- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
Score one for “regular order.” Too bad it doesn’t really matter.
Steven Bannon’s tossing from the West Wing is the surest sign of John Kelly’s imprint on Trump’s presidency. Having worked closely with Kelly for several years at the Pentagon (both in his roles as the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and as the leader of U.S. Southern Command), I know he relishes a “regular order” process, does not suffer fools or showboats gladly, and hates politics. So it’s no surprise that he instantly soured on people like Anthony Scaramucci, and now, Bannon.
Hold the champagne. Bannon’s departure as chief strategist won’t make a huge difference – in fact things could get worse.
Sure, when it comes to the mechanics of making foreign policy, it will be helpful not to have Bannon around. He won’t be attending official meetings with foreign leaders, briefing the president in the Oval, sitting in the Situation Room, or enjoying access to sensitive intelligence. Outside the West Wing, he won’t have the direct means to shape the personnel process (by blocking appointments or pushing loyalists) or pull any bureaucratic levers. And he will no longer be an official voice in any foreign policy debate, whether on North Korea or China or Afghanistan.
But the importance of his absence from these formal processes should not be overstated. During his seven-month tenure, Bannon seemed less inclined to assert himself through the normal foreign policy structure. His much-heralded “Strategic Initiatives Group” fizzled, he got bounced off the NSC’s Principals Committee, and his acolytes (like Sebastian Gorka) were little more than Fox News blowhards. He never seemed to have the patience for process, so wielded his influence in other ways.
While Bannon has lost his White House badge, he isn’t going anywhere. He proved incompatible with Kelly’s regular order, but there is no sign that he ever became incompatible with Trump, which is what matters most. If anything, Bannon will be more powerful and certainly richer on the outside, freed from the confines of government – he’ll have no more ethics pledges, financial disclosures, conflict of interest rules, or Kelly-imposed processes to follow.
It is safe to assume Bannon will still be Trump’s regular source of information and political advice, whether behind the scenes or through his Breitbart blowhorn. In a way, Bannon will be like an even more sinister version (if that’s possible) of Bill Clinton’s former outsider Svengali, Dick Morris, who helped steer him to reelection in 1996. He’ll be able to travel the world and present himself as a “true” voice of Trumpism – the conference invites and lucrative speaking offers are surely coming — unlike the technocrats and deep-staters in the government. Also one can easily see Bannon offering his services to foreign leaders as a reliable back-channel to Trump.
So we should expect that regardless of where he sits, Bannon will remain an influential voice in the making of Trump’s foreign policy, whether by fighting against what he calls the “globalist empire project,” trying to undermine the careers of those he perceives as his enemies, or working to build political support for Trump’s nativist America First agenda. In that sense, John Kelly may have taken a step toward achieving the orderly process he wants. But he still has a big thorn in his side.
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