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Two theories about why Steve Bannon midwifed such a bad executive order

The immigration executive order has been an unmitigated disaster. So why would Bannon have pushed it?

As nationwide protests against President Trump’s immigration mandate rage on, he put chief strategist Stephen Bannon in an unprecedented national security role. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

It’s been a few days since the White House issued an executive order regarding refugees and visa holders that generated just a wee bit of legal and political blowback. There seems to be a whole lot of confusion about how things went down and why. So let’s stipulate a few facts before speculating on some possible explanations.

FACT #1: This was Steve Bannon’s baby. We know from the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush that Bannon has gained greater influence over Trump at the expense of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and everyone else in the West Wing not related to Trump. Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council has raised more than a few eyebrows, and it’s indicative of his influence.

According to multiple news reports, Bannon was the architect of much of the first week of the Trump administration. Regarding this order in particular, my Post colleague Karen DeYong reports that, Bannon “was directly involved in shaping the controversial immigration mandate.” CNN’s reporting offers some details backing this up:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green cardholders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case-by-case basis, DHS could allow green cardholders to enter the U.S.

FACT #2: This executive order was a bad idea that was incompetently drafted and executed. Sometimes in American foreign policy, the U.S. government takes actions that advance short-term interests at the expense of long-standing American values. Sometimes the reverse is true, and the president takes actions that might harm short-term interests because it accords with what Americans think is the right thing to do. Fortunately, America’s enlightened self-interest means that foreign policy actions can often advance both U.S. interests and values.

Trump’s executive order managed the rare feat of harming both American values and American interests at the same time. The setback to American values is so obvious and manifest that no further explanation is needed. But this stupid, panicky order also harms American interests. If the United States wants to prosecute a successful campaign against the Islamic State, it needs the cooperation of locals in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Iraqi government. By insulting local allies, this order does the exact opposite of that. The propaganda that the Islamic State or al-Qaeda will be able to create because of this idiocy is another windfall for anti-American terrorists.

Don’t take my word for it, take the word of counterterrorism experts. Or U.S. military commanders in the field. Or GOP members of Congress. Or other Republicans sympathetic to Trump’s populist message. Or even the U.S. attorneys tasked to defend the executive order in court.

Take a moment to appreciate the breathtaking own-goal that this order accomplished, in no small part because it appears that it was drafted without any executive branch review at all. Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes is a pretty levelheaded guy when it comes to national security issues. In his analysis of this executive order, however, he doesn’t pull his punches:

NBC is reporting that the document was not reviewed by DHS, the Justice Department, the State Department, or the Department of Defense, and that National Security Council lawyers were prevented from evaluating it. Moreover, the New York Times writes that Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the agencies tasked with carrying out the policy, were only given a briefing call while Trump was actually signing the order itself. Yesterday, the Department of Justice gave a “no comment” when asked whether the Office of Legal Counsel had reviewed Trump’s executive orders — including the order at hand. (OLC normally reviews every executive order.)
This order reads to me, frankly, as though it was not reviewed by competent counsel at all.

Which bring us to …

FACT #3: Bannon is not a stupid guy. I have talked to a number of people who have known Bannon through the years, and they all say the same thing: Regardless of what you think of his ideology, he is an extremely intelligent individual.

So those are the facts, and yet it seems difficult to reconcile all three of them.

So what explains this? I can think of a couple of possibilities. Let’s go from the least to most far-fetched.

The most plausible story to assume in this instance is incompetence. Ordinarily, when the federal government does something stupid, it’s best to assume incompetence rather than malevolence. This is Bannon’s first week in a White House job and, like most other really smart people who lack high-level government experience, there will be a lot of rookie mistakes at the outset. The Trump administration will be different from past administrations on a lot of dimensions, but screwing up in the first few months is not one of them. This is particularly true given the abject lack of government experience among Trump’s White House staff. Maybe this is just a case of smart people doing stupid things because they are inexperienced.

The trouble with this explanation is that some very smart people don’t think that this was an accident. Indeed, folks not prone to conspiracy theories see something amiss. Here’s Wittes again:

Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose. This is the first policy the United States has adopted in the post-9/11 era about which I have ever said this. It’s a grave charge, I know, and I’m not making it lightly. But in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.
When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.

And here’s Kevin Drum:

In cases like this, the smart money is usually on incompetence, not malice. But this looks more like deliberate malice to me. Bannon wanted turmoil and condemnation. He wanted this executive order to get as much publicity as possible. He wanted the ACLU involved. He thinks this will be a PR win….
[B]oth sides think that maximum exposure is good for them. Liberals think middle America will be appalled at Trump’s callousness. Bannon thinks middle America will be appalled that lefties and the elite media are taking the side of terrorists. After a week of skirmishes, this is finally a hill that both sides are willing to die for. Who’s going to win?

Drum thinks this was done for domestic politics reasons, which leads to the second explanation: This is security theater. Trump spent his entire campaign whipping up hysteria about the terrorist threat. As previously noted, this executive order does not accomplish that, but it does make a big splash. It’s a highly visible action that might make Americans somehow feel more secure. That it hurts foreigners is just a bonus for Bannon.

This is possible, but it is worth noting that this action, as well as the counterproductive rhetoric toward Mexico, has harmed rather than helped Trump’s approval ratings.

It is possible that we will never know the precise mix of malevolence and incompetence that led to this outcome. What we do know, however, is that the outcome has significantly harmed America’s standing in the world and its national security interests.

As time passes, the foreign policy bureaucracy will push back on these kind of counterproductive actions. As Cabinet secretaries staff up, they’ll soon act as constraints on the Trump White House.

The thing is, the president of the United States is clearly much more simpatico with his staff than his Cabinet. He never admits error. And he’s the most powerful man in the federal government. Right now, Trump is listening to Bannon. And whether due to incompetence or malfeasance, Bannon is making America less safe again.