priebus is a longtime Wisconsin political operative who was credited with marshaling party resources for Trump’s White House bid. The Republican National Committee stepped in and ran most of the party’s get-out-the-vote effort this year in the absence of such an operation by the Trump campaign.
He frequently traveled with Trump on the campaign trail and was seen as a positive force who helped rein in the unpredictable Trump in the closing weeks. Trump made his high regard for Priebus known on election night when he pulled him to the microphone to take a bow for his campaign efforts.
Bannon is a firebrand outsider who as head of Breibart repeatedly attacked the Republican Party establishment including Ryan, alienating many veteran Republicans. Bannon showed his willingness to engage in brutal political tactics when he instigated the appearance before a presidential debate of three women who said they had been sexually abused by his Democratic rival’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Trump backed away on Sunday from his promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, saying some areas could instead be “fencing,” and added he would move to deport up to 3 million immigrants in the country illegally who have criminal records.
Trump, whose pledge to force Mexico to pay for a border wall was a centerpiece of his White House, said in “certain areas” he would accept fencing instead of a brick-and-mortar wall, according to excerpts of his interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes.”
“But certain areas, a wall is more appropriate. I’m very good at this, it’s called construction, there could be some fencing,” the New York real estate developer said.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, Trump sought to play down the divisive nature of his candidacy and said Americans alarmed by his election have nothing to fear.
“Don’t be afraid. We are going to bring our country back. But certainly, don’t be afraid,” he said.
Demonstrators in major U.S. cities took to the streets for a fifth straight day on Sunday to protest against Trump, decrying his campaign promises to restrict Muslim immigration and deport immigrants in the country illegally, as well as allegations that the former reality TV star sexually abused women.
Trump said in the interview that once he takes office he would remove immigrants with criminal records who are in the country illegally.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country,” he told “60 Minutes.”
During the campaign, Trump said he would deport the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, most of whom are Hispanic. Trump said Mexico was sending criminals and rapists into the United States.
Ryan, who will play a key role in getting Trump’s agenda through the Republican-led Congress, on Sunday backed away from Trump’s promise during the campaign of a “deportation force” to round up and deport immigrants in the country illegally.
“We are not planning on erecting a deportation force. Donald Trump’s not planning on that,” Ryan told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I think we should put people’s minds at ease. That is not what our focus is. That is not what we’re focused on. We’re focused on securing the border.”
Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 House Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” the wall with Mexico could in parts be a “virtual” wall patrolled by drones.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Howard Schneider)