There’s a school of thought in politics that says there are key strategists who are puppet masters, pulling the strings of a president or politician. Understand them and their influence, and you understand the person in power.
Some of us don’t subscribe 100 percent to that notion — and it’s especially true when it comes to Donald Trump.
Now, there is plenty of drama in the Trump White House, maybe more than any White House in recent memory. Everyone is trying to figure out just who is in Trump’s ear, whom he is relying on most. But Trump’s attention span and focus are notoriously short and shifting. Trump also surrounds himself with competing power centers (by design) and is often influenced by whomever he spoke with last, meaning just when you think you’ve got things figured out, they change.
A lot of the reporting Wednesday and Thursday after White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was demoted from the National Security Council’s Principals Committee has focused on whether Bannon’s influence is waning and whether others, like Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are ascendant.
It has all played out like some drama worthy of House of Cards or Veep (or some combination of the two). And it’s all happening while this president is facing real and difficult challenges at home and abroad.
Here’s a guide to what we know:
1. Bannon was demoted, and it may very well be an indication of his waning influence (at this moment, anyway) with Trump. He may have even threatened to quit (reported here and here), only to be persuaded to stay after talking with a major donor.
Bannon’s camp says, no, that’s not the case at all. Bannon told NBC, for example, it’s “total nonsense.” He “de-operationalized” the NSC after Obama’s White House was micromanaging foreign policy with it, and that was the real goal, Bannon said. That’s some heavy spin. But besides, he was really on the committee as a “check” and to “keep an eye on” Michael Flynn, the ousted and controversial former national security adviser who is now seeking immunity from the FBI and congressional committees investigating possible Trump team ties to Russia.
Never mind that Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., was blasting Bannon’s demotion, saying his father and Bannon have been the “most loyal” to Trump:
2. H.R. McMaster exerted his own influence … McMaster is Trump’s new national security adviser. He replaced Flynn and is whom Flynn Jr. is referring to in his tweet. McMaster, 54, is a lifelong military man, an Army lieutenant general.
It’s understandable that he would seem uncomfortable with the unique and unprecedented arrangement of the president’s chief strategist on the principals committee and would want something more traditional. He had to be given the ability to pick his staff.
3. … But McMaster’s influence is limited. He apparently didn’t get everything he wanted. He wanted Ezra Cohen-Watnick off the NSC, the New York Times reported last week, to no avail. The Times reported that Cohen-Watnick, 30, the senior director for intelligence on the NSC, was one of the sources for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.
Nunes reviewed intelligence on the White House grounds that showed Trump officials were incidentally scooped up in lawful U.S. surveillance of other targets. Nunes then became embroiled in controversy because he didn’t share the information with others on the intelligence committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election. Instead, he shared it with Trump.
But when McMaster asked for Cohen-Watnick’s firing, Cohen-Watnick complained to Kushner, who persuaded Trump to keep him on board.
4. Kushner and the New York Wing are ascendant: And that brings us to what appears to be the strongest faction in the White House: the New York moderates and establishmentarians — led by Kushner; daughter Ivanka, and two ex-Goldman Sachs executives, Gary Cohn, Trump’s National Economic Council director (and a registered Democrat), and Dina Powell, Trump’s deputy national security adviser. Both are close to Kushner. The populist faction close to Bannon derisively refers to Cohn as “Globalist Gary,” CNN reported.
Despite his lack of policy, government or diplomatic experience, Kushner, 36, now has an expansive portfolio — from domestic to foreign policy. He is a key envoy for the president with foreign and business leaders, helping lead preparations for Chinese President Xi’s visit to the U.S. Thursday and Friday; he made a surprise visit to Iraq Monday; he is still point on trying to strike a Middle East peace deal; and he is tasked with heading up an Office of American Innovation in the White House.
Ivanka has now taken on an official advisory role in her father’s White House with her own West Wing office and a security clearance, raising all kinds of ethical questions.
5. Where does that leave Priebus and the “Cheesehead Mafia”? Chief of Staff Reince Priebus isn’t seen as part of the New York Wing; he is more Wisconsin Wing (or “Cheesehead Mafia,” as The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball put it) given his closeness to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But after the health care collapse in the House, Priebus lost his deputy, Katie Walsh. The spin was that the former RNC chief of staff left so she could help run an outside PAC in support of Trump. But the major legislative loss was a blow to the Cheesehead Mafia.
Priebus created at least the show of an alliance with Bannon. The two spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference together, for example, and put on a show of camaraderie.
“I think the biggest misconception is everything that you’re reading,” Priebus said to a laughing audience a month and a half ago at CPAC. “We share an office suite together. We’re basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11 o’clock at night.”
Bannon followed up, affectionately: “I have a little thing called The War Room. He has a fireplace with, you know, nice sofas.”
The storyline back then that they were trying to knock down was that they were competing for power. Now, they both appear on the outside looking in.
Axios reported Thursday morning that “Bannon’s friends worry he locked arms too tight with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and finds himself more isolated from Jared/Ivanka/Cohn — and therefore with the boss.”
But maybe that shouldn’t have even been all that surprising. For Trump, after all, blood is thicker than staffers.
6. By the way, what’s happened to Kellyanne Conway? No one was more ubiquitous during the Trump campaign, the transition and in the first month or so of the Trump presidency than Conway, who was spoofed repeatedly on Saturday Night Live.
But she made three big missteps:
a) “Alternative facts”: In trying to defend the White House on its attempts to inflate Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd size, she coined the phrase “alternative facts.” That was just two days after Trump was sworn in.
b) Promoting Ivanka Trump’s fashion line: On Feb. 9, Conway landed in hot water again when she urged Americans, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff.” That came after Nordstrom announced it was dropping her line. That appeared to be a clear violation of ethics rules and drew rebukes from Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Office of Government Ethics.
c) “Full confidence” in Flynn: Four days after that, she said Flynn had the “full confidence” of the president. Hours later, that was undercut by the president himself. Flynn resigned that night.
Lately, she has rarely been seen. Conway appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network Wednesday (which it billed as an “exclusive”), but just five days ago Vanity Fair wondered whether she was being “edged out” of the White House.
Internal chaos while Trump faces external tests
The palace intrigue is sexy stuff and makes for a great read. What’s less sexy is the reality that more often than not in politics, staffers reflect their boss.
Trump has always surrounded himself with chaos and competing fiefdoms. The Trump Organization operated that way, and so did his campaign. Of course, then, logically it would follow that his White House would function in much the same way.
The chaos theory of Trump has always allowed him to be the most important person in the organization — with the competing factions trying to please him. That might work to retain power, with no one ever getting so big that they’re bigger than the boss, but it’s awfully hard to govern that way.
That’s especially true with Trump at an inflection point in his presidency. He faces major tests domestically and overseas. Pressure is building for Trump to get something done on health care before moving on to a tax overhaul, leaving his agenda stalled. And international challenges are piling up — with North Korea’s missile test before Trump’s meeting with China’s Xi, Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and ISIS carrying out its largest mass execution this year.
And while Kushner is resurgent in Trump’s power circle, he is going to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating possible ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race.
These are all the kinds of things that Candidate Trump would have provided simple clarity on and promised decisive action. But President Trump is dealing with the reality that the world is a more complicated place.