Making the click-through worthwhile today: What the fall of Steve Bannon says to current White House staff; finally, some good signs on North Korea; Missouri’s Senate race gets even more complicated; and wondering what David Cameron really thought about Barack Obama.
Will White House Staffers Take Bannon’s Defenestration as a Warning?
Steve Bannon’s fall from the highest heights of politics is as steep and sudden as anyone can remember. As recently as April, he was sitting on the National Security Council and serving as President Trump’s “chief strategist” at the White House. Now he’s out of the White House, being denounced by the president as “Sloppy Steve,” cut off from his financial patrons, forced to step down from Breitbart.com, and losing his SiriusXM radio show. He’ll presumably have to move out of the “Breitbart Embassy” townhouse in Washington.
What’s left? Michael Wolff has already effectively written Bannon’s White House memoir.
Many White House watchers expected that big-name staffers who depart the Trump administration will write gossipy tell-alls offering an unflattering portrait of their former co-workers and perhaps the president. Someone once joked that the unwritten subtitle of every Washington memoir was “If Only They Had Listened to Me.” But the systematic dismantling of Bannon’s professional life may prove as something of a warning shot for departed and departing staff. As long as Trump is president, he’ll have a lot of power and leverage over a lot of people. If you want to tell an unsavory tale of the president or his family behind closed doors, maybe you’ll want to wait until after Trump departs the Oval Office.
Then again, maybe this is just a giant meteorite of karma finally catching up to Bannon. In 2012, he took over a website where the staff was in shock and mourning after the sudden death of Andrew Breitbart. It did not take long for Bannon to demonstrate he would be a different kind of leader, one with little or no respect for anyone he worked with, and no regard for what had been built before his fairly-recent arrival. Some have speculated that the site’s draconian nondisclosure agreements for staffers were designed to keep them from warning others about Bannon’s mercurial hostility.
In interviews, a dozen former Bannon employees and associates agreed with those scathing assessments of the man Trump has turned to oversee his campaign, painting a picture of a boss who repeatedly used inappropriate language in front of his employees and in many cases directed expletive-laced tirades at them. At Breitbart, the former employees said, he would regularly order subordinates to write stories that supported his allies and tore down adversaries, such as conservative radio host Glenn Beck, and admonished them when their posts didn’t toe his line.
A steady stream of key staff departed in the early Bannon years. At conservative gatherings from 2012 to 2015 or so, bloggers and writers would lament how the site had changed. The site started making embarrassing, high-profile errors like claiming Chuck Hagel’s ties to a the mythical “friends of Hamas” and the claim that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had been part of Bill Clinton’s defense team during the Whitewater scandal. The site embraced Milo Yiannopoulos’s shtick with open arms. The signal-to-noise ratio worsened, and the comments section became a sewer. Andrew Breitbart was a rebel through and through, but he had no patience or tolerance for bigots. He urged CPAC and other conservative groups to welcome gays and threw a “a big ol’ gay party at CPAC” in 2011. Breitbart hated leftists and liked everybody else.
At Breitbart.com, during the campaign, in the White House . . . every step of the way, Bannon could have built alliances or at least treated people professionally and cordially. But he just found new ways to alienate and antagonize everyone.
Bannon had astonishingly bad judgment. By itself, giving such unprecedented access to Wolff was a colossal mistake. Surely Bannon isn’t the first White House staffer to resent the influence of the president’s family, but what kind of fool tells a guy working on a book about the White House all of his criticisms of Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner? Who does that and expects to stay on good terms with the president?
Once outside of the White House, Bannon’s judgment continued to be terrible. Everyone else in the Republican party could see Roy Moore was a walking disaster; Bannon gave a full-throated endorsement and tore into critics like Mitt Romney.
By the way, back in November 2015, Bannon along with Ben Carson lied about my reporting, so . . . karma’s a rough mistress.
A Glimmer of Hope on the Korean Peninsula?
Look, no one’s saying the potential threat of war on the Korean Peninsula is gone. But for the first time in a while, things look a little better than they did the day before.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday for helping to spark the first inter-Korean talks in more than two years, and warned that Pyongyang would face stronger sanctions if provocations continued.
Seoul and Pyongyang agreed at Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, to resolve all problems between them through dialogue and also to revive military consultations so that accidental conflict could be averted.
“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”
Perhaps Moon is just attempting to ensure that Trump gets some of the credit, or to warm U.S.–South Korean relations. Or maybe those international sanctions are starting to squeeze North Korea’s economy in ways that the regime can’t afford to ignore:
Exports may have declined by “as much as 30 percent last year”, according to Byung-Yeon Kim, author of the book “Unveiling the North Korean Economy”.
In particular, exports to China — North Korea’s biggest trading partner and the reason many believe Pyongyang is able to survive — are down as much as 35 percent.
That’s a third of the regime’s economic growth wiped out. And Professor Kim’s figures don’t take into account the latest sanctions that were passed in December which targets, amongst other things, visas for North Koreans working overseas.
Remittances from those workers are the second biggest foreign exchange earner for Pyongyang. And some predict that new sanctions could cut North Korea’s hard currency earnings by up to 80 percent.
Everyone expects North Korea to be on its best behavior during the Olympics.
S. Nathan Park, writing in the Washington Post, notes that South Korean President Moon is probably as good an ally in Seoul as the U.S. could hope for at a time like this:
Moon is emblematic of this newer generation. Moon served his military duty as a special forces soldier defending the demilitarized zone. His own family comes from the North, which they escaped during the Korean War on a U.S. ship. Moon [has] little reason to romanticize the regime in Pyongyang and has consistently stated his support [of] the alliance with the United States. Despite considerable controversy at home and intense economic and political pressure from China, he allowed the Americans to deploy a missile-defense system to protect U.S. troops in South Korea. He has even managed to get along with President Trump, who has criticized South Korea for not paying enough for the stationing of U.S. forces. (In a recent phone call before the inter-Korean talks, Trump said: “America supports President Moon 100 percent.”)
It’s worth noting that South Korea remained a steadfast ally of the United States even at the peak of anti-Americanism in 2002. Today, Trump is personally even more unpopular in South Korea than Bush was, but there are simply no large anti-U.S. protests in South Korea — not even when Trump personally visited Seoul. Nor is there any indication that South Korean liberals are displeased with Moon’s pro-U.S. stance. A recent opinion poll puts his approval rating at a remarkable 77.2 percent.
Finally, there was that surprising leak that the U.S. is “quietly discussing” a limited military strike in North Korea. Considering the likelihood that Pyongyang would retaliate (and perhaps escalate by using chemical or nuclear weapons), one wonders whether this is a real discussion or a strategic leak, a verbal warning shot that lets Pyongyang know that they’ve got a good incentive to calm things down, too.
Oh, Dear! A New X-Factor in Missouri’s Senate Race
Man, Missouri’s Senate race just got even more dramatic and complicated.
A Kansas City lawyer could shake up one of the most competitive Senate races in the country as he seriously considers running as a centrist independent against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and her eventual Republican challenger.
Craig O’Dear, a Kansas City attorney who has the backing of the national Centrist Project, has launched an exploratory campaign committee for a possible independent bid for the Senate.
O’Dear, a 60-year-old Missouri native, is a partner with Bryan Cave LLP, an international law firm that has an office in Kansas City. He also is involved with the Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted.
A January poll from Missouri Scout of 1,122 likely voters found that 49 percent support [GOP front-runner and Missouri attorney general Josh] Hawley compared to 45 percent for McCaskill, with 6 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
I hadn’t seen that poll; trailing, even close, is a bad sign for an incumbent like McCaskill. Life sure was easier when she was taking on Todd Akin.
Now the big question is, which side does an independent candidate hurt more?
ADDENDA: Publicly, former British prime minister David Cameron and former U.S. President Barack Obama got along great. But one of Cameron’s advisors, Steve Hilton, says that the smiles didn’t continue behind the scenes.
“My old boss, former British prime minister David Cameron, thought Obama was one of the most narcissistic, self-absorbed people he’d ever dealt with. Obama never listened to anyone, always thought he was smarter than every expert in the room, and treated every meeting as an opportunity to lecture everyone else. This led to real-world disasters, like Syria and the rise of Isis.”
A spokesman for Mr Cameron said: “This does not represent David Cameron’s opinion at all and could not be further from the truth. David Cameron’s views on President Obama, whether in public or in private, are the same: