There’s a turf war between Steve Bannon’s group and cabinet officialsby Iwan Morgan / February 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Battles between White House staff and cabinet secretaries are commonplace in the modern era. The president’s aides see themselves as the agents of his wishes and often clash with the heads of cabinet departments, who want to protect their own turf. The Trump administration is no different—except that the struggle for influence has broken out in its first days, before Senate confirmation of some cabinet nominees has taken place.
A trio of top aides has emerged as the ideological bomb-throwers of the new White House. Trump lacks a philosophical core in the manner of recent Republican predecessors such as Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. This makes him open to the ideas of others—in this case, Steve Bannon, formerly CEO of Trump’s election campaign and now his chief strategist; senior adviser Stephen Miller; and Rick Dearborn, executive director of the Trump transition team and now White House deputy chief of staff.
Bannon, in particular, has Trump’s ear because of his role in the campaign. His conviction that the election victory was part of a global revolt by nationalists against cosmopolitan political establishments plays well with the new president. Trump also appears to have bought into Bannon’s conviction, enunciated in a 2014 speech to an international conservative conference held at the Vatican, that the 21st century would see a struggle for supremacy between the Judeo-Christian west and Islamic fascism.
His two allies are like-minded and all three did much to shape the tenor of Trump’s “America First” inaugural address. Bannon’s influence also landed Dearborn his role in the transition team, which enabled them to pick key personnel in the new administration. Chief among these were Senator Jeff Sessions (both Miller and Dearborn have worked in his office) as attorney general; Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary; climate-change denier Scott Pruitt as director of the Environmental Protection Agency; and protectionist Peter Navarro as head of the newly established National Trade Council.
Another indicator of Bannon’s influence was that Trump issued an executive order giving him a seat on the National Security Council (NSC), membership of which is usually reserved for officials engaged in defence and diplomacy. The same order removed the Pentagon’s topmost brass, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Intelligence Director from the council—they can now only attend NSC meetings if the agenda is directly relevant to their concerns. It transpires that Trump signed the order at Bannon’s behest without properly reading its contents.
Bannon was also largely responsible for getting Trump to sign the notorious travel ban, restricting people from seven majority Muslim countries from being allowed into the United States. However, this was his first defeat in the bureaucratic politics of the new administration. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired general whose job was to implement the order, announced that waivers would be granted to green card holders. Bannon personally lobbied Kelly against issuing the waiver, but Kelly insisted only the president could stop him. The row intensified when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and National Security Adviser Mike Flynn complained they hadn’t been consulted about the order.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner (Ivanka’s husband and Trump’s son-in-law, whom the president holds in high esteem) had to step in. The outcome was a presidential decision to hold up all other executive orders until there had been adequate consultation with the departments involved. Hitherto a Bannon supporter, on this issue Kushner counselled the president to respect Kelly’s concerns.
The episode will only be the first clash between Bannon’s group and the national security officials. Bannon is for enlisting Vladimir Putin’s government into an alliance to take on Islamic State. The national security group are more tough-minded about Russia, supporters of America’s established alliances and unlikely to cave in to White House aides.
The federal court’s rejection of the travel ban rounded off a bad week two for Bannon and his allies. But it is likely to be just a temporary setback. They retain the advantage of proximity to Trump and can remind him of his election promises. However they will have to exercise greater care in the future. Trump has railed against the courts in his Tweets, but this episode is embarrassing to him. Rule number one is that the Donald never loses. Those who induce him to take positions that no amount of rationalization can depict as a victory may find themselves hearing his catchphrase from The Apprentice: “You’re fired!”