Bannon’s Demotion Means the Trump Team Is Learning — Even if Trump Isn’t
We should celebrate H.R. McMaster’s staffing and organizational wins, but whether or not they are superficial remains to be seen.
The Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it would remove White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council (NSC). National security wonks on the left and right alike, many of whom had criticized the president for putting one of his top political advisors on the council, applauded the decision. Irrespective of party, past presidents have always understood the dangers of mixing politics and national security. Trump arrived in office either unaware of that precedent or determined to upend it. But it appears that his very capable national security advisor, H.R. McMaster (perhaps joined by others across the interagency process), succeeded in helping him understand why Bannon needed to be removed. After having Bannon involved in several national security decisions, it probably wasn’t that hard to understand why he didn’t belong there. And Bannon probably came to realize that such meetings aren’t as exciting as he thought they would be.
This isn’t the first piece of evidence that the administration is learning on the job. There are other encouraging indications that the administration is coming to appreciate why longstanding traditions and processes associated with governing actually matter, and even if it wants to disrupt the foreign policy establishment and its mores, it has to understand and work with that establishment. In addition to removing Bannon from the NSC, McMaster has succeeded in installing or replacing senior NSC staff with competent and experienced pros, and the logjam of agency nominations is slowly starting to break open. There’s a long way to go before Defense and State political teams are filled out, but that they’ve advanced at all is a good sign that the administration is starting to view these organizations as assets, not enemies.
Another example is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s original decision to skip the NATO ministerial summit last Friday. He and his inner circle supposedly saw no value in attending the last meeting scheduled to lay groundwork for the upcoming NATO summit in late May, despite the administration’s plans to shake up the alliance. They also didn’t understand the troubling signal Tillerson would send to European allies if he met the Russians before sitting down in Brussels with all of NATO’s 28 members. Fortunately, after an outcry from Washington and allied capitals, the State Department eventually reversed course and asked NATO to move the meeting so that Tillerson could indeed make it. The move reassured anxious allies and set the alliance — and more importantly, the administration — on a better course for the summit.
Similarly, Tillerson’s announcement that he would be traveling to Asia without press spurred both disbelief and criticism. Why would a U.S. secretary of state let his Chinese counterparts control the narrative at a time when the region was fraught with so much uncertainty and tension? After days of pressure, he finally agreed to take a single journalist. Unfortunately for her, she was put in an impossible bind, as North Korea tested yet another missile and the press legitimately expected that she serve as a pool reporter, even while her editors asked her to focus on a longform piece that would come out after her return to the United States. After the poorly reviewed trip, an ultimately unflattering profile, and assessments that Tillerson did little to establish a useful U.S. narrative in preparation for Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit, it is hard to imagine the secretary of state making that mistake again.
This week’s summit at Mar-a-Lago will be a good test of whether McMaster has established some good order and discipline in his national security process, or if foreign policy is still a haphazard portfolio of freelancers. Such summits are typically the work of months of preparation, preceded by endless interagency meetings and joint statement coordination, and attended by the senior foreign policy leadership of an administration. The outcomes are planned, the desired press highlights are queued up, and the possibility of embarrassing the leaders with any surprises or stray voltage is minimized. McMaster, though new to the job and still lacking political appointee networks, has nascent bones of a process in place to make this happen — though arguably it is far too early in the administration to expect much. But press reporting has indicated that Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law — who is neither a member of the NSC nor a China specialist — took the lead on summit preparation. Whether he and Bannon are at the table as opposed to McMaster and Tillerson, or whether Trump again parrots the Chinese preferred language on great power relations as opposed to asserting a less acquiescent take, may be indicators of whether the new memo actually made any difference.
While the day-to-day operations and staffing of this administration are finally starting to resemble those of past administrations, we still can’t ignore that the president himself appears to be doing very little learning. He and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, continue to hold to the preposterous accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and Trump continues to shock the country and the world with his tweets each and every week. Even the administration’s foray into “normal” statements on U.S. foreign policy positions have been contradictory (the range of takes on the tragic Syrian chemical weapons attack), if not bizarre (the non-statement on the North Korean missile test).
We should celebrate McMaster’s staffing and organizational wins, but it remains to be seen whether they are superficial nods to a largely irrelevant NSC process or indicators that Trump’s foreign policy might be able to grow up. As for Bannon, we shouldn’t forget that he isn’t actually going anywhere and will remain just steps away from the Oval Office.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images