Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
President Donald Trump has been in office for almost three months, and a clearer picture has begun to emerge of who is gaining and losing influence within his inner circle of advisors. While it may be premature to make predictions about how effective they may be in changing the president’s stance on any number of important foreign and domestic policy issues, I believe we will soon begin to see some shifting towards the middle in the coming months.
But before I discuss the battle for influence currently taking place in The White House, let’s first identify the key players since Trump won the election last November. By understanding those advisors and the policies they supported, I think it will be easier to understand why their influence is now waning.
Five days after he was elected, President Trump announced his first two White House appointments, naming his anti-establishment presidential campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, as his senior counsel, and Reince Priebus, chief strategist and the establishment leader of the Republican Party, as his chief of staff. Bannon’s post reward for fuelling Trump’s electoral college win by pushing for the use of populist rhetoric. Priebus was likewise rewarded for the role he played getting the GOP to get behind Trump after the primaries.
Most political observers believed that by announcing Bannon and Priebus would work together as equal partners, President Trump was also creating competing establishment and anti-establishment power centres within The White House. The conventional wisdom was that Bannon’s primary job would be to ensure the Trump administration’s policies were consistent with the populist, nationalist agenda that got him elected. Priebus’s job, meanwhile, was to work with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and ensure that Congress passed Trump’s legislative proposals.
Over the course of the next three months, no one in The White House appeared to have more power or influence with President Trump than Stephen Bannon. On 20 January, just five short hours after he was inaugurated as America’s 45th President, Trump took the unprecedented step of launching his bid for re-election. Then on 27 January, President Trump made another unprecedented move by giving his chief political strategist a seat on the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, there were reportedly growing tensions between Bannon and Priebus because of the former’s longstanding animosity towards Speaker Ryan. Moreover, even though Priebus won the coveted chief of staff position, it was Bannon who was winning on the policy front. It was Bannon who convinced Trump to ignore history and file for re-election on the same day he took office. It was Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior advisor for policy and Bannon’s closest ally, who wrote the executive orders to ban visitors from predominantly Muslim countries. Bannon also wrote the order announcing plans to build a wall on the Mexican border and detain and deport all illegal immigrants.
But shortly after Time magazine featured Bannon as ‘The Great Manipulator’ on the cover of its 3 February issue, rather than continue to squabble for more power and influence, Bannon and Priebus began to forge a new alliance of convenience. While they were by no means on the same page on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues, or their views about Ryan, both were worried about being sidelined by another group of White House appointees. These staffers were either related to President Trump or hailed from Trump’s home of New York City.
Although turf wars and heated conflicts are not unusual among White House appointees, the disagreements that have emerged over the past six weeks are also somewhat due to a lack of consistent direction from their boss. Bannon derisively refers to the more moderate New York staffers as the ‘Democrats’; they are led by Jared Kushner, husband of first daughter Ivanka Trump, and include Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs, and his Egyptian-born Goldman Sachs colleague Dina Habib Powell.
I believe it would be more accurate to characterise this simmering internal White House feud as one between the Bannon-led ideological nationalists and Kushner’s more pragmatic globalists. On the one hand, the Bannon-aligned anti-establishment faction wants to cancel all trade agreements, close America’s borders and get rid of regulations that protect the environment and the health of American citizens. Conversely, Kushner’s globalist allies want Trump to adopt a more centrist trade and foreign policy approach in order to broaden his appeal and halt his slide in the polls.
Even though it looks like Bannon’s ideologues have pretty much had their way during Trump’s first 12 weeks as president, I think their power and influence within the Trump administration have already peaked. Bannon has taken heat for the failure to repeal Obamacare, and both Bannon and Miller have been blamed for the judicial failures of Trump’s immigration bans. Furthermore, while Kushner’s role as an advisor on foreign policy has grown, Bannon’s has been diminished by his surprising removal from the National Security Council.
In the coming weeks, I also expect that Gary Cohn will replace Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff, and that Dina Powell will be appointed to an even more prominent position in the White House.
Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.