Bannon's A Fascist-- But What Does That Make America?
Inside the White House, Bannon is busily constructing a policy staff of his own. As the Daily Beast reported Wednesday, Bannon has stood up his Strategic Initiatives Group, which is seen by some as “an alternative lodestar of power and influence” meant to compete with other centers of influence, including the NSC.Rogin worries that Bannon is outmaneuvering Reince Priebus and his other rivals within the Regime and that "[t]here’s no sign they have the ability to stop him and no sign the president would want them to." Time Magazine posed the question, if he's the second most powerful man in the world, referring to him as Trump's alter-ego, writing to the Washington Post that "What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order." The nomination of a life-long fascist to the Supreme Court is just one part of that new order. "Act I of the Trump presidency has been filled with disruption, as promised by Trump and programmed by Bannon, with plenty of resistance in reply, from both inside and outside the government." He's being referred to, derisively-- albeit with a tinge of trepidation-- as #PresidentBannon.
“It’s not a team of rivals, it’s rival teams,” one White House official told me, referring to Bannon’s effort.
The Strategic Initiatives Group grew out of Bannon’s admiration for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the internal think tank that is meant to consider long-term, over the horizon strategic challenges, the official said. In a four-year presidential term, long-term may be only months, but the Strategic Initiatives Group is not designed to fight the day-to-day battles over issues in the news.
Some call the Strategic Initiatives Group Bannon’s internal think tank. It’s led by Christopher Liddell, a former General Motors executive who hails from New Zealand. Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell is also heavily involved, along with Baltimore real estate developer Reed Cordish. On the national security side is Sebastian Gorka, a controversial pundit and analyst with strong views on how to fight the war against Islamist extremism.
There is only one President at a time, and Donald Trump is not one to cede authority. But in the early days at 1600 Pennsylvania, the portly and rumpled Bannon (the only male aide who dared to visit Trump's office without a suit and tie) has the tools to become as influential as any staffer in memory. Colleagues have dubbed him "the Encyclopedia" for the range of information he carries in his head; but more than any of that, Bannon has a mind-meld with Trump. "They are both really great storytellers," says Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, of their bond. "The President and Steve share an important trait of absorbing information and weighing consequences."
They share the experience of being talkative and brash, pugnacious money magnets who never quite fit among the elite. A Democrat by heritage and Republican by choice, Bannon has come to see both parties as deeply corrupt, a belief that has shaped his recent career as a polemical filmmaker and Internet bomb thrower. A party guest recalled meeting him as a private citizen and Bannon telling him that he was like Lenin, eager to "bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today's Establishment."
And by different paths, he and Trump have found themselves at the same philosophical destinations on issues of trade, immigration, public safety, the environment, political decay and much more.
Yet Bannon's prominence in the first 10 days of the Administration-- and the scenes of confusion and disorder that are his disruptive hallmark-- has rattled the West Wing and perhaps even dismayed the President. According to senior Administration officials, Trump hauled in some half-dozen of his key advisers for a brisk dressing-down. Everything goes through chief of staff Reince Priebus, he directed. Nothing flows that hasn't been scheduled by his deputy Katie Walsh. "You're going to see probably a slower, more deliberative process," one official told Time.
Still, Bannon possesses that dearest of Washington currencies: walk-in privileges for the Oval Office. And he is the one who has been most successful in focusing Trump on a winning message. While other advisers have tried to change Trump, Bannon has urged him to step on the gas.
Both of these images, the orderly office and the glorious crusade, have genuine appeal for the President. And they will likely continue to pull him in opposite directions. By marking Trump's first days so vividly, Bannon has put the accent on Trump the disrupter. In that sense, as one veteran Republican said, "It's already over, and Bannon won."
...Bannon helps Trump remember that he never made a priority of being a uniter, as George W. Bush did, nor did he offer to heal our divisions in the manner of Barack Obama. The new President has crafted himself as a defender of the "forgotten people," which places in his sight those with powerful names you already know. With new goals came new thinking. "People tell us that things have always been done a certain way," said one trusted Trump aide. "We say, Yes, but look at the results. It hasn't worked. We're trying a new way."
On this Trump and Bannon agree. What happens next is the mystery. Trump, in his long past as a businessman, has always aimed his disruptions at the goal of an eventual handshake: the deal. Bannon, in his films and radio shows, has shown a more apocalyptic bent.
...Not everyone is charitable. "He is legitimately one of the worst people I've ever dealt with," former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro told Time last year. "He regularly abuses people. He sees everything as a war. Every time he feels crossed, he makes it his business to destroy his opponent." The sentiment was echoed by conservative commentator Dana Loesch, a former Breitbart employee. "One of the worst people on God's green earth," she said on her radio show last year. Bannon was charged with domestic violence after a dispute with his ex-wife in 1996, though she declined to testify against him and the case was dropped. She later claimed in legal papers that Bannon had objected to a private school for their daughters because there were a lot of Jewish students attending and he didn't like the way they are raised to be "whiny brats." Bannon denied those claims, and declined through a White House spokesperson a request from Time to comment for this story.
In Trump, Bannon found his ultimate outsider. He frequently had the candidate on his radio show, and former staffers say he ordered a steady stream of pro-Trump stories. Now Bannon's imprint can be seen on presidential decisions ranging from the hiring of former Breitbart staffers to key White House positions to the choice of Andrew Jackson's portrait-- a Bannon idol-- for display near the President's desk.
"Where Bannon is really having his instinct is on the policy front," says a longtime Trump ally. Which policies? "All of them. He's Trump's facilitator." In a Trump White House, this adviser says, you can only get--and keep--as much power as the President wants you to have. But Trump and Bannon "sat down before the election and made a list of things they wanted to do in office right away," says this adviser. Trump is the one deciding which items to tick off. "Bannon's just smart enough to give him the list."
However much the disruptive Trump may have welcomed the outrage of the ruling elites, the slash-and-burn style has caused real internal tension at the White House. Senior staff say Trump has instructed chief of staff Priebus to enforce more orderly lines of authority and communication from now on. Presidential counselor Conway has agreed to take an increased role in planning White House messaging with the policy and legal shops.
The internal tribulations of the past few weeks are a clear cause for worry. The decision to rush the refugee order through a relatively secret process came after Bannon and Miller noticed that documents circulated through the National Security Council's professional staff were leaking to the press, according to Administration sources. Bannon and Miller moved to curtail access to forthcoming memos and drafts. Members of Congress, and even some Cabinet members, were cut out of the loop or had their access sharply limited.
As a result, the sources said, after the controversial order was signed, confusion reigned. An unknown number of holders of green cards and valid visas were en route to the U.S. The initial White House guidance was that they should all be turned back. But as immigration and civil-liberties lawyers rushed to federal court to challenge the order, the White House reversed itself, saying green-card holders would be granted waivers. Reporters had difficulty finding out even basic facts, like the names of the countries from which travel was banned. Days later, the President even intervened to amend the order that appointed Bannon to a regular spot on the National Security Council. Trump wanted his CIA director, Mike Pompeo, there too.
By Tuesday night, four days after the order was issued, the White House was trying to project a normal tableau. Trump orchestrated a prime-time announcement of his first Supreme Court pick, conservative Colorado judge Neil Gorsuch. But if the Administration had finally struck a note of steadiness, it surely didn't mean that Bannon had been banished.