The whirlwind first week of Donald Trump's presidency had all the bravura hallmarks of a Stephen Bannon production. It started with the doom-hued inauguration homily to "American carnage" in US cities co-written by Bannon, followed a few days later by his "shut up" message to the media.
The week culminated with a blizzard of executive orders, mostly hatched by Bannon's team and the White House policy adviser, Stephen Miller, aimed at disorienting the "enemy", fulfilling campaign promises, and distracting attention from Trump's less than flawless debut.
But the defining moment for Bannon came on Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Council – while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities.
It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defence, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.
In theory, the move put Bannon, a former Navy surface warfare officer, admiral’s aide, investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart News firebrand on the same level as his friend, Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, a former Pentagon intelligence chief who was Trump’s dominant adviser on national security issues before a series of missteps reduced his influence.
But in terms of real influence, Bannon looms above almost everyone except the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner in the Trumpian pecking order, according to interviews with two dozen Trump insiders, and current and former national security officials. The move involving Bannon, as well as the boost in status to the White House homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, and Trump's relationships with Cabinet appointees such as defence secretary James Mattis have essentially layered over Flynn.
‘Stone cold crazy’
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Bannon – whose Breitbart website was a magnet for white nationalists, anti-globalists and conspiracy theorists – always planned to participate in national security. Flynn welcomed his participation, Spicer said, but the general "led the reorganisation of the NSC" in order to streamline an antiquated and bloated bureaucracy.
Former White House officials in both parties were shocked by the move. "The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they're talking about national security," said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defence secretary and CIA director in two Democratic administrations.
“I’ve never seen that happen and it shouldn’t happen. It’s not like he has broad experience in foreign policy and national security issues. He doesn’t. His primary role is to control or guide the president’s conscience based on his campaign promises. That’s not what the National Security Council is supposed to be about.”
That opinion was shared by George W Bush's last chief of staff, Josh Bolten, who barred Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser, from NSC meetings. A president's decisions made with those advisers, he told a conference audience in September, "involve life and death for the people in uniform" and should "not be tainted by any political decisions".
Susan Rice, president Barack Obama's last national security adviser, called the arrangement "stone cold crazy" in a tweet posted Sunday.
Spicer said the language that the Trump White House used in its NSC executive order is, with the exception of Bannon's position – which was created during the transition – almost identical in content to one the Bush administration drafted in 2001. And Obama's top political operative, David Axelrod, sat in on some NSC meetings, he added.
There were key differences. Axelrod never served as a permanent member as Bannon will now, though he sat in on some critical meetings, especially as Obama debated strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It's a profound shift," Axelrod said. "I don't know what his bona fides are to be the principal foreign policy adviser to the president."
But Bannon’s elevation does not merely reflect his growing influence on national security. It’s emblematic of Trump’s trust on a range of political and ideological issues. During the campaign, the sly and provocative Bannon played a paradoxical role – calming the easily agitated candidate during his frequent rough patches and egging him on when he felt Trump needed to fire up the white working-class base.
The president respects Bannon because he is independently wealthy and therefore does not need the job, and both men ascribe to a shoot-the-prisoners credo when put on the defensive, according to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Bannon is a deft operator within the White House, and he has been praised by Republicans who view him sceptically as the most knowledgeable on policy around the president. But his stated preference for blowing things up – as opposed to putting them back together – may not translate to his new role.
The hasty drafting of the immigration order, and its scattershot execution, brought a measure of Bannon's chaotic and hyperaggressive political style to the more predictable administration of the federal government. Within hours of the edict, airport customs and border agents were detaining or blocking dozens of migrant families, some of whom had permanent resident status, until John Kelly, the new homeland security secretary, intervened.
Kelly's department had suggested green card holders be exempted from the order, but Bannon and Miller, a hardliner on immigration, overruled him, according two US officials. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday indicated a softening of the stance, saying the order would not block "green card holders moving forward" – but said anyone seeking to enter the country from the listed countries would be subjected to tighter scrutiny.
People close to Bannon say he is not accumulating power for power’s sake, but is instead helping to fill a staff leadership vacuum created, in part, by Flynn’s stumbling performance as national security adviser.
Flynn still communicates with Trump frequently, and his staff has been assembling a version of the presidential daily briefing for Trump, truncated but comprehensive, to be the president's main source of national security information. During the campaign he often had unfettered access to the candidate, who appreciated his brash style and contempt for Hillary Clinton, but during the transition, Flynn privately complained about having to share face time with others, according to a current US official.
Flynn "has the full confidence of the president and his team," Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, said in an in email. Emails and phone calls to Flynn and his top aide were not returned.
A president who likes generals and abhors political correctness, Trump found in Flynn – who joined Trump backers in an anti-Clinton "Lock her up!" chant during the campaign – perhaps the most politically-incorrect general this side of his hero, general George Patton.
But Flynn, a lifelong Democrat sacked as head of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm after clashing with Obama administration officials in 2014, has begun getting on the nerves of Trump and other administration officials, because of his sometimes overbearing demeanor, and has further diminished his internal standing by presiding over a chaotic and opaque NSC transition process that prioritised hiring of military officials over civilian experts recommended to him by his own team, aides said.
Flynn's penchant for talking too much was on display on Friday in a meeting with Theresa May, the British prime minister, according to two people with direct knowledge of the events. When May said that she understood wanting a dialogue with Putin but stressed the need to be careful, Trump asked Flynn when he had scheduled a phone conversation with Putin.
Flynn replied it was Saturday – he had delayed it to fit in May’s meeting for “protocol” as a US ally, adding at length that Putin was impatient to chat. Trump, the person said, appeared irritated by the response. Still, the episode that did the most damage to the Trump-Flynn relationship occurred in early December when Flynn’s son, also named Michael, unleashed a series of tweets pushing a discredited conspiracy theory that Clinton associates had run a child sex-slave ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant.
Trump told his staff to get rid of the younger Flynn, who had been hired by his father to help during the transition. But Trump did so reluctantly, because of his loyalty during the campaign, when dozens of former military officials were dismissing Trump as too unstable to command.
Still, the national security adviser has also continued to dabble in the kind of bomb-throwing behaviour that concerns Trump’s allies, such as planning to attend an anti-Clinton “Deploraball” event at the time of the inauguration. He was urged to skip it by Trump allies, and ultimately agreed.
Both Trump and Bannon still regard Flynn as an asset. "In the room and out of the room, Steve Bannon is general Flynn's biggest defender," said Kellyanne Conway, another top adviser to the president. But it is unclear when the manoeuvres to reduce Flynn's role began. Two Obama administration officials said Trump transition officials inquired about expanded national security roles for Bannon and Kushner at the earliest stages of the transition in November – before the younger Flynn became a liability – but after Flynn had begun to chafe on the nerves of his colleagues on the team.
Bannon and Kushner seem to be keeping a close eye on Flynn, whose reputation has raised questions among some in the cabinet. Two weeks ago, both men held a meeting with Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick to run the State Department, and Mattis and Pompeo to discuss co-ordination – Flynn was invited but didn't attend.
Part of the meeting was devoted to discussing concerns about Flynn, according to an official with knowledge of it.
New York Times