Plenty of presidents have had prominent political advisers, and some of those advisers have been suspected of quietly setting policy behind the scenes (recall Karl Rove or, if your memory stretches back far enough, Dick Morris). But we’ve never witnessed a political aide move as brazenly to consolidate power as Stephen Bannon — nor have we seen one do quite so much damage so quickly to his putative boss’s popular standing or pretenses of competence.
Mr. Bannon supercharged Breitbart News as a platform for inciting the alt-right, did the same with the Trump campaign and is now repeating the act with the Trump White House itself. That was perhaps to be expected, though the speed with which President Trump has moved to alienate Mexicans (by declaring they would pay for a border wall), Jews (by disregarding their unique experience of the Holocaust) and Muslims (the ban) has been impressive. Mr. Trump never showed much inclination to reach beyond the minority base of voters that delivered his Electoral College victory, and Mr. Bannon, whose fingerprints were on each of those initiatives, is helping make sure he doesn’t.
But a new executive order, politicizing the process for national security decisions, suggests Mr. Bannon is positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.
In that new order, issued on Saturday, Mr. Trump took the unprecedented step of naming Mr. Bannon to the National Security Council, along with the secretaries of state and defense and certain other top officials. President George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, was so concerned about separating politics from national security that he barred Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush’s political adviser, from N.S.C. meetings. To the annoyance of experienced foreign policy aides, David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s political adviser, sat in on some N.S.C. meetings, but he was not a permanent member of the council.
More telling still, Mr. Trump appointed Mr. Bannon to the N.S.C. “principals’ committee,” which includes most of those same top officials and meets far more frequently. At the same time, President Trump downgraded two senior national security officials — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a role now held by Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., and the director of national intelligence, the job that Dan Coats, a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and former ambassador to Germany, has been nominated to fill.
All this may seem like boring bureaucratic chart-making, but who sits at the National Security Council table when the administration debates issues of war and peace can make a real difference in decisions. In giving Mr. Bannon an official role in national security policy making, Mr. Trump has not simply broken with tradition but has embraced the risk of politicizing national security, or giving the impression of doing so.
Mr. Trump’s order says that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence will attend the principals’ committee meetings only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Could there be any national security discussions when input from the intelligence agencies and the military will not be required? People in those jobs are often the ones to tell presidents hard truths, even when they are unwelcome.
As his first week in office amply demonstrated, Mr. Trump has no grounding in national security decision making, no sophistication in governance and little apparent grasp of what it takes to lead a great diverse nation. He needs to hear from experienced officials, like General Dunford. But Mr. Bannon has positioned himself, along with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the president’s most trusted aide, shutting out other voices that might offer alternative views. He is now reportedly eclipsing the national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
While Mr. Trump long ago embraced Mr. Bannon’s politics, he would be wise to reconsider allowing him to run his White House, particularly after the fiasco over the weekend of the risible Muslim ban. Mr. Bannon helped push that order through without consulting Mr. Trump’s own experts at the Department of Homeland Security or even seeking deliberation by the N.S.C. itself. The administration’s subsequent modifications, the courtroom reversals and the international furor have made the president look not bold and decisive but simply incompetent.
As a candidate, Mr. Trump was immensely gratified by the applause at his rallies for Mr. Bannon’s jingoism. Yet now casually weaponized in executive orders, those same ideas are alienating American allies and damaging the presidency.
Presidents are entitled to pick their advisers. But Mr. Trump’s first spasms of policy making have supplied ample evidence that he needs advisers who can think strategically and weigh second- and third-order consequences beyond the immediate domestic political effects. Imagine tomorrow if Mr. Trump is faced with a crisis involving China in the South China Sea or Russia in Ukraine. Will he look to his chief political provocateur, Mr. Bannon, with his penchant for blowing things up, or will he turn at last for counsel to the few more thoughtful experienced hands in his administration, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and General Dunford?
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 31/01/2017