Jules Witcover: The deflation of Steve Bannon
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s sudden and unexpected removal of chief White House strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council has brought a first sigh of relief from Trump critics that common sense may be returning to the Oval Office.
Not only has Bannon as a strongly ideological thinker with no notable military experience been moved out of the new administration’s foreign policy and military affairs realm. His image as perhaps the most influential figure in the Trump White House been at least temporarily deflated, though he stays on.
Public and private chatter about the domination of “President Bannon” had been rife over the first two months, even to the point of speculation that it was irritating the notoriously thin-skinned new chief executive himself.
Bannon defensively explained his removal from the NSC as a mere “natural evolution” from the departed Obama administration, in which he said former NSC boss Susan Rice had run an “operational” Security Council. That made it an obvious target of Bannon’s planned “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
This is the same Susan Rice currently being pilloried by the Trump political arm, with the suspicious assistance of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who has just recused himself from the committee’s investigation of the Russian hacking intervention in the 2016 presidential election.
In return to regular order, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Intelligence, bumped off the NSC in making room of Bannon, have returned to its critical Principals’ Committee, by order of the new NSC Chairman Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who replaced Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence that he never met the Russian ambassador.
Bannon sought to cast his removal from the NSC as a mere case of an assignment completed. “I was put on the NSC with Gen. Flynn,” he said later, “to ensure that it was de-politicized. Gen. McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
McMaster’s actions are now widely seen as evidence of his own determination to restore the NSC to its role as the president’s chief advisory body in foreign and military affairs devoid of overt political influence, as seen in Bannon’s presence and voice.
As for Bannon himself and his relationship with Trump, the very fact the president would take the step of a public action that would risk being read as a repudiation of his chief strategist will raise more speculation over his future in the Trump circle.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump sold himself as a charismatic voice of the angry and disaffected American working people who were poorly served by the Democratic administration of Barack Obama. It worked, particularly in key traditionally Democratic Midwest states of the Rust Belt.
While running in the Republican primaries, Trump largely eschewed ideological messaging and cast a wider net, which also worked in the general election. He attacked his Democratic opponent more on personal grounds — “Crooked Hillary” and “Lock Her Up!” — than on any philosophical position.
He avoided ideological expositions until after the elections and left them to the rising public figure of Bannon, a preacher of economic nationalism. Trump instead cast the campaign only in general terms of “America First!” and let it go at that on the stump.
Some of Trump’s first presidential actions, such as his two executive orders attempting to ban refugees and travelers from certain Muslim nations, are attributed to Bannon’s influence and the excesses of economic nationalism. And in the inevitable personal clashes to be expected in an administration of political neophytes and outsiders, competitive jealousies inevitably flared up.
Amid all this, the bizarre emergence of Trump’s youthful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as an unlikely internal power broker, and his wife Ivanka as her father’s official counselor, further astounds and confounds a bewildered and fearful electorate — at least, that is, those voters who cast their ballots for another choice last November.