Sunday, April 16, 2017

(Putin Helped Give America) A Fringe White House


One of the guys I count on for Nunes inside scoops has been talking a lot about a fringe alt-right nut named Mike Cernovich lately. Other than him being the one who made up the bizarre fake news story of Hillary and Podesta running a child prostitution ring in a DC pizzeria, I hadn't followed Cernovich's illustrious career as one of the exemplar's of what the Republican Party has devolved into. A 39 year old woman-hating neo-Nazi, Cernovich was recently profiled in the NY Times: "a blogger, author of books, YouTube personality and filmmaker with a far-right social media following. Much of his online persona is driven by two mottos: 'conflict is attention' and 'attention is influence.' He told the New Yorker. 'I used trolling tactics to build my brand.' Before this week, he was perhaps best known for promoting false claims that Hillary Clinton was part of a pedophile ring located in the basement of a pizzeria. He describes himself as an 'American nationalist' and has been involved in shaping alt-right messages on social media, according to the New Yorker. But he has denied being part of the alt-right movement, calling it 'too obsessed with gossip and drama for my tastes' in a blog post... 'Look at me,' he said, speaking into the camera. 'I did this to Susan Rice. I did this to Hillary Clinton. I’m doing real journalism. I’m destroying your fake news outlets. Look at me. Look at my face. I’m the media now.'"

This weekend, by the way, he fully embraced gossip and drama. He's threatening Señor Trumpanzee that if he fires Bannon he'll go right to where so many Trump supporters live and get their information:
“I will go TMZ on the globalists. I will go Gossip Girl on the globalists. I will go Gawker on the globalists. So you mother-effers going after Bannon, just know I broke two of the biggest stories before anybody else,” Cernovich said on his Periscope. “If you think I don’t know the pills people are popping, the mistresses, the sugar babies-- I know all of it. So you better be smart. Because the mother of all stories will be dropped because I don’t care.”
Yes, these right-wingers are so, so crazy and vile, but you can't ignore them-- not with the billionaire Mercer family and Putin using them to put and keep Trump in the White House and the GOP in charge of Congress. Cernovich released her barrage of threats against the Trump Regime on Thursday night.
“If they get rid of Bannon, you know what’s gonna happen? The motherlode. If Bannon is removed, there are gonna be divorces, because I know about the mistresses, the sugar babies, the drugs, the pill popping, the orgies. I know everything,” said Cernovich.

“If they go after Bannon, the mother of all stories is gonna drop, and we’re just gonna destroy marriages, relationships-- it’s gonna get personal.”

Alt-right leaders have spent the week pushing a #KeepBannon hashtag on Twitter, less than a week after a #FireKushner hashtag prominently amplified by Cernovich became the No. 1 trend in the United States on Twitter.

...“I have more stories that I haven’t released. I haven’t released every scoop that I have. I release my scoops strategically. I’m sitting on way more stories,” he said on his Periscope.

Cernovich and many other alt-right leaders famously split from the Trump administration’s party line last week when Trump signed off on a 59-missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Alt-right and conspiracy websites like InfoWars echoed both Russian public officials and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s claim that the attack was a “false flag.” On Thursday, Assad floated to state media that the attack was entirely staged.

...Cernovich has a long history of floating conspiracy theories about alt-right opponents and people he deems to be “globalists.” He was one of the leading peddlers of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were central figures in a fictitious child sex ring run out of the basement of a pizza shop. He also repeatedly claimed throughout the campaign that Clinton was dying of a litany of diseases, from syphilis to Parkinson’s.

Fox News ran an article on Friday commending Cernovich's recent stories, however, saying his "two recent scoops have been anything but fake."

“Hire public relations firms. Pay off (Trump supporting radio host) Bill Mitchell to call me names. Fabricate things about me. I don’t care,” said Cernovich. “You can’t kill what is already dead. What is dead cannot die.”
Writing for Vanity Fair this weekend, Sarah Ellison digs into the civil war between Kushner-in-law and Bannon that is so roiling the United States government and bringing characters like Mike Cernovich-- not to mention Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Flynn, Wilbur Ross and Carter Page-- out from under their rocks. Senior administration officials told her that "both Bannon and Priebus partisans have spent hours on the phone with reporters, planting stories about each other and their colleagues." Trump, she wrote, "brought with him a collection of advisers who, according to another senior administration official, not only have 'breathtaking personal agendas' and are willing to 'malign the people around him' but are also prepared to say, 'We are going to do it our way and push through what we want whether it is right for him or not.' The two former presidents Trump is most often compared to are Reagan (for the unserious image that Reagan had as a B-list movie actor) and Richard Nixon (for his authoritarian tendencies, his paranoia, and his antipathy toward the press). But those presidents, this senior administration official explained, had 'a real ideology and a real set of issues, and that doesn’t exist here.' Unlike previous presidents, Trump has also neglected to appoint a professional staff with a high-level governing or White House background. This is due in part to ignorance. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in his first meeting with Barack Obama, Trump seemed surprised by the scope of the president’s duties, and his aides seemed unaware that there wasn’t a permanent West Wing staff that he would simply inherit."

