STEVE BANNON AND REINCE PRIEBUS'S WAR FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
By Ryan Lizza February 3, 2017
President Donald Trump's first two weeks in office have produced what seems like a year's worth of drama, but he has made essentially two consequential decisions. He issued a ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries and he nominated Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals-court judge, to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant after Antonin Scalia's death, last year.
The immigration ban, a dubious policy that no serious counterterrorism expert believes is necessary, threw the Trump Administration into chaos, alienated large swaths of the federal government, offended international allies, and divided the Republican Party. The announcement of Gorsuch, who, whatever one thinks of his legal views, is clearly qualified to serve on the Court, was executed professionally and united the G.O.P. behind Trump.
The two decisions reflect the two strands of Trumpism vying for control of the new Administration—and the Republican Party—and may be harbingers of coming fights inside the White House.
The immigration ban was a catastrophe from start to finish. It was written in secret by a small group of White House aides, led by Steve Bannon, the President's chief strategist and the former chairman of Breitbart, the right-wing news site dedicated to white identity politics. Bannon worked closely with Stephen Miller, a former aide to Senator Jeff Sessions, whose formative years on Capitol Hill were spent fighting, in alliance with Breitbart, against the G.O.P.'s immigration reformers.
In 2013, during the last Senate debate about immigration, several Republicans joined Democrats in passing legislation championed by President Barack Obama and a coalition of business, labor, and Latino groups. Sessions, Miller, and Bannon were seen as representing a dying movement of right-wing holdouts who failed to see the political wisdom of the Republican Party's embrace of comprehensive immigration reform. Now they are running the government. (Or, in the case of Sessions, who has still not been confirmed as Attorney General, soon will be.)
The Bannonites' executive order prompted widespread protests and multiple crises in the federal government. At the State Department, it triggered a revolt of career diplomats, some thousand of whom signed an official statement of dissent arguing that the policy would do more harm than good. At the Justice Department, the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, decided that the order was discriminatory and took the unprecedented step of ordering the department's lawyers not to defend it in court, causing Trump to fire her. Abroad, the ban set off a series of diplomatic crises. In Iraq, America's most important ally in fighting isis, the parliament reportedly responded by voting to ban Americans from the country. In Germany, America's most important European ally, Chancellor Angela Merkel, said, via a spokesperson, that defeating terrorism "does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion." In a phone call with Trump, she explained the details of the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, an international treaty that requires states to protect those fleeing war and persecution.
The first significant policy of the Bannon wing of the Trump White House was executed in a way that insured maximum chaos and confusion. In contrast, Trump's successful rollout of his Supreme Court nominee was largely run by the White House counsel's office, an island in the White House that is relatively free from Bannon's control and has been shaped more by Reince Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican Party and Trump's current chief of staff. A true populist aiming to shake up the establishment in Washington might have found someone outside of the legal monastery, perhaps someone who wasn't even a judge, to put on the Court. Instead, Trump chose a leading conservative appellate judge with Ivy League credentials. The most frequent Republican critics of Trump, such as Senators Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham, cheered the decision. Even Democrats have had to admit that Gorsuch is perfectly qualified.
It's too simple to describe these episodes as purely emblematic of the two warring camps. Priebus has been a steadfast defender of the immigration ban, and as White House chief of staff it's his responsibility to make sure there is a process set up to vet and smoothly implement an executive order. Meanwhile, there's no indication that Bannon had any qualms about Gorsuch.
But the general divide is unmistakable. In conversations I had with people close to Priebus and those close to Bannon, the two sides talk about each other as leaders of a zero-sum fight for control of the West Wing. "It is impossible to draw a line of accountability for the things that went wrong on that executive order to Reince," a source close to Priebus said. "Because he's not the one who wrote it. He's not the one who put it together. Reince has never gone in there and said, 'I'm a serious policy expert and I'm going to know on page forty-five of this thing how green cards are handled.' "
The person added, "Their M.O. is they are not going to go, 'Yeah, we screwed up. We're going to get better.' It's to be, like, 'Well, these establishment guys are too weak, and they don't like our policies.' That's their leak; that's their criticism; that's their way of trying to deflect from themselves. The shit that he's doing is actually the part of this place that's functioning correctly. The more that that happens and the more successful he is, the more they are going to bitch about it because they don't like that. They would rather be in charge and do things unfettered."
Most modern White Houses have had a strong chief of staff who could limit the influence of other senior advisers by controlling their access to the President and insisting they use a formal process to set policy. But Trump has created a top-heavy staff in which Bannon, Priebus, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and several others all seem to have easy access to a President who, especially on issues that he is unfamiliar with, is famously susceptible to persuasion. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both used this structure, known as "spokes of the wheel," which proved to be disastrous, because it created warring factions that fought for turf.
Despite the fallout over the immigration ban, the early signs are that Bannon's influence is growing. He recently brought two former Breitbart staffers to the White House, and more Bannon people are on the way. His New York-based spokeswoman, Alexandra Preate, is expected to come to the White House and serve him in both a communications role and as his own chief of staff, a move that underscores his effort to build his own fiefdom outside of Priebus's control.
When I asked a person close to Bannon about the friction with Priebus, the person downplayed the competition: "Steve said last week he wouldn't want Reince's job."
The truth is that he probably doesn't need it.
Post a Comment