Elephants in the Room
Cancel Your Steve Bannon Victory Dance
As Lyndon Johnson said of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
Steve Bannon is no longer Strategist in Chief to the President of the United States. Bannon himself told the Weekly Standard “’the Trump Presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” From which the Weekly Standard concludes “a new phase of the Trump presidency begins.” Maybe not so fast.
I agree with my fellow FP-Elephant Dov that Bannon was symptom, not cause, of President Trump’s disreputable behavior. Bannon may have had a hand in the President’s inaugural speech, but there’s no reason to believe it didn’t accurately represent Donald Trump’s own views. To the contrary, he gives every evidence of believing that dark vision.
Bannon gave little indication of the ability to craft winning strategies for the President’s agenda, as evidenced by legislative failure of health care reform and awakening antibodies in American civic society to block the President’s polices. Even on executive orders, which ought to be White House fiat, those Bannon had a hand in have been substantially impeded: membership on the National Security Council and the immigration ban. In both cases craftsmanship as well as strategy were lacking. Someone with better understanding of how to connect means and ends could have much more effectively implemented the President’s views. John Kelly may be that someone.
But Bannon’s departure may not signal that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is successfully asserting the authority of his job. Kelly determines which staff get on the President’s calendar — including family members and Chief Strategists — and controls the White House switchboard, restricting official contact with the President. All of which sounds like the return of regular order to a White House badly in need of it.
Except that Mr. Kelly has emphasized that he controls the staffing process, not the President. He has said he has no intention of interfering in the President’s tweeting, and is his countenance at the President’s press availability on infrastructure is any indication, was not privy to the President’s statements before they were loosed on the country. Mr. Kelly may succeed in disciplining the White House, but he’s unlikely to discipline the President. As one White House advisor said, “Once he goes upstairs, there’s no managing him.”
Moreover, the President manifestly doesn’t want to be managed. His management style seems to be to create numerous centers of power, set them in conflict, alternatively select or degrade each to keep everyone off-balance and himself the sole repository of real power.
Afghanistan strategy may be a better indicator of this Presidency’s functioning than White House processes. The President delegated authority for troop levels to the Secretary of Defense, who is judiciously not making that determination in absence of a Presidentially-approved strategy. The National Security Advisor has run a textbook process of interagency policy analysis and option development. The Cabinet reached consensus on a policy — in fact, the only policy that makes sense going forward, which is a regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan until it is capable of managing the terrorist threats that gather in its poorly governed spaces. But the President doesn’t like it. It’s complicated, runs counter to the satisfyingly clear and simplistic narrative of his campaign. The President isn’t wrong to ask first order questions or reach outside the government for creative alternatives. He isn’t even wrong to stall making a decision these past several months: it’s a weighty decision, merits careful consideration. But President Trump gives indications he feels boxed in by Cabinet agreement on a policy he doesn’t like — and coming on the heels of being boxed in on Iran certification, he’s lashing out.
That suggests that President Trump is unlikely to remain subject to the regular order Mr. Kelly is establishing in the White House. John Kelly may well succeed at marginalizing advisors with vague portfolios, but he won’t succeed at taking the President’s cell phone or preventing him reenacting the Charlottesville disgrace across other issues. Donald’s gonna Donald.
Which means that Steve Bannon may actually have more influence on the President outside the administration than in. The President seems to get more of his information from television than his own administration, and as Bannon has made clear, he intends to keep pushing his agenda. So maybe we should hold off celebrating a Trump Administration without Steve Bannon. As Lyndon Johnson said of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
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