If the first two weeks of the Trump presidency has shown anything, it’s that chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has outmaneuvered his White House rivals, Cabinet secretaries and even Republican leaders in Congress. But Bannon is just getting started; he’s got a longer-term strategy to dominate White House policy making for months and years. The question now is, can anyone opposed to his power grab prevent it from happening?
The most immediate effects of Bannon’s influence were laid bare during the chaotic rollout of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Several reports detailed how Bannon and White House policy director Stephen Miller not only took the lead in writing the order but also took charge of its defense. Cabinet secretaries, including Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, were barely kept in the loop, although Kelly later said he was “informed” in advance. Rex Tillerson, then the nominee for secretary of state, was reportedly “baffled” about his lack of consultation. Republican leaders in Congress were caught totally unaware.
Bannon’s other public coup was to have himself added as a permanent invitee to the meetings of the National Security Council and the National Security Council Principals’ Committee. Because the executive order makes Bannon an invitee and does not actually alter the makeup of the National Security Council, the 1947 law requiring Senate confirmation of members does not apply to Bannon, as the Lawfare blog explained. Regardless, some Republican leaders are alarmed by the move.
“Taking a political strategist and making him a permanent member is concerning,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told me: “Karl Rove was told not to do that because of the likelihood of politicizing the deliberations of the NSC.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that Trump can have whomever he likes in the White House attend whatever meetings he wants them to attend. But Bannon’s real strategy to steer policy is not about attending meetings or about the NSC.
Inside the White House, Bannon is busily constructing a policy staff of his own. As the Daily Beast reported Wednesday, Bannon has stood up his Strategic Initiatives Group, which is seen by some as “an alternative lodestar of power and influence” meant to compete with other centers of influence, including the NSC.
“It’s not a team of rivals, it’s rival teams,” one White House official told me, referring to Bannon’s effort.
The Strategic Initiatives Group grew out of Bannon’s admiration for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the internal think tank that is meant to consider long-term, over the horizon strategic challenges, the official said. In a four-year presidential term, long-term may be only months, but the Strategic Initiatives Group is not designed to fight the day-to-day battles over issues in the news.
Some call the Strategic Initiatives Group Bannon’s internal think tank. It’s led by Christopher Liddell, a former General Motors executive who hails from New Zealand. Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell is also heavily involved, along with Baltimore real estate developer Reed Cordish. On the national security side is Sebastian Gorka, a controversial pundit and analyst with strong views on how to fight the war against Islamist extremism.
Gorka appeared on CNN’s The Lead Wednesday and argued that there’s no conflict or real overlap between the Strategic Initiatives Group and the National Security Council staff led by national security adviser Michael T. Flynn. The Strategic Initiatives Group has several task forces, including on cyber issues, veterans issues and U.S. manufacturing, he said.
“We are charged with doing long-range initiatives that are really important to the president,” he said. “That is very different from what the National Security Council is doing every day under the sterling leadership of General Flynn.”
Gorka has also been deployed to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in the media. He told popular radio host John Batchelor this week that the Trump administration might expand the list of countries impacted by the immigration executive order and should look at the social media of those trying to enter the United States.
“We have to think of new ways, more intensive interviews of these individuals, until we have at least certitude that this individual’s attitude towards the United States, its Constitution and the Americans that live here is one that is positive and not a threat,” Gorka said. “If you look at the San Bernardino attack that illustrated this issue, the capacity for federal agencies to look at public information such as social media postings, there’s no good reason why that should be excluded.”
Critics of Bannon’s ascendancy, such as the New York Times editorial page, argue that Trump should not let Bannon take over the White House policy making process because the president “needs advisers who can think strategically and weigh second- and third-order consequences.”
Bannon and his team are doing just that — thinking strategically and planning ahead — and doing it more skillfully than his administration rivals. There’s no sign they have the ability to stop him and no sign the president would want them to.