The Man Behind Trump’s Throne

President Donald Trump Signs Executive OrdersThe media has reported extensively on the flurry of activity surrounding Donald Trump’s first week in office.  But perhaps “flurry” is not the right meteorological analogy.  To myself and many others it seems more like a destructive hurricane.

So many unprecedented events filled the news cycle this week, that is it impossible to comment on them all.  For those who wish a refresher, this brief summary from British television should suffice. Overall, it provides a rather chilling tally not only of a long-anticipated right-wing wish list, but also of actions to curtail civil liberties and democratic freedoms including the freedom of dissent, information and expression.

As noteworthy as these events have been – many of them gathering considerable media attention – what has been going on behind the scenes is even more important in the long run, And unfortunately, this has not been given near the attention it deserves.

trump-appointeesAs the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet appointees has revealed, there is considerable daylight between some of their positions and those of Trump himself.  Politico reported this week that to ensure they do not stray from Trump’s own agenda,

The White House is installing senior aides atop major federal agencies to shadow the administration’s Cabinet secretaries, creating a direct line with loyalists who can monitor and shape White House goals across the federal bureaucracy.

voalogoThen there is Donald Trump’s so-called “war” with the media.  Things are falling into place for him to erect his own tightly controlled alternative to the public media.  In mid-December the newly-convened Congress passed legislation to abolish the independent body that oversees government-backed media outlets like Voice of America, replacing it with a chief executive named by the President and approved by the Senate. As Politico reported this week,

On the first Monday of his administration, Trump, who has flirted with the idea of launching his own TV network, deployed two “transition officials” who will evaluate the managers and studios of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

Many people are not aware that legislation passed in 2013 now permits these government-funded outlets to broadcast to American audiences as well as to those in other countries.   Throughout the cold war, the Voice of America was the official propaganda arm of the U. S. government, and some people within this organization are now concerned that it may be turned into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Trump administration.

trump-and-mediaNote that this comes on the heels of Trump railing against CNN and Buzzfeed as “fake news” at his first official press conference, his press secretary Sean Spicer attacking the news media the day after the election for not backing Trump’s false claims on the size of the inauguration crowd, and Trump himself launching a similar attack on the public media during his visit to the CIA headquarters, calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”  The next day Trump’s chief White House Strategist, Stephen Bannon, called the media “the opposition party, and stated that “It should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The following day Trump said that he fully concurred with Bannon’s view.

The Bannon Factor

This kind of rhetoric is completely unprecedented, and one might well wonder what is behind it.  The source of this animosity toward the mainstream media does not seem to originate with either Donald Trump or his Press Secretary Sean Spicer (or even his chief spokesperson and surrogate Kellyanne Conway).  All the evidence points to it originating with Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

bannon-and-trumpAs Michael Gyrnbaum explained in the New York Times this week,

Among Mr. Trump’s advisers in the White House, Mr. Bannon is responsible for putting into action the nationalist vision that Mr. Trump channeled during the later months of the campaign, one that stemmed from Mr. Bannon himself. And in many ways Mr. Trump has acted on that vision during his first week in office — from the description of “American carnage” he laid out in his inauguration speech to a series of executive actions outlining policies on trade agreements, immigration and the building of a border wall.

Mr. Bannon is one of the strongest forces in an administration with competing power centers. A savvy manipulator of the press, and a proud provocateur, he was among the few advisers in Mr. Trump’s circle who were said to have urged Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, to give a confrontational, emotional statement to a shocked West Wing briefing room on Saturday, when the White House disputed news reports about the size of the inauguration crowd.

A very revealing article in Axios this week reveals the extent of Bannon’s influence in the Trump administration (along with policy guru Stephen Miller):

  • They wrote the Inaugural speech and set in fast motion a series of moves to cement Trump as an America-first Nationalist.
  • They maneuvered to get more key allies inside the White House and positioned for top agency jobs.
  • Theywrote many of the executive orders, sometimes with little input from others helping with the transition.
  • They egged on Trump to take a combative approach with the media, China, Mexico and critics.
  • And Bannon punctuated the week with a full-throated, Trump-pleasing bashing of the media.

Just how small this group of decision-makers is was revealed this week is a series of reports stating that

trumo-executive-order2-jpgPresident Donald Trump’s team made little effort to consult with federal agency lawyers or lawmakers as they churned out executive actions this week, stoking fears the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.

For example,

The White House didn’t ask State Department experts to review Trump’s memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline

And

Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were “blindsided” by a draft order that would require agencies to reconsider using interrogation techniques that are currently banned as torture

In addition,

Just a small circle of officials at the Department of Health and Human Services knew about the executive action starting to unwind Obamacare, and only less than two hours before it was released. Key members of Congress weren’t consulted either, according to several members. And at a conference in Philadelphia, GOP legislators say they had no idea whether some of the executive orders would contrast with existing laws — because they hadn’t reviewed them.

This was especially true with regard to Trump’s executive order limiting the entry of refugees into the U.S. issued this past Friday.  Politico reported that

When President Donald Trump declared at the Pentagon Friday he was enacting strict new measures to prevent domestic terror attacks, there were few within his government who knew exactly what he meant.

Administration officials weren’t immediately sure which countries’ citizens would be barred from entering the United States. The Department of Homeland Security was left making a legal analysis on the order after Trump signed it.

Furthermore,

It wasn’t until Friday — the day Trump signed the order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days — that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details of the order.

stephen-bannon3It is completely unheard of for the Executive office to not vet its executive orders with the Department of Justice or to keep its Cabinet officers and department heads in the dark about them until after they are proclaimed.  Stephen Bannon along with a tiny group within Trump’s circle of trusted advisors are in many cases drafting these articles without proper consultation with the offices that must implement them.  It is the kind of unilateral (even dictatorial) action that President Obama was (without justification) frequently accused of taking, but which is quickly becoming a hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Since the inauguration, Stephen Bannon has been busy consolidating his influence within Trump’s inner circle with the facilitation of Trump himself. On Friday Donald Trump issued an executive order restructuring the National Security Council, creating a new position installing Stephen Bannon on the Council alongside the Secretary of Defense (James “Mad Dog” Mattis) and Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson). At the same time, the Director of National Intelligence (Dan Coats) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Joseph Dunford) are being shunted to the side and will henceforth only attend committee meetings that pertain to their “specific responsibilities and expertise.”  David Ferguson notes that while serving on the council “Bannon will be privy to some of the country’s most highly classified military and intelligence secrets.”

By way of contrast, Tillerson will assume his position as Secretary of State in a very weakened position.  On Wednesday it was announced that the entire State Department Management Team had been fired by the Trump administration.  As Allegra Kirkland reported for Talking Points Memo,

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry, told the newspaper. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”

This leaves Stephen Bannon as the second most powerful person in the Trump administration next to the Donald Trump himself.  It has been reported that he sits in on all of Trump’s phone calls with international leaders, and has a direct hand in all major decisions.

Who is Stephen Bannon?

stephen-bannon2

Sixty-three year old Stephen Bannon was a founding member of Breitbart News, an extremist right-wing online news service dominated by provocative reporting and “fake news.”  Upon Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon became its Editor-at-Large. As David Ferguson explains, Bannon

presided over the expansion of Breitbart.com from a fringe right-wing web community to a sprawling hub of the so-called “alt-right,” a collection of white nationalists, racists, anti-feminists and neo-Nazis.

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, described Bannon as a “pathological liar who has a temperament that governs by bullying and intimidation.” And as Ben Shapiro, a former staff member at Breitbart, writes,

Bannon has goals. One of those goals is maximization of personal power, which is why he spent the last decade and a half glomming onto powerful right-wing personalities … and then moving on up the chain. With [Andrew] Breitbart and Trump, he picked two winners in a row – and that means he’s now at the pinnacle of American power.

So, what will he do with that power? He’ll target enemies. Bannon is one of the most vicious people in politics. … [M]ore importantly, Bannon’s interested in turning the Republican Party into a far-right European party.

Bannon’s personal agenda was further clarified by Ronald Radosh on the day after Trump’s inauguration when he related a conversation he had with Bannon at a social gathering back in 2013.  In their conversation, rather describing himself as a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed, “I’m a Leninist.” He quickly clarified that by this he did not mean that not mean that he was a communist (he was most certainly not), but rather that he saw himself as a radical revolutionary.

“Lenin,” he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

By “all of today’s establishment” he meant the traditional establishment parties – both Democratic and Republican – as well as the traditional conservative press.

Donald Trump found in the Breitbart press managed by Bannon exactly the kind of anti-establishment message that appealed to him.  Bannon became one of Trump’s most trusted allies in waging his own public war against the existing political “establishment,” and Trump soon brought him into his inner circle.  When Trump’s Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after his lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs became public, Trump turned to Bannon, naming him as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.”

In November The Hill reported that although Bannon is best known for his populist nationalist views on domestic issues such as immigration, he is also “fascinated with the military and global affairs.”

Bannon admires right-wing nationalists and hard-line illegal immigration opponents in Europe and elsewhere. He wants to work more closely with them and sees them as part of a worldwide movement to overthrow the “globalists,” according to multiple sources familiar with his thinking.

Bannon is a longtime skeptic of international alliances like the United Nations and the European Union. He cheered on Brexit — the decision made by British voters in a June referendum to leave the EU — and he admires French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

stephen-bannon1This may be the first time that an actual agent provocateur has held a key position within an American administration.  Donald Trump trusts Stephen Bannon implicitly, and has given him access to all aspects of administrative responsibilities.  As Trump’s chief strategist he is responsible for rolling out the president’s executive orders, his media events, and his public pronouncements.  He is both the gate keeper and the initiator operating behind the scenes.  Everything that Trump does passes through his hands and is shaped by his counsel.

One ultimately has to ask, who is really in charge of the presidency?  Donald Trump the showman?  Or Stephen Bannon the presence behind the throne?

Photo credits: Gerald Herbert/AP; Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images; Reuters; Christine Frapech – AP/Newseum; Joshua Roberts/Reuters; ABC News; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alex Brandon / AP