If you watch or read the news anymore, especially if it’s about Donald Trump or the weather, you’re pretty much forced to conclude that End Times are upon us. We will all freeze and starve due to Bombogenesis (Note: image below from Winter 2017 hysteria, so perhaps not) or die in a thermonuclear holocaust triggered by a Trump Tweet. At this point, CNN and the other cable networks should merge their politics and weather desks into a combined Trumpzageddon unit in order to best streamline their operations.
Into this storm comes Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which has dominated the news for the past two days (and still going strong). “As ‘Fire and Fury’ is published, Europe openly debates: ‘Is Trump still sane?” is a fresh headline from the Washington Post.
Much of the news attention has focused on comments made to Wolff by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who said the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between the president’s son and a group of Russians was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and who predicted that investigators would “crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.” Trump responded by saying of Bannon, “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
There are dozens of often hysterical interpretations of what all of this means, and I’m going to clear it all up for you right now. Actually, I’m not, which is why there’s an asterisk in the headline. But I did speak to a number of interesting people about the situation, and I’m going to share their insights about what’s going on and the implications. Trust me, it will be far more informative and interesting than at least 99 percent of what’s being reported.
Source 1 is a Trump supporter from the Drain the Swamp faction, and a former senior intelligence officer who has good ties to Republicans in Washington. Here’s what he said:
The split between Bannon and Trump is greatly exaggerated. They operate in lockstep. This is a diversion. When they had to get rid of Reince Priebus as chief of staff, they parachuted in Anthony Scaramucci [as White House communications director] and within 10 days they both were gone. It created a media storm, but it didn’t do any lasting damage to Trump.
Trump is going to make some moves in terms of personnel and policy, probably at the State of the Union, and he needs a distraction so they don’t care that this is getting attention. Look for [General H.R.] McMaster to be removed as National Security Advisor. He was imposed on Trump, and [White House chief of staff John] Kelly doesn’t like him. Trump has political room to maneuver now with passage of the tax bill and he wants to get rid of him. There may be a change at State too.
In terms of policy, the two big issues are going to be term limits and the border. They’re going to compromise on the Dreamers; they’re not going to deport people who came here when they were kids, but they’re going to shut the door. And they’re not going to build a Berlin Wall on the border, which is the public perception, but they’re going to speed up doing it in pieces and creating zones and corridors that can be patrolled.
Bannon draws a lot of fire, he’s a lightning rod, but these guys are Machiavellian. They know to play the media.
(Is is far-fetched to think that the Trump-Bannon feud is a contrivance? I’m not convinced, but it doesn’t seem impossible. I don’t think Trump is a master strategist, as a lot of his supporters will tell you, but I don’t think he’s an idiot either. There’s no doubt, though, that he knows how to play an audience, whether it’s the public or, especially, the press. If you doubt that, go back and watch a few episodes of The Apprentice.)
Source 2 is Jim Jatras, another Drain the Swamper and a man whose views are always interesting. An occasional Washington Babylon contributor, Jim is a former senior foreign policy adviser to the Senate Republican leadership and is currently a Washington-based media and government relations specialist. Here’s his view:
There’s a split between Bannon and Trump, over domestic policy, not foreign policy. Bannon was for Ted Cruz before he was for Trump. He’s not exactly an anti-interventionist — he’s said war with China is inevitable, for example — but he’s upset with Trump’s domestic policies. He wanted to start with a big infrastructure program, because he knew if Trump dangled that the Democrats would come running, and then do immigration and trade.
But, instead, Trump listened to Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and he tried to repeal Obamacare and went for the tax cut. The establishment wing of the party wanted the tax cut, and after it passed top Republicans went to the White House and were praising Trump in over-the-top language. But that’s not going to help him with his base, and people who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice are not going to support him because hedge fund billionaires are getting a tax break for carried interest.
Inch by inch he’s becoming a conventional Republican, as if that will save him. His personality quirks will remain, but that’s about it. He’s got the same deep state types who want to bring him down running his foreign policy. The Mercers, who announced they are cutting their funding for Bannon, are total neocons.
The neocons would love to lead him down the garden path to disaster in Iran or North Korea. Who’s going to get blamed if half of South Korea is incinerated, Trump or William Kristol and David Frum? Those guys have never paid a price for their mistakes and they won’t now either.
His new Republican friends will abandon him at the first sign of trouble. If Democrats win the House in 2018, Trump is going to be impeached, and a lot of Republicans who are smiling at him now will stab him in the back. With the neocons he’s clasping an asp to his bosom by accepting their agenda. There is no upside.
This feud with Bannon hurts him, at least a little. Bannon is largely irrelevant, but Trump’s going to be hurt if he doesn’t engage with his base, which thus far has been pretty resilient. They watch Fox and ignore the inside baseball, but they won’t support him forever if he doesn’t deliver something.
Source 3 is Washington Babylon‘s very own podcast producer, David Slavick. But that’s not why I spoke to him about this topic. David also used to work at a Washington think tank and is plugged into the Democratic community and has all sorts of interesting sources. Here’s his take:
When Trump passed the tax bill, Republicans fell in love with him. That’s when he realized he could be the next Reagan, especially if he pulls the trigger with Iran.
Bannon believed Trump had core ideological leanings, but he has now seen the tax bill and Trump’s embrace of an aggressive foreign policy. Bannon helped make Trump, and this open feud is counterintuitive. But he’s in panic mode and has no influence left at the White House, so all he can do is scare Trump’s base.
Trump is like Reagan, who was a movement guy who became the ultimate establishment guy. Reagan was an outsider in the 1970s, and he used Barry Goldwater but ultimately betrayed him. It’s similar with Trump: he was an outsider who’s becoming an insider, and he’s betraying Bannonism.
I think this feud strengthens Trump politically. Bringing in the establishment is the only way he gets out of Russiagate alive. Otherwise, he’s going to be bird-dogged by this for his entire time in office and possibly be a one-term president. So he’s cutting the base loose in favor of these new alliances. It makes the neocons more powerful than ever because he’s brought them into the White House, and the Democrats will have a hard time attacking them because they rehabilitated these same neocons because they were all on the same side about Russiagate.