The MSM (mainstream media), as right-wing coo-coo clocks like Ann Coulter like to call America’s press corps, are delirious with glee over infighting within the White House and practically drooling in their “I’m With Her” coffee mugs now that Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, seems to have been sidelined.
The story lines in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere over the past five days go mostly like this: The odd alliance between nationalist know-it-all Bannon, the former commandant of Breitbart News, and rich-kid know-it-all Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and himself a New York real estate hustler, has shattered.
Kushner — along with his wife and No. 1 Trump offspring, Ivanka — had a strong hand in bringing in Bannon to lead the flailing Trump campaign last summer, and during the transition and the very early days of the young administration they seemed to have developed a strangely close working relationship.
Why so weird?
Bannon is a man on a mission to save America and Western Civilization from the Huns at the door — be they illegal immigrants crossing the border or manic Muslims armed to the teeth and taking selfies. He disdains globalism, espouses “economic nationalism,” has contempt for the corporate elite that puts profits before patriotism and doesn’t think the U.S. needs to police the planet.
His path to power — not-so-rich kid from Richmond, Naval officer, investment banker, filmmaker, conservative zealot — has been as idiosyncratic as his boss’s road to the Oval Office. Beyond that, Bannon is rumpled, profane, bombastic, sixtysomething and has been accused — probably unfairly — of being an anti-Semite.
Kushner is a man on a mission to fix everything that ails the country and the world, thereby proving he is the smartest Harvard grad in the global room. Like his father, Charles, who did time for being too enthusiastic in his donations to Democrats, he is a real-estate developer who helped restore the family empire while Dad was in the slammer. He also ran a low-circulation, quirky New York newspaper, The Observer.
He derives his newfound political power from his closeness to his father-in-law, the president. He is smooth, sleek, soft-spoken, well-dressed and until the campaign, a thirtysomething with presumably Manhattan Democratic values — save for his hard-right support of Israel (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once bunked in his room during a stay with the Kushner family).
Now, many media stories say, Bannon and Kushner are at opposite ends of White House conference tables. Bannon and his lieutenants (including former Breitbart staffers) are lined up against Kushner, ex-Goldman Sachs President and Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and ex-Goldman exec Dina Powell.
In the middle are Chief of Staff Reince Prebius, Press Secretary Sean Spicer (who worked for Prebius when he ran the Republican National Committee) and perhaps senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, who joined the campaign around the same time as Bannon. She has other ties to Bannon but is basically a political operative for hire (early in the election cycle when she worked for Sen. Ted Cruz, she wasn’t above bashing Trump).
What has so many members of the press so giddy is that Bannon has been booted from the National Security Council, where he had installed himself while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.
This weekend, Bloomberg reported that K.T. McFarland, a Fox News commentator and veteran of the Reagan White House installed by disgraced former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, was also stepping down, further depoliticizing the NSC.
Those developments are seen as new NSC chief Gen. H.R. McMaster exerting his influence. But besides restoring the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joe Dunford, and intelligence overseer Dan Coats, Powell has been made a Deputy National Security Adviser — a win for the Kushner/Cohn cabal, which Bannon reportedly calls the “West Wing Democrats.”
“Perhaps the Republican faction most alarmed by Bannon’s economic nationalism is Washington’s military hawks,” Robert Draper wrote in The New York Times Magazine on April 2.
On Meet the Press yesterday, Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper said that the military “thinks that Kushner is where their future is.”
That may be so, but while Trump’s “America First” message was all Bannon and the strategist is said to have argued against the strike on Syria last Thursday, it might be a mistake to conclude he is against U.S. military might.
Bannon has a degree in national security from Georgetown, served as a special assistant to the chief of Naval operations at the Pentagon during his years in the Navy and has a daughter who graduated from West Point.
It might also be a mistake to think Bannon will be out like Flynn sometime soon.
In a discussion of the infighting at the White House on Meet the Press, Danielle Pletka of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute said: “Bannon is the one who is expendable.” And according to reports, Bannon threatened to quit when he was removed from the NSC but was talked out of leaving by Rebekah Mercer, daughter of billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer and the person who brought Bannon and Conway into the Trump campaign.
For now, Kushner and Cohn — who has been talked about as a possible replacement for Prebius as chief of staff — appear to be in the ascendancy (and as Ivanka’s husband, Kushner is unlikely to ever be demoted), though with as mercurial a president as Trump, there are no guarantees of anything. Bloomberg quoted McMaster as saying of Bannon’s departure from the NSC: “This is not as significant as it appears. Steve Bannon provides the president with advice on a broad range of issues and will continue to do so.”
Reuters and others have reported that warring White House factions are working to repair relations, and there are two big reasons Bannon won’t be toast: The Mercers and the base — the blue collars championed by Bannon who voted for Trump and will be needed again in the future.
There is also the fact that were he not in the White House, Bannon untethered to Trump could be a serious danger to his presidency as it goes more, um, mainstream.
As Lyndon Johnson is said to have remarked about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”