In their confirmation hearings, many of President Trump’s national security appointees–including Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, and Nikki Haley–expressed disagreement with his views on Russia, the Russian-linked hacks of Democratic targets, NATO, the border wall, torture, and other important subjects. At the same time, Trump was staffing the White House with hardline aides, including counselor Stephen Bannon, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who appeared much more simpatico with the views that he himself expressed on the campaign trail.
Which set of views would prevail, observers wondered—the mainstream Cabinet members or the more far-right White House aides? Given that the Trump administration is not yet two weeks old, we still don’t have a definitive answer to that question. Certainly, on the evidence of the early days, the early indications are that it is the White House in control—and, in particular, the two Steves (Bannon and Miller) who were said to have penned the hardline inaugural address and overseen the chaotic rollout of the executive immigration order.
The media are full of stories about how Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and even Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly were not consulted before the executive order was issued temporarily banning all refugees along with all travelers from seven Muslim countries. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Kelly was receiving his first full briefing on the immigration order on Friday afternoon while the president was in the midst of signing it. Similarly, Mattis “was not consulted by the White House during the preparation of the order and was not given an opportunity to provide input while the order was being drafted.” CNN reported that it was Bannon and Miller who were running this fiasco, even weighing in to demand that permanent residents be subject to the entry ban—a decision that was finally reversed on Sunday after a public and judicial uproar.
Bannon’s ascendancy has been crowned by his inclusion in the high-level Principals Committee of the National Security Council, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence have been excluded. (Now the CIA director has been added to the committee—but his ostensible boss, the director of national intelligence, is still excluded.) To put a political operator like Bannon, who was chairman of Trump’s campaign, in the midst of decision-making about the gravest issues of war and peace is an extraordinary step. President Obama was criticized, and rightly so, for even letting David Axelrod sit in as an observer on a few Principals Committee meetings, but Axelrod was never invited to join the group as a participant.
This is a sign of the new pecking order in the White House, with Bannon, the New York Times wrote, looming “above almost everyone except the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.” Even Mike Flynn, the retired three-star who is the national security adviser, appears to be getting elbowed aside by Bannon and his allies, who are likely the sources of unflattering leaks about Flynn’s supposedly “stumbling performance” and the extent to which Trump is supposedly unhappy with him.
None of this should be hugely surprising. It mirrors, in some ways, the divisions within the Obama administration and many past administrations as well, with Cabinet members often proving less influential than White House staffers who have the all-important advantage of proximity to the president. William Rogers and Melvin Laird, Nixon’s secretary of state and secretary of defense, respectively, were frozen out of decisions by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Likewise, more recently, Obama’s secretaries of defense, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ash Carter, often found themselves on the losing end of battles with staffers, such as Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes.
What is ominous and troubling about the Trump administration is the character and views of the White House staff who are now ascendant—and none more so than Bannon, the onetime publisher of Breitbart News. He is not a conservative but a populist rabble-rouser. Indeed, he is quoted in the Washington Post, as espousing the development of “populist nation-state policies that are supported by the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans, but are poorly understood by cosmopolitan elites in the media that live in a handful of our larger cities.”
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that “rootless cosmopolitan” was a code-word used by Stalin to justify his anti-Jewish purges in the 1940s. Just as perhaps it’s a coincidence that Trump has adopted the “America First” mantra originally used by isolationists and anti-Semites like Charles Lindbergh. And perhaps none of this has anything to do with the fact that the White House issued a Holocaust proclamation that, as John noted, made no reference to the Nazis’ primary victims—the Jews. But there is enough smoke here to justify deep concern about the direction of this administration.
The good news is that Trump is so volatile and has such a proclivity for firing employees that the current status quo may not last. Indeed, all of the news articles trumpeting Bannon as the “real” president may ultimate seal his doom, because there is nothing that Trump likes less than to be upstaged.