The Trump White House is engulfed in a firestorm of its own ignition. The Democrats and the media were only too happy to pour on more gasoline.
I am increasingly confident that I’ll be able to begin a lot of columns that way over the next four years. That’s because the one clear takeaway from the first days of this presidency is that the Trump we saw during the campaign is the Trump we got. He may move to the center on this policy or that — indeed, I expect he will — but there was never going to be a lasting “pivot.”
Trump spent his first weekend burning through political capital arguing about crowd sizes. It was foolish but relatively harmless. Trump’s actions his second weekend were more worrisome. It’s not just the substance of Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order that bothers me — I’m using scare quotes because it’s not really a ban on Muslims — but his process, or lack thereof.
If Trump had given agency professionals 30 days to review his order on refugees, he could have avoided the confusion at airports, not to mention the media hysteria and the protests. And if his communications team had been given time, they could have pre-empted some of the wild claims made by Democratic detractors.
They went another way: The Bannon Way.
According to CNN, when lawyers at the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the executive order banning travelers from seven countries did not include legal permanent residents — a.k.a. green card holders — senior strategist Steven Bannon led the charge to countermand the ruling. Hence the airport mess.
Over the weekend, Bannon also succeeded in getting himself put on the National Security Council’s principals committee. This would not be unlike a President Hillary Clinton putting David Brock on the NSC.
Bannon leads the “let Trump be Trump’ wing of the White House, which relishes sowing chaos and demonizing the press.
This is not to say Bannon is to blame for all this. The buck stops with the president. But Bannon leads the “let Trump be Trump” wing of the White House, which relishes sowing chaos and demonizing the press.
Actually, “wing” might be the wrong word, given that evidence of a countervailing faction is in short supply. (On Fox News Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, widely seen as a voice of reason in Trump’s inner circle, argued that journalists who didn’t show sufficient respect to the president should be fired.)
Bannon has said he’s a “Leninist” but he’s really more of a Trotskyist because he fancies himself the leader of an international populist-nationalist right-wing movement, exporting anti-“globalist” revolution. In that role, his status as an enabler of Trump’s instinct to shoot — or tweet — from the hip seems especially ominous.
Presumably at Bannon’s insistence, Trump didn’t even consult his secretaries of defense and homeland security, on the grounds that this was a need-to-know operation requiring secrecy, lest the “bad dudes” — Trump’s term — find out and rush into the U.S. In other words, two decorated retired generals couldn’t be trusted with the information.
The Bannon Way might work on the campaign trail, but it doesn’t translate into good governance. It’s possible — and one must hope — that Trump can learn this fact on the job.
But what if he doesn’t? He could put the country in serious peril.
Consider Russia. In a normal time, the signals being sent by the Trump team would be interpreted as an invitation to Russian aggression. The president waves off concerns about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, talks of NATO’s obsolescence and hails Vladimir Putin’s heroic leadership. During the campaign, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich belittled Estonia — a NATO ally — as being “in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” (At its closest point, it’s 85 miles away, the same distance as Finland.)
Putin might well decide to act on Trump’s hints. But I don’t think Trump would actually welcome an attack on Estonia or another NATO ally. Indeed, I suspect he would feel betrayed by such a move.
Then what? Who backs down? Do we abandon Estonia, or do we go to war?
In normal times, the essence of statecraft is to avoid getting into such predicaments in the first place — by working carefully and deliberately and consulting with such institutions as the National Security Council.
Which is where Trump will find Bannon.
— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC