Obama sidesteps controversy around Steve Bannon

President says it will be up to Trump to appoint a team that serves his policies

Donald Trump with his new chief of staff Reince Priebus: Mr Priebus spent much of his post-appointment media interviews defending his future colleague Steve Bannon and the latter’s links to white supremacists. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/via Getty

Barack Obama declined to step into the debate around Donald Trump's appointment of chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has been criticised for his links to white supremacists, saying it was up to the Republican to pick his staff.

The US president, speaking at his first press conference since Mr Trump’s shock election, said that it would not be appropriate for him to comment on every appointment if he hoped to ensure a smooth transition of power.

"The people have spoken, Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States and it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies," he said.

Mr Obama said he told Mr Trump during their meeting last week that he felt it was important for him to send “some signals of unity” to minorities, women or other groups who were concerned about the tone of the election campaign.


Asked about his concerns over Mr Trump's policies, Mr Obama said his successor comes to the White House with the benefit of having fewer hard and set policy decisions. "I don't think he's ideological. Ultimately, he's pragmatic," he said.

White supremacists

Mr Trump’s newly-appointed chief of staff Reince Priebus and other Republicans rushed to the defence of Mr Bannon, a former media company boss who has been condemned for running a website embraced by white supremacist groups.

The president-elect’s critics condemned his appointment of Mr Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counsellor at the White House that will give the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a website championed by white supremacist groups for its racist and anti-Semitic content, a pivotal role in the running of the next US administration.

The former US naval officer and investment banker turned conservative film-maker and political agitator took a leave of absence from Breitbart in August to become Mr Trump’s campaign chief and helped steer him to victory last week.

Mr Priebus, who was picked by Mr Trump as chief of staff alongside with Mr Bannon as "equal partners" in his White House, defended his future colleague from denunciations from civil rights groups, Democrats and some Republicans.

Mr Priebus spent much of his post-appointment round of media interviews taking questions about Mr Bannon, who will take up a role similar to that of Karl Rove in the George W Bush White House or of John Podesta in President Obama's administration.

Asked about Breitbart headlines such as "There's no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews" and "Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew," Mr Priebus said that they did not represent the man he had worked with.

Mr Bannon was “very wise and smart” and “a force for good on this campaign”, he said.

“The guy I know is a guy that isn’t any of those things,” the outgoing Republican national committee chairman said.

"The guy I know is a guy sitting in an office all day yesterday, talking about hiring and in the last few months, this is a guy who has exhibited none of these qualities. Here's a guy who's Harvard Business School, he was a 10-year naval officer, London School of Economics, I believe. He is a guy who is very, very smart, very temperate."

Racism and anti-Semitism

Mr Bannon’s role in Breitbart and its close ties with the alt-right, a conservative movement that incites racism, anti-Semitism and white nationalism, alarmed the political establishment, given his upcoming powerful role in the White House.

Retiring Democratic senator minority leader Harry Reid warned through a spokesman that Bannon's promotion from Trump campaign chief executive to top White House adviser "signals that white supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump's White House". "Nation exhales because white nationalist only gets second most influential job in White House," tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to Obama of his appointment.

The Southern Poverty Law Group, which monitors hate groups, has accused Breitbart of explicitly embracing ethno-nationalism, pointing out controversial stories published by the website under Mr Bannon's control.

"Stephen Bannon was the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill," the law society wrote in a statement.

“Trump should rescind the shire. In his victory speech, Trump said he intended to be president for ‘all Americans.’ Bannon should go.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times