President Donald Trump has reshuffled his entire administration in order to place unprecedented power in the hands of Steve Bannon. The chief strategist has already taken control of both policy and process on our national security, and appears to be working hard to undermine our democratic system and seize complete control of the country- without all the troublesome responsibility and accountability that ordinarily comes with being president.
Plenty of presidents have had political advisers. It’s only natural, and in fact, is ordinarily a sign of accountability. We all have those friends and colleagues we bounce ideas off of to keep ourselves in check. But we’ve never witnessed a political adviser move to consolidate as much power in so little time as Bannon. There have been countless articles and conjecture about the threats Bannon represents- our own included- but I don’t think anyone truly realized just how deep his claws in Trump went until these past two weeks.
Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council (NSC), Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the NSC itself, according to an intelligence official who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity.
“He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the official said. The source goes on to describe a work environment where there is no allowance for dissenting opinions, no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above on how the NSC staff should be organized.
Under previous administrations, anyone involved in the issues being discussed or who had expertise in the subject was free to share information as long as everyone had proper clearance. It’s a pretty logical assumption in decision-making; share information with those involved to make sure all details and outcomes are being discussed. With that standard in mind, when officials first saw Trump’s draft executive orders, they felt the vagueness of the language had broad impacts and shared them widely among staff members for comments and feedback on potential negative repercussions. However, that did not sit well with Bannon and his own personal staff. After the initial sharing, stringent guidelines for handling and routing draft orders were put in place, and the majority of NSC staff were cut out of the process.
They weren’t the only ones. Retired Marine General John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, was being briefed on the
travel ban “extreme vetting” executive order as Trump was already signing the measure. Given that his department was not asked for a legal review of the order, Kelly had dialed in from a Coast Guard plane as he headed back to Washington. Halfway into the briefing, someone on the call looked up at a television and realized that Trump was already signing the order in front of the press. That’s right; the guy in charge of proper communications for the order and organizing its implementation was being told about the order as Trump was in the midst of making it law.
“The details of it were not thought through,” said Stephen Heifetz, who served in the Justice Department, Homeland Security Department, and the CIA under three previous presidents. “It is not surprising there was mass confusion, and I expect the confusion and chaos will continue for some time.”
The New York Times reports that Bannon oversaw the writing of the order, which was done by a small White House team which included Stephen Miller, Trump’s policy chief. They were working off an idea spouted by Trump during his campaign after the San Bernardino attacks, when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
No one really thought he’d go through with it, but Bannon was determined to make it happen. He and a small group of the president’s advisers started working on the order during the months of transition so that Trump could sign it shortly after the inauguration. A senior administration official said that the order was drafted in cooperation with some immigration experts on Capitol Hill, but James Jay Carafano, vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump’s transition team, said that little of that work was shared with officials at Homeland Security, the State Department or other agencies. There was “a firewall between the old administration and the incoming one,” Carafano said. R. Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under Obama, said that his staff had little communication with Trump’s transition team. No mention of barring entry for people from certain countries was ever made. The White House continues to contradict these testimonies though, insisting to reporters at a briefing that Trump’s advisers had been in contact with officials at the State and Home Departments for “many weeks,” with one official adding, “everyone who needed to know was informed.” Not a single record of these important individuals being informed exists.
There seems to be a distinct encouragement for lack of paperwork and records, in fact. Previously, after a principals or deputies meeting of the NSC, all discussion, and the final agreement would be written up in what staff referred to as a “summary of conclusions,” or SOC. These summaries provide a physical record to refer back to, especially if debate over an issue came up again, including among agencies that needed to implement what actions were decided on. It cuts down on the ‘broken telephone’ or ‘he said/she said’ dilemmas everyone loathes. This way, people can always find what was said so proper notes and actions can be taken.
“Under [President George W. Bush], the National Security Council was quite strict about recording SOCs,” said Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University who served on Bush’s NSC. “There was often a high level of generality, and there may have been exceptions, but they were carefully crafted.”
There was not a single SOC issued during the first week of the Trump administration. In fact, there is next to no paperwork being generated. What little is being processed is not being shared with the NSC staff.
“It would worry me if written records of these meetings were eliminated, because they contribute to good governance,” Waxman said. These SOCs were designed for transparency from the government agencies, and accountability for policy decisions and action implementation. If someone thought an issue was mischaracterized, he or she would call for a correction to be issued to ensure communications and subsequent actions were laid out in proper detail for anyone involved, according to Loren DeJonge Schulman. Schulman was previously a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama’s NSC and Susan Rice. Schulman is now a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, but still insists that, “People took the document seriously.”
The fact that these seem to have been eliminated is deeply troubling. Although the general public would not be privy to these documents, the fact that government staff does not know what is being discussed in security meetings does not bode well. Not only does it explain the chaos and confusion of Trump’s travel executive order, but it’s a terrifying thought for all future policy changes- the people in charge of implementing these changes don’t even know what’s going on.
Giving Bannon a seat on the NSC is a huge problem in and of itself. Trump signed an executive order to permanently have Bannon on the NSC last week, which is unprecedented. That same order also removed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of national intelligence, and the secretary of energy- any of the people who may have held some sway when contradicting Bannon’s views. Bannon, whose beliefs in highly restrictive immigration policies are well recorded on his ridiculous
Nazi alt-right website, should not be involved in the NSC at all. Schulman pointed out how important it is that NSC staff be drafting issue papers for committee meetings. “The idea is to share with everyone a fair and balanced take on the issue, with the range of viewpoints captured,” she said. “If those papers are now being generated by political staff, [it] corrupts the whole process.”
In giving Bannon an official role in national security policy making, Trump has broken tradition and embraced the risk of politicizing national security. Under Obama, it wasn’t unheard of for his chief political advisers, John Podesta and David Axelrod, to occasionally attend NSC meetings, but they were never guaranteed a seat at the table. Frowned upon, but they were never there on a permanent basis like Bannon will now be. Under Bush, the line between national security and domestic political considerations was even clearer. Top aides have said they never saw Karl Rove or “anyone from his shop” in NSC meetings, and that’s because Bush told him explicitly not to attend.
“The signal Bush wanted to send to the military is that, ‘The decisions I’m making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions,’” former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said last September.
Who would think that we’d someday be nodding our heads along with a George Bush concept?
It gets worse. Trump has appointed Bannon to the NSC “principals’ committee,” which includes most of the top officials for national security, and meets more often than the NSC. Trump’s order says that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence will only attend principals’ committee meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Under what circumstances could any national security discussion be had where input from the intelligence agencies and military are not required? Instead, Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are now positioned as the president’s top aides, and are shutting out other voices that would offer alternative views. Early reports are indicating that Bannon is now eclipsing the national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whom many had hoped would be a voice of reason in the Trump administration. It remains unclear what Flynn’s role is now that Bannon is on the NSC. “He has a voice at the table, but he’s overshadowed by Bannon,” said an intelligence official. Even Tom Bossert, former Bush national security aide whom Trump picked to serve as the White House’s homeland security advisor, is not “one of Bannon’s” so has been left on the outside looking in.
A thorough system of accountability can remind senior policymakers that the audience who will assess the morality and effectiveness of their proposals comes from all parts of the domestic political spectrum, and from nations around the globe. After all, humans are nobler when we think we are being watched. Unfortunately, Bannon’s power is completely unchecked, especially since there is no formal paperwork detailing his involvements.
Bannon supercharged Breitbart News as a platform for inciting white nationalism and the far right, and now his fingerprints are all over the first moves of the Trump administration. The speed with which Trump has moved to alienate Mexicans (declaring they pay for a border wall), Jews, (disregarding their persecution and experience of the Holocaust, and Muslims (the ban has placed emphasis on helping Christians in those countries) has been impressive.
Bannon’s centralization of power is horrifying, and seems to be following one of his favorite strategy books, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which emphasizes the importance of using secrecy, trickery, and confusion to accomplish your goals. A former colleague even claimed that it was Bannon’s bible. Journalist Michael Wolff, who has spent extended time with Bannon, said he is “smart, considerate, interesting, someone who has given a lot of thought to everything he’s now saying.” That makes the statements from Ronald Radosh about Bannon downright chilling.
According to Radosh, he met Bannon at a book party back in 2013. Bannon has denied knowing or speaking Radosh, but that may be because Radosh gives a detailed description of a conversation they shared that reflects poorly on the chief strategist. There, Bannon and Radosh had a long talk about politics, where Bannon refused the description of himself as a populist or an American nationalist. Radosh claims that Bannon proudly declared himself a “Leninist.”
“Lenin 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.”
With that in mind, the last two weeks of the Trump administration makes a lot more sense. The confusion, extreme measures, backtracking, military and civilian casualties, attempts to create “resistance fatigue”; it all seems to align with Bannon’s goals and desire to destroy the establishments we know. Yes, they are flawed, but a complete overhaul of the system cannot occur within a few days and without any accountability. Truthfully, the flurry of executive orders seems more like a test of the Trump administration and Bannon to see the extent to which Homeland Security and other executive agencies will act with direct orders that are questionable in nature. For example, the controversial travel ban was an exercise in what ways- and who- will act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. Given Trump’s weekend tweets calling into question the validity and power of the judicial system, it seems more and more likely that Bannon’s wishes will come to fruition as he manipulates Trump into delegating more authority to him.
Trump is just a puppet. Bannon is the real enemy of American democracy.