Sunday, February 5, 2017

Some of the President's Men: Is the White House Down?

It’s not down yet, but it seems to be under attack from within. Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker reports on Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus’s internal battle for the White House.

President Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office have produced what seems like a year’s worth of drama, but he has made essentially two consequential decisions. He issued a ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries and he nominated Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals-court judge, to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant after Antonin Scalia’s death, last year.

The immigration ban, a dubious policy that no serious counterterrorism expert believes is necessary, threw the Trump Administration into chaos, alienated large swaths of the federal government, offended international allies, and divided the Republican Party. The announcement of Gorsuch, who, whatever one thinks of his legal views, is clearly qualified to serve on the Court, was executed professionally and united the G.O.P. behind Trump.

The two decisions reflect the two strands of Trumpism vying for control of the new Administration—and the Republican Party—and may be harbingers of coming fights inside the White House.

The immigration ban was a catastrophe from start to finish. It was written in secret by a small group of White House aides, led by Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist and the former chairman of Breitbart, the right-wing news site dedicated to white identity politics. Bannon worked closely with Stephen Miller, a former aide to Senator Jeff Sessions, whose formative years on Capitol Hill were spent fighting, in alliance with Breitbart, against the G.O.P.’s immigration reformers.

In 2013, during the last Senate debate about immigration, several Republicans joined Democrats in passing legislation championed by President Barack Obama and a coalition of business, labor, and Latino groups. Sessions, Miller, and Bannon were seen as representing a dying movement of right-wing holdouts who failed to see the political wisdom of the Republican Party’s embrace of comprehensive immigration reform. Now they are running the government. (Or, in the case of Sessions, who has still not been confirmed as Attorney General, soon will be.)

The other faction is that of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Here is ann example of the difference.

The first significant policy of the Bannon wing of the Trump White House was executed in a way that insured maximum chaos and confusion. In contrast, Trump’s successful rollout of his Supreme Court nominee was largely run by the White House counsel’s office, an island in the White House that is relatively free from Bannon’s control and has been shaped more by Reince Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican Party and Trump’s current chief of staff. A true populist aiming to shake up the establishment in Washington might have found someone outside of the legal monastery, perhaps someone who wasn’t even a judge, to put on the Court. Instead, Trump chose a leading conservative appellate judge with Ivy League credentials. The most frequent Republican critics of Trump, such as Senators Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham, cheered the decision. Even Democrats have had to admit that Gorsuch is perfectly qualified.

But Priebus’ power is at risk from Trump’s management style.

Most modern White Houses have had a strong chief of staff who could limit the influence of other senior advisers by controlling their access to the President and insisting they use a formal process to set policy. But Trump has created a top-heavy staff in which Bannon, Priebus, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and several others all seem to have easy access to a President who, especially on issues that he is unfamiliar with, is famously susceptible to persuasion. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both used this structure, known as “spokes of the wheel,” which proved to be disastrous, because it created warring factions that fought for turf.

Despite the fallout over the immigration ban, the early signs are that Bannon’s influence is growing. He recently brought two former Breitbart staffers to the White House, and more Bannon people are on the way. His New York-based spokeswoman, Alexandra Preate, is expected to come to the White House and serve him in both a communications role and as his own chief of staff, a move that underscores his effort to build his own fiefdom outside of Priebus’s control.

And, I might add, outside the control of President Trump himself.

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