WASHINGTON — Elated Republicans returned to Capitol Hill after the election Monday and still found themselves in a familiar situation: having to defend the latest controversial move by Donald Trump.
The president-elect named Steve Bannon, who ran the right-wing website Breitbart, as his chief strategist in the White House. And thus began a familiar ritual practiced all summer: the ducking of questions, the silences, the feigning of ignorance, and the blaming of the media.
Trump satisfied establishment Republicans by naming Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his chief of staff over Bannon, who served as his campaign's CEO for the last few months. Although in the press release Trump's transition team stressed they would be "equal partners," lawmakers on Monday praised the decision to hire Priebus while downplaying or largely ignoring Bannon.
Bannon has acknowledged that his website was a platform for the alt-right — a movement associated with white nationalism that has been emboldened by Trump's rise. Under Bannon's leadership, Breitbart published racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim content — while also antagonizing Republican leaders, especially Speaker Paul Ryan.
Asked specifically about what Bannon's role says about Trump's administration, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, a close Ryan ally, responded, "But I also see Reince Priebus as the chief of staff, and the White House chief of staff is the most important, powerful position... so I feel like (Trump's) done a good job of doing an inclusive pick so far."
Pressed on Bannon, Stivers said, "I don't know a lot about Steve Bannon, so I don't care to be an expert on him."
And more broadly on his ties to Breitbart, which routinely attacks Ryan and his allies, Stivers said that was irrelevant. "Everybody has a paycheck, and to get a paycheck, they work. He worked to get a paycheck, and he worked for an employer. And I'm not going to attack somebody based on where they work."
North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, who served as Trump's energy adviser, took a similar approach to answering repeated questions about Bannon. "I have to stress that him hiring Reiner Priebus as chief of staff, he clearly understands that an objective analysis is appropriate even in his own shop," he said.
Cramer also emphasized he didn't know Bannon and tried to defend Trump's decision in naming him chief strategist, growing visibly frustrated with reporters for all the Bannon-related questions. "Listen, this might be eluding some of you, but Donald Trump won," he said when asked if Bannon symbolizes the divisiveness of Trump rhetoric. "I'll tell you what it symbolizes to me — tremendous loyalty."
"He's obviously a good enough strategist for him to win the White House," Cramer said. "That takes a little broader swath than just being anti-Semitic. Obviously, I would have serious problems with anti-Semitic strategy coming out of the White House, but I don't expect that out of Donald Trump."
Earlier in the day, during an awkward and often contentious meeting with reporters, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also tried to defend Trump's decision to hire Bannon. He cautioned against pre-judging, saying, “I’ve always believed in giving someone a chance."
Speaker Paul Ryan's office referred Bannon-related questions on Monday to the Wisconsin Republican's CNN interview with Jake Tapper on Sunday — hours before Bannon was officially named chief strategist. "I've never met the guy," Ryan said at the time. "I don't know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns. I trust Donald's judgment."
House Republicans also said they weren't too familiar with Bannon's ties to the alt-right. "It's a good combination of level-headedness and conservatism in the White House," said North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson on the combination of Priebus and Bannon, before saying, "I don't follow that as closely" on Bannon's past.
One of Trump's biggest and earliest supporters in the House, Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, initially praised the addition of Bannon. "Steve Bannon was very helpful to Donald Trump during the campaign," he said. "I think him and Reince Priebus will work well together. I think they can both add value to Donald Trump."
But when asked about his ties to the alt-right and if that concerned him, Barletta just said, "I haven't really looked at that. I'm not. No."
Other Republicans said it wasn't their job to critique Trump's appointments. "I think you have to trust the president to pick his staff," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole. "I've never really thought it was particularly a place where we had any business."
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he'll continue to be a "champion for religious freedom," but he doesn't have "the bandwidth" to go through what every staffer he hires has said in the past.
Aaron Klein, Breitbart's Jerusalem bureau chief, dismissed accusations Bannon is anti-Semitic.
"These smears are laughable to anyone who knows Bannon, a committed patriot who is deeply concerned about the growing threats to Israel," Klein said. "He has been particularly concerned with the dangerous trend of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment on U.S. college campuses. While at Breitbart, he pitched countless articles on these and other themes in defense of the Jewish state."
Bannon was the topic of the day on Capitol Hill, but Trump's transition too spent time Monday responding to criticism of Bannon, according to the president-elect's transition pool report.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager, said she was "personally offended" that reporters thought she'd "manage a campaign where that would be one of the going philosophies. It was not."
She also encouraged people to look at Bannon's full résumé. "He has got a Harvard business degree. He’s a Naval officer. He has success in entertainment. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. And he certainly was a Goldman Sachs managing partner. Brilliant tactician.”
Tarini Parti is a Capitol Hill reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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