President Bannon’s Hugely Destructive First Week in Office

The puppet master is leading the Trump administration down a road of carnage.

Trump advisor Steve Bannon is seen in the Oval Office before US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May meet at the White House January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump advisor Steve Bannon is seen in the Oval Office before US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May meet at the White House January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Don’t worry about Donald Trump — his Republican supporters have been whispering to Never Trumpers like me for months. He doesn’t really mean all of his campaign rhetoric. In fact, he doesn’t have much interest in policy at all, they said. He’ll delegate governing to Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, and Paul Ryan while he plays a lot of golf. You’ll see that there’s nothing to be scared of.

After just one week in office — arguably the worst opening since The Adventures of Pluto Nash premiered in 2002 — Trump has exposed such assurances for what they are: the kind of lies that supposedly smart people tell themselves to feel better about a catastrophe they know in their bones is looming.

The president’s first seven days began on Jan. 20, when he delivered the bleakest and most divisive inaugural address in U.S. history, presenting a dystopian picture of the country as a land of “carnage” that he blamed on America’s trade partners and disloyal American elites. It sounded just like one of his campaign rally speeches — not the kind of elevated addresses that we have gotten used to from his predecessors, Democratic and Republican alike.

Seven days later, on Jan. 27, the first week concluded with the release of an un-American decree temporarily barring our doors to refugees from all over the world and passport holders from seven Muslim countries selected seemingly at random. This ill-drafted and badly implemented order caused chaos at U.S. airports with border agents not knowing whom they were supposed to admit and federal judges stepping in to prevent the implementation of important parts of this draconian diktat until their constitutionality can be litigated. The ostensible justification for this move was to protect us from terrorists, but no terrorists from any of the seven banned Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen — have ever killed anyone in America. It is hard to disagree with Benjamin Wittes’s conclusion on the Lawfare blog that Trump is “elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest.”

In between these lowlights, the nation was treated to risible claims from the thin-skinned president that the media had lied about the size of his inaugural crowd and that he would have won the popular vote were it not for the “millions” of ballots cast illegally. To support the latter assertion, for which there is no actual evidence, Trump alternatively cited a third-hand anecdote relayed to him by a friend of the German golfer Bernhard Langer (who is not a U.S. citizen) and a study, which no one has seen, supposedly conducted by a conspiracy theorist named Gregg Phillips. Phillips has also tweeted that it was Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, not the Russian intelligence services, that hacked the election and that “The UN is global fascism.”

Trump also repeated his defense of torture and again doubled down on his claim that the United States should steal Iraq’s oil — messages that, combined with his anti-Muslim immigration decree, put U.S. troops in the Middle East in greater danger. As if offending Muslims wasn’t enough, Trump issued a Holocaust commemoration proclamation that, echoing the claims of Holocaust deniers, made no mention of the Jews — the Nazis’ primary victims — with his spokesmen subsequently making clear that this was no accidental oversight.

Making good on his protectionist rhetoric, meanwhile, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thus empowering China and hurting the American economy, and then provoked a diplomatic crisis with Mexico by signing an executive order to start building a border wall that he insists he will somehow make Mexico pay for. When the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, resolutely refused to ante up, the White House threatened to impose a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods, leading him to cancel a planned summit. It is a mystery how America will benefit from aggravating relations with our third-largest trading partner and a vital ally in the battle against drug trafficking and illegal migration — but Trump is clearly intent on provoking just such a crisis because of the anti-Mexican animus he has long displayed. (Remember his racist remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel or his rhetoric about Mexican “rapists” and “criminals” with which he launched his campaign?)

The background music accompanying this horror show has been Trump’s nonstop taunts of the “lying” news media, culminating in this Sunday morning tweet: “Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!” Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan couldn’t have put it better; this is exactly the strategy they have pursued to silence press criticism. To make sure that no one missed the message, Trump’s enforcer, Stephen Bannon, told the press to “keep its mouth shut.”

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There isn’t any new Trump, just as there was never a “new Nixon.” It’s the same old Trump that we saw all during the campaign and indeed during his previous 69 years on this Earth: offensive, divisive, prickly, bombastic, impetuous, conspiratorial, and resistant to any evidence that contradicts his idée fixe. And to the extent that anybody is calling the shots in this presidency besides the president himself, it isn’t Vice President Pence, Chief of Staff Priebus, or House Speaker Ryan. It’s Bannon, the former publisher of Breitbart, a website that he has proudly described as a “platform” for the racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic “alt-right.”

This is looking very much like the Bannon Regency. It was Bannon and his sidekick Stephen Miller, a young former aide to senator-turned-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, wrote Trump’s kick-them-in-the-teeth inaugural address. And it was the two Steves who, according to CNN, ran the rollout of the immigration executive order on Friday afternoon, doing an end run around the normal interagency process and overruling the Department of Homeland Security to insist that the entry ban apply to hundreds of thousands of permanent residents who happened to hail from one of the seven banned Muslim countries.

Bannon’s ascendancy was ratified with the release of an unprecedented presidential order appointing him to the National Security Council’s principals committee while kicking off the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence. Who needs to hear from intelligence or military professionals when you can hear from the publisher of Breitbart?

Imagine George W. Bush appointing Karl Rove to the principals committee. Or Barack Obama appointing David Axelrod. It would never have happened. And even if it had happened, it would have been far less disquieting than appointing Bannon, because Rove and Axelrod are far more mainstream figures than he is.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s lame justification for this shift was to say that Bannon deserves to be on the NSC because he’s a “former naval officer.” Yes, it’s true, Bannon was a junior naval officer more than 30 years ago, without ever seeing combat. If that’s the standard to qualify for the nation’s most important security committee, then there are literally millions of veterans who are better qualified, having served more recently, seen more action, or attained higher rank.

One wonders how Secretary of Defense James Mattis and soon-to-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson feel about having a political hack with extremist views elevated to be their equals. Just as one wonders how Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly feels about having a hugely important immigration order issued without, apparently, any consultation with him. If they don’t push back now — and strongly — threatening to quit if necessary, they are tacitly accepting that they will be taking orders from Bannon for the rest of the administration.

As a Never Trumper, I sincerely wished that my fears about the Trump presidency would prove unfounded and overblown. But if anything I underestimated just how capriciously he would rule. If Trump continues the way he started, he will usher in Democratic congressional majorities in 2018, leading to impeachment proceedings, and a Democratic president in 2020 — likely on the present trajectory to be Elizabeth Warren. But there is an awful lot of damage that he can cause in the meantime. And he’s just getting started.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot