As with all Government entities and seats of power there is always a level of Palace Intrigue which fascinates political observers, journalists and analysts. Yet with the Trump White House, rarely has there been this much chaos and dysfunction so early in the life of a new American administration. It has been an exhausting process keeping up with the Washington DC parlour game of who is up and who is down within the inner circle of Donald Trump's circus entourage. The latest victim of President Trump's mood swings would seem to be the man that the media christened President himself, former Goldman Sachs investment banker turned far right Breitbart guru Steve Bannon.
The National Security Council, created by President Harry Truman in the aftermath of World War II and at the outset of the Cold War, is the principal forum within the Executive branch of Government for the consideration of US national security and foreign policy matters and for advising the President on such topics. It consists of many national security officials, military leaders, Cabinet officers and is headed by the National Security Advisor and run by the National Security Council staff. As I wrote in a recent article, many DC eyebrows within the American foreign policy establishment were raised with the appointment of the President's chief political strategist, the mercurial Steve Bannon, to the principals committee of the NSC and as a permanent member back in January.
It was not just the fact that Mr. Bannon lacks any national security or foreign policy expertise and credentials, it was the fact also that domestic political advisors have never been permanent appointees to the Council. This seemed to break with Senator Henry Jackson's old adage that when it came to national security policy making the best politics was «no politics». While it was bad enough that President Obama's equally mercurial political strategist, a certain David Axelrod, attended meetings of the National Security Council from time to time, Axelrod was never a permanent member, let alone appointed to the Principals Committee.
The Principals Committee is convened and presided over by the National Security Advisor and its membership has historically consisted of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney-General, the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the White House Chief of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Homeland Security Advisor, and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Never before has a purely domestic party political advisor served on the Principals Committee. Yet, Bannon's unprecedented and disturbing appointment lasted only roughly two and a half months just as Trump's first National Security Advisor Lt.General Michael Flynn lasted only three weeks and three days in his job. Last week, in a stunning clipping of wings, Bannon, who many in the media had speculated was the real power behind the throne, was unceremoniously removed from the National Security Council. The reasoning put out by the Trump administration was has incoherent as many aspects of its nascent domestic and foreign policies. One line was that it was only ever a temporary appointment. Another was that Bannon was simply appointed to keep a watchful eye over Michael Flynn which begs the question, if Flynn needed watching, why was he appointed to such a sensitive and powerful post like National Security Advisor in the first place?
The real reason Bannon was removed was because he has become locked in a power struggle with all people Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and by extension, the President's daughter, Ivanka. For someone who is supposedly such a shrewd political operator, you would have though Bannon would have avoided getting into a turf war and alienating the most favoured child of Donald Trump and her husband, because that is a battle he simply could never win. There is, after all a strong whiff of the mafia regarding the Trump family and it is not just because Trump's mentor and consigliere Roy Cohn who served as his publicist and attorney was a well known Mafioso. As the Trump son Eric said like something straight out of The Godfather when asked back in October how he thought Mike Pence did during the Vice-Presidential debate the first line out of his mouth was that Mike Pence «represented the family well tonight». I could imagine Michael Corleone saying something similar. .
So, Bannon's wings have been clipped and the «family» along with the new National Security Advisor HR McMaster have made it clear who is really in charge in the Trump White House, for now at least. Another departure from the NSC was Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland, a Lynn appointee, who is being carted off as Ambassador to Singapore. I would bet by the summer the Chief of Staff Reince Preibus may also be shunted off to become Ambassador to perhaps a really enjoyable place like, say North Korea? Remember, no good deed in Washington DC goes unpunished. It would seem that the «family» are the real power centre in the White House.
Kushner and Ivanka, both only 36 years old with zero government and political experience and credentials (just like the President himself) have established themselves in the West Wing were some in Bannon's camp have taken to deriding them as the «West Wing Democrats» because unlike Bannon they are far more centrist and socially liberal than the populist, fire and brim stone ultra nationalist conservative Bannon Breitbart alt right. There have been whispers to that the heiress to Goebbels, Trump's Minister for Propaganda, with her penchant for «alternative facts» and make believe massacres, a certain Ms. Kellyanne Conway, could also soon be shown the door and that the loud mouth know nothing Sean Spicer may soon be replaced too.
With the son-in-law in the ascendance, and therefore by default the daughter too, Kushner has been become almost a one man Government all on his own. It would seem that this 36 year old former real estate developer is taking multi-tasking to a new level. He has been put in charge of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians; handling relations with China, Mexico and Canada as well as heading up an office to reinvent the workings of the whole Federal Government no less. Normally such rank nepotism and family cronyism has been associated with banana republics but in the Trump Republic such family patronage is being taken to new levels.
One senses that Mr. Kushner is a hollow political, intellectual and public policy light weight, who is not really an independent adult in his own right, but still infantilised, having made it this far not based on his own mediocre talents and merits but rather relying heavily on the nepotistic patronage of his father who bought his son a place into Harvard with a generous donation even though Kushner's grades were not good enough to make the cut for Harvard's rigorous admissions and now is worming his way into the highest echelons of the American Government by virtue of marriage to the President's favoured daughter.
As a former educational official at Kushner's High School put it: «There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not». The lo and behold, of course, was the $2.5 million his convicted criminal father Charles Kushner donated to Harvard University on the eve of his son's university education. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Kushner is really made of over the next few years because all the money in the world and the benefits of familial patronage will not avert a third intifada blowing up between Israel and the Palestinians or advance the father-in-law's agenda if and when Congress cyclically falls back under Democratic control.