Witcover: Trump's first right move

As Donald Trump moves ahead in forming his new administration, his first significant decision has been putting Vice President-elect Mike Pence in charge of his transition team.

In swiftly replacing his original choice, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mr. Trump has signaled his intent to continue the tradition over the last 40 years or so of utilizing the vice presidency as a governing partner, with duties well beyond the office's original function as the standby for the president.


Mr. Christie played a key role in Mr. Trump's winning the Republican nomination by being one of his first challengers to endorse him. But in switching to Mr. Pence, who entered the picture later and was not well-known to Mr. Trump, the president-elect has already incorporated his new sidekick into his small, family-laden inner circle.

If fairly recent history is a judge, Mr. Pence appears poised to join the last three vice presidents -- Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden -- as integral members of the administration with duties well beyond those few assigned by the Constitution. The confidence that Mr. Trump appears now to have placed in Mr. Pence suggests he, like them, will be much more than a president-in-waiting. Like them, he will bring experience, especially on Capitol Hill, where Mr. Trump only recently made his introductions as president on the brink.

Messrs. Gore, Cheney and Biden all brought to the vice presidency years of background in negotiating and legislating. They were Washington insiders and fellow committee members who knew their way around the vast bureaucracy where Mr. Trump has been foreign and often adversarial.

Mr. Pence served 12 years in the House and was chairman of the Republican Conference for three years before being elected governor of Indiana in 2012.

For years, vice presidents were neither seen nor heard much, but recent occupants of the office, especially Messrs. Cheney and Biden, have been quite visible.

Of the three most previous veeps, Mr. Gore took on specific areas of responsibility in which he was well schooled, including the environment and climate change. Mr. Cheney as a former secretary of defense was deeply engaged in national security national defense, and, later in terrorism.

On the other hand, Mr. Biden has functioned as a general counsel and handyman for President Obama, responsible for no one area or interest. He is very often seen at the president's side for important announcements. Whether that will continue for Mr. Pence under the limelight-greedy Mr. Trump is anybody's guess.

Mr. Trump's other appointments already are more controversial. His selection of Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus has been touted as giving him another prominent Washington insider. But Mr. Priebus' position is a party one and he had little visibility or prominence here as a former Wisconsin Republican State Chairman.


He won Mr. Trump's favor by defending him early against the unwillingness of the old Republican establishment to accept the celebrity business tycoon, and then siding with Mr. Trump against 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's failed rebellion against him.

Democratic leaders are much more concerned over the other early Trump appointment of Steve Bannon, head of the stridently right-wing Breitbart News website, to be the new administration's chief strategist.

Mr. Bannon as the Trump campaign CEO was seen as the staunchest defender and encourager of mr. Trump's harshest racist, sexist, misogynistic rhetoric on the campaign trail. But Mr. Trump himself in recent television interviews has said he will consider toning it down. Don't bet on it.

Perhaps the most contentious staff appointment awaited in trepidation by anti-Trump forces is the president-elect's selection for secretary of state. The most prominent names mentioned have former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has recently insisted he's not interested, and former York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, still said to have his eye on the Attorney General job. Both have appeared to be lobbying hard for a high Trump cabinet post while denying it.

And so it goes. Even the name of John Bolton -- the hardliner former UN ambassador who once said that if the UN building in New York "lost 10 stories, if wouldn't make a bit of difference" -- is being heard in some quarters to head the structure for which he once had so little regard. We can only hope that Mr. Trump has never heard of him.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.