"Kushner now occupies the office that is physically closest to the Oval Office," she continued. "The appointees who have been championed by Ivanka and Jared seem at the moment to be on the rise-- no surprise to some."
No one has been secure in his or her position. Trump’s initial selection for national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after misleading White House officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Six weeks after his departure, he offered to testify before Congress, possibly about his former colleagues, in exchange for immunity. Next up was Kellyanne Conway, who was effectively sidelined. Then it was Bannon’s turn. “I’m not sure Steve does a lot of actual work,” said one person in the Trump circle shortly before Bannon was removed from the National Security Council, a position he had enjoyed for fewer than 10 weeks. Prior to his removal, Bannon had repeatedly threatened to quit the administration if he were ousted from the N.S.C., according to two people familiar with the matter. “It was almost like they were calling his bluff,” said one of these people. This person told me that, while Bannon and Kushner got along well during the campaign, Bannon seems to have felt betrayed by Kushner and has retaliated by planting negative stories about him. Kushner sees Bannon as an ideologue whose approach has stymied the president’s effectiveness.

Bannon was said to have been persuaded to stay in part at the urging of Rebekah Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor whose family is part owner of Breitbart News, which Bannon had run. She had been instrumental in getting him hired by Trump in the first place, and she urged him, according to Politico, to put aside differences and think about his position in the White House as “a long-term play.” Bannon, who has denied that he ever threatened to resign or that he ever insulted Kushner, has been pushing back. “There is a concerted effort to paint Jared and Ivanka as anti-movement” among the Bannon faction of the staff, said one senior administration official.

...In this rotating cast of regulars, Steve Bannon has for months conventionally come first. Time put him on its cover as “The Great Manipulator.” In reality-TV terms, he would be the Man with the Dark Past. But Bannon’s recent fall from grace exemplifies just how little certainty there is for anyone in the West Wing. “He wears the negative press as a badge of honor, but Mr. Trump doesn’t subscribe to that,” a person close to Trump told me, using the honorific that you still frequently hear among loyalists. “[Trump] wants positive press. He wants positive press and he wants what he is doing to be viewed favorably by the media.”

Bannon had been viewed as one of the two (with Kushner) most powerful members of the West Wing team, and for a time was referred to (reportedly with his own tacit encouragement) as President Bannon-- a joke that isn’t a joke. He keeps a personal publicist and is the self-appointed guardian of the issues that matter to the base that got Trump elected. But, according to a senior administration official, Bannon’s effort to put himself on the National Security Council, without Trump having been fully briefed, made Ivanka and Jared suspicious of his motives. “This was honestly a dark-of-night operation,” this official told me. Similarly, the bungled implementation of the travel ban didn’t win any points for Bannon. According to a senior official close to the president: “You could have told Homeland Security to really start doing their jobs. You didn’t have to sign an executive order and piss in everyone’s face.”

But Bannon’s real undoing in the eyes of his boss, according to three people familiar with the situation, involves his perceived attacks through the media against Kushner and Ivanka as liberal Democrats seeking to undermine a more conservative agenda. Bannon’s other big mistake has been taking credit for Trump’s own popularity, such as it is. Referring to the Time cover, a senior administration official told me, “He is very talented at making himself seem the hero of the conservatives who elected Donald Trump”-- the implication being that if you lose Bannon, you lose them. “It’s a very smart thing to do on his part,” this official added, “but ultimately it’s not a sustainable strategy for him. The president sees through that kind of thing, and he’s aware of what’s happening.” The official went on: “The reality is, if he keeps this up he’s not going to be here.”

Another strike against Bannon is that, when speaking of the Freedom Caucus ahead of the planned vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, he assured the rest of the senior team, “I’ve got these guys taken care of,” according to someone close to the West Wing. “We don’t have to worry about them.

...Skepticism about Bannon drips from West Wing tongues, making it understandable why he might feel vulnerable. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and a former president of Goldman Sachs, is temperamentally a key Bannon foe. And no matter how many hugs Reince Priebus may exchange with Bannon in front of conservative audiences, so is Priebus. Trump himself played down Bannon’s role in the campaign in an April interview with the New York Post. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said, a statement which ignores the fact that Bannon was the campaign C.E.O. for most of the general election. “Inside, he is a man standing alone,” a senior official close to the president told me. “Even Reince-- he thought Steve was his guy, but he’s realizing Steve is the problem.” Will Bannon leave? “Where that ends will be up to the president.” Unless, of course, Bannon decides to walk out.

...Ivanka Trump, who could play the No-BS Heiress in our reality show, and her husband, Jared, the Crafty In-Law, are both children of privilege and are both extraordinarily loyal to their fathers. The senior administration official told me that, with this president, it is “family above all else. That’s how he has lived his life. Anybody thinking they are going to win a fight against the family is not very smart.” Kushner has reportedly described himself as a “first among equals” among White House staffers-- not an endearing self-assessment, but probably an accurate one-- and has been given an almost laughable assortment of responsibilities. He is tasked not only with bringing peace to the Middle East but also with re-inventing the way the entire government does business. He is heavily involved in policy regarding China. He recently made a surprise trip to Iraq. In addition, he is now the boss of his father’s former tormentor, Chris Christie, who heads a White House commission to tackle the opioid crisis. Christie was the prosecutor who helped put Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, in prison, and Jared has not forgotten.

The Kushners were a prominent Democratic real-estate family in New Jersey. Their relationship to politics was mostly as members of the donor class. A person close to Jared told me that growing up in New Jersey taught him the utterly transactional nature of politics. His ability to move with ease from one political ideology to another, depending on what seems useful at the moment, comes naturally.

Kushner was drawn into the campaign, and the administration, by degrees-- “drafted into this crazy journey,” he has been heard to say. More than anything it’s a reflection of how few people there were to do anything in the campaign’s early days. At one point during the campaign, when Trump wanted to speak more substantively about China, he gave Kushner a summary of his views and then asked him to do some research. Kushner simply went on Amazon, where he was struck by the title of one book, Death by China, co-authored by Peter Navarro. He cold-called Navarro, a well-known trade-deficit hawk, who agreed to join the team as an economic adviser. (When he joined, Navarro was in fact the campaign’s only economic adviser.) Kushner operated in much the same way when it came to crafting Trump’s tax plan-- calling up someone for help out of the blue. Given the initial absence of pros who could do the job properly, he also tried his hand at writing speeches. Responding to criticism from the boss (“Jared, this is terrible!”), Kushner said, according to a person familiar with the episode, “I’m not a fucking speechwriter. I am a real-estate guy.”

...This White House team, for all its early policy failures and the administration’s historically low approval ratings, is more visible to the public than perhaps any other presidential staff in history-- testimony to the amount of time staff members spend talking about one another to the media they despise. Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. “It’s incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump],” Shapiro said—and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing “how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters,” said UnReal’s Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Seen in these terms, this particular White House reality show is a success. Although many of Trump’s signature campaign promises-- the repeal of Obamacare, the Muslim ban, the building of a wall along the Mexican border-- have so far failed, the Trump presidency has propelled TV-news viewership to record numbers. Cable-TV news ratings in the first quarter of 2017 were even higher than those in the last quarter of 2016, which had the suspense of the actual election going for them.

Gauged against a different yardstick, though, the state of affairs in the West Wing is something we have never witnessed before. In every White House, there are competing loyalties and rivalries. That dynamic is normal. What is unusual about this presidency is that Trump himself is not a stable center of gravity and may be incapable of becoming one. He knows little, believes in little, and shows signs of regretting what has happened to him. Governing requires saying no to one’s strongest supporters and yes to one’s fiercest opponents. To have that presence of mind requires a clear and unified vision from the president. “Without an ideology or a worldview, all you have is a scramble for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement,” a former West Wing aide told me.

And it is a scramble without boundaries. What has been seen in the West Wing is now playing out in every Cabinet department and government agency: the competing agendas of a jockeying staff are being transplanted to the upper reaches throughout the executive branch as now Bannon, now Kushner, now Priebus, now Pence push their acolytes and protégés into hundreds of senior positions. The White House mess may soon be everywhere.
Cheeky New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica sees the expiration of Bannon somewhat differently from the SNL vision above. He ended today's column with this: "I honestly do believe that when they remove Steve Bannon from the White House, the scene is going to resemble the doctor getting removed from United 3411."

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