WASHINGTON – A guy who not long ago ran a white nationalist-friendly website now outranks the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the National Security Council.
Perhaps most revealing about the 10-day-old Donald Trump presidency: The announcement of White House aide Stephen Bannon’s elevation was nowhere near the most controversial thing that has happened thus far. Trump has insisted, despite obvious evidence to the contrary, that as many as 1.5 million people attended his inauguration. He has claimed, with no evidence at all, that as many as 5 million people voted illegally in his election – every single one of them for his opponent. He issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted any mention of Jews.
And at the close of business marking his first week in office Friday, he signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., without running it past the departments that would implement it. The ensuing disarray brought swift rebuke from several federal judges, blocking parts of the order at least temporarily.
“Well, no surprise there, right? It’s disruption and chaos,” said Thomas Mann of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “And it’s all centered on Donald Trump and his acolytes in the White House.”
On Saturday, Bannon was elevated to the National Security Council and its “Principals Committee” – even as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence were removed as permanent members of that influential committee. They will now be invited to meetings on those occasions when issues on the agenda concern them.
Bannon previously ran Breitbart News, the conservative website that aligned itself with Trump starting in late summer 2015. He was among Trump’s top political aides during the final months of the campaign.
Neither Republican President George W. Bush nor Democrat Barack Obama had put a political aide on the NSC, to avoid the appearance of mixing politics with national security.
Douglas Lute, former ambassador to NATO under Obama and a deputy national security adviser under Bush, said he was puzzled by Trump’s decision to put Bannon on the NSC. “I found it a little peculiar,” he said.
How much actual influence Bannon has there, Lute said, will depend on how the paper structure Trump signed Saturday winds up playing out in real life in the coming weeks and months. “We’ll have to see how this works,” he said.
This executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham
White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not respond to a Huffington Post query about Bannon’s role on the NSC. In an interview with ABC News, Spicer said Bannon’s background as a naval officer made him a good fit.
That explanation, though, did not impress Brooking’s Mann. He called Bannon someone who is “mainly known for being a former Breitbart head and a white nationalist,” not a national security expert. “It’s breathtaking,” Mann said. “The heads of defense and intelligence are not relevant to national security concerns, but the president’s political strategist is?”
During his 18-month campaign, Trump wore his complete lack of government experience as a badge of honor. He bragged that his record as a billionaire who ran 500 separate businesses would help him fix the country’s problems in a way that no “all-talk, no-action” politician could.
Yet those boasts, which both high-ranking Republicans as well as many of his supporters at campaign events cited, contained fundamental exaggerations. While Trump tried to convey the impression that he led a gigantic, diversified global enterprise, in reality his “Trump Organization” is far more modest. Many of those hundreds of businesses are actually limited liability companies created for a single specific purpose – owning his personal jetliner, for example, so as to shield the parent enterprise and Trump personally should it be involved in an accident.
His financial disclosure documents instead portray more of a family business that primarily collects rents – from those playing golf at his courses, from those staying at his hotels, but most of all from those licensing his name for use on their own buildings.
And that family business mindset appears to have carried over into the White House, where Trump has installed his son-in-law as a senior adviser and has come to rely on a small group of aides for nearly everything of consequence.
Everyone ought to be screaming to high heaven.... This is how a democracy slips into an autocracy. Thomas Mann, Brookings Institution
It’s unclear how involved Trump himself has been in the details of his proposals. During the campaign, he boasted of being correct on issues without any need for analyzing them. In an August campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump mentioned how in an interview he was asked about NATO. “And I don’t study it,” he said. “I’m a business guy.”
Despite this, he said he gave good responses. “They’ve actually changed NATO because of what I said,” he said.
Even Republicans on Capitol Hill have started to express worries about the way Trump and his White House staff have set about their work.
“It is clear from the confusion at our airports across the nation that President Trump’s executive order was not properly vetted,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in a joint statement Sunday about Trump’s immigration order.
They added that the “hasty process” of drafting and signing the order without review by the relevant agencies will actually give jihadists a propaganda boost. “This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” the statement said. “That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
Trump, for his part, defended the order in his own statement – and then lashed out at McCain and Graham personally on Twitter. “They are sadly weak on immigration,” he wrote. “The two Senators should focus their energies on ISIS, illegal immigration and border security instead of always looking to start World War III.”
Mann said the Republicans’ relatively muted response so far is misplaced, given the radical changes Trump is implementing.
“Everyone ought to be screaming to high heaven. This is not a time for anyone to be saying let’s give the president a chance to get his government in place,” he said. “This is how a democracy slips into an autocracy.”