On Wednesday, Stephen K. Bannon was removed from his post on the National Security Council by H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, with the approval of President Trump himself. This is being interpreted in some quarters as if Trump is suddenly listening to the NSC’s voices of reason and experience. Meanwhile, the White House is claiming it represents the natural evolution of the NSC under the young administration.
Neither of these explanations quite makes sense.
Consider the first one. On Wednesday, the White House’s ongoing attacks on Susan Rice, former president Barack Obama’s national security adviser, reached their climax. Rice had been the target of a White House smear campaign accusing her of wrongfully “unmasking” Trump associates identified in transcripts of intelligence intercepts, and now Trump has asserted in an interview with the New York Times that Rice had committed a crime — without offering any evidence.
“It is one of the big stories of our time,” Trump told the Times.
The mere fact that Trump continues to push this Rice narrative itself undercuts the idea that Bannon’s removal shows that Trump is listening to more reasonable voices around him. Rather, it’s strong evidence of Trump still being Trump, using false charges against perceived political enemies to distract the public from his own scandals. Perhaps Trump did listen to the voices of reason on the matter of Bannon’s role at the NSC, but we should treat this with skepticism, given the other events of the day.
Now consider the explanations coming from the White House.
After Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs first broke the news of Bannon’s removal from the NSC, the initial explanation from the White House was that this was not McMaster winning a bureaucratic turf war, but rather just a logical step in the evolution of the NSC. To make that point, unnamed White House advisers asserted that Bannon had initially been installed on the NSC only to oversee McMaster’s predecessor, Michael Flynn, who resigned Feb. 13 following revelations that he had lied about the contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador.
For instance, one unnamed White House official told the Wall Street Journal that “Steve was put there as a check on Flynn,” adding that under McMaster’s leadership, “there was no longer a need [for Bannon] because they share the same views.” In other words, with Flynn gone, Bannon’s NSC services were no longer needed.
But the implication that Bannon was there to babysit Flynn — and can leave now that Flynn is gone — doesn’t make much sense. First, Flynn resigned nearly two months ago. What’s more, there seems to be little evidence that Bannon and McMaster share the same views, as the above unnamed official claimed. Most notably, McMaster has eschewed use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” as unhelpful because terrorists are actually “un-Islamic.” By contrast, Bannon sees the West as embroiled in “a global war against Islamic fascism.”
Let’s also put this in its larger context here. Recall: McMaster wanted to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is currently the NSC’s senior director for intelligence, after he reportedly provided House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) intelligence reports allegedly showing incidental collection of the communications of Trump and his associates with Russian entities. This was apparently done to prop up Trump’s baseless charge that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
But Bannon, along with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly intervened to save job of the 30-year-old Cohen-Watnick (who had originally been hired by Flynn).
In other words, Bannon and McMaster have likely been at odds in recent days over one of the highest profile stories unfolding at the moment — the administration’s effort to manage the fallout from Trump’s false claim about Obama. It would therefore make more sense that McMaster wanted Bannon off the NSC because they clashed, not because their shared views rendered Bannon’s ongoing membership redundant.
One thing that is clear, though, is that both Trump and Bannon are trying to manage this mess by diverting the focus onto Rice. There’s the Trump charge mentioned above. And Bannon later offered his own Rice-oriented explanation for his removal:
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration. I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
While one might spend time puzzling over what he means by “de-operationalized” and how McMaster restored the NSC’s “proper function,” two other words in that statement are far more important: Susan Rice. This shows once again that the broader game plan is to try to turn the focus on Rice to distract from the rolling mess Trump’s false wiretapping charges unleashed — and, now, to distract from Bannon’s administrative clashes.