President Trump tweeted nine times this morning, attacking the “failing” New York Times, other “fake news” outlets (including the Washington Post), “hoax Russian collusion,” and Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, as a “Vietnam con artist” who “cried like a baby.”
Today’s string of tweets represented Trump’s most voluble social media outburst since John Kelly, a retired Marine general, became his chief of staff just one week ago, promising to restore order to a chaotic West Wing and, in particular, to push the president’s tweets “in the right direction.” On the social media front, Kelly is — not surprisingly to anyone who has even casually observed the president’s behavior over the past two years — off to a shaky start.
Today’s Twitter flare-up would seem to suggest that Kelly is destined to fail as Trump’s law and order chief of staff because Trump’s impulsiveness cannot be constrained.
But that’s not the real reason he cannot succeed. Rather, it’s because Trump’s base, and in particular, his media and social media base, thrives on West Wing dysfunction that is rooted in what is portrayed as an existential battle between Trump’s “nationalist” staff and advisers, and the dreaded “globalists” in his midst. Because Trump has displayed no real interest in taming that beast, and in fact seems to relish feeding it, any effort by Kelly to slap Trump’s hand away from Twitter will have little impact on the persistent unrest roiling the White House.
Here’s a case in point. While Trump was denouncing “fake” (i.e., mainstream) news on Twitter this morning, Breitbart, the far-right news site formerly run by his top strategist Stephen K. Bannon, had been running a story since last night attacking National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The headline: “McMaster Worked at Think Tank Backed by Soros-Funded Group that Helped Obama Sell Iran Nuclear Deal.”
That Breitbart story attempts to link several of the right wing’s bogeymen, including McMaster himself, liberal philanthropist George Soros, and former President Barack Obama, in a liberal-funded “echo chamber” that has been promoting the Iran nuclear deal to the public.
That story comes on the heels of a Daily Beast story over the weekend detailing an ongoing clash between McMaster and Bannon. This one reported that last week, Kelly gave a green light to McMaster’s firing of two National Security Council staffers from the Bannon camp, NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and Trump Middle East advisor Derek Harvey. The Daily Beast reports that this “landed McMaster in the firing line of Bannon’s alt-right media allies and Russian troll bots, both calling for his ouster.”
Pro-Trump media outlets have pointed to other alleged evidence of McMaster’s duplicity. This morning, pro-Trump media outlets are still buzzing about a recent story in Circa, another player in the pro-Trump media world, which claimed that McMaster had renewed Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s security clearance. The Weekly Standard reports this practice is standard procedure to maintain continuity in national security matters between administrations.
But in the Trump media world, it’s evidence of a “deep state” conspiracy. And that’s the kind of news Trump likes.
By specifically naming the New York Times, The Post, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS as “fake news” and, in the same tweet today, boasting that his base is “getting stronger,” Trump signaled his continuing gusto for dividing the world into rivalries, including between the “fake news” and pro-Trump media. “Fake news” is on the side of the “establishment” and the pro-Trump media is on the side of, and possibly indistinguishable from, the burn-it-all-d0wn Bannon camp.
Indeed, Trump has offered little evidence he wants the Bannon camp to change its ways. Although Trump did issue a statement defending McMaster as “a good man” with whom he was “working very well,” he has done nothing else to publicly quell this firestorm created by the media world he believes has his back.
Meanwhile, the far-right coverage of McMaster’s supposed failings continues apace — with little to no serious objection from Trump. Breitbart is attacking conservative “establishment” radio host Hugh Hewitt for not asking McMaster in a weekend interview about his “purge” (Breitbart’s term) of NSC staffers Cohen-Watnick and Harvey. Meanwhile, as the pro-Trump and alt-right media worlds circle around McMaster like vultures, Trump still takes to Twitter like the pre-Kelly Trump. That’s because Twitter is the place where Trump goes for affirmation, the place where Breitbart’s version of events gets repeated and retweeted, giving Trump a kind of safe space from the “fake news” about Russia investigations and legislative disasters and all of the failures of his first six months in office.
Kelly may seek to subdue Trump’s Twitter habit. He may try to manage who can stroll into the Oval Office and whisper in the president’s ear. He may vow to crack down on leaks. But he will still have to contend with Trump’s insistence on controlling White House messaging himself. And as Trump becomes more embattled, he will likely continue to hunker down with friendly nationalist media that not only soothes his ego, but also affirms his sense of who his enemies are, and where battle lines are clearly drawn between allies and enemies.
It’s not hard to imagine that Kelly, too, will soon be in the sights of Trump’s media allies. Their goal is not just defending the “nationalist” camp, but continuing to stoke intra-White House feuds. And Trump’s fixation with competition and feuding, ultimately, is what will make Kelly’s task impossible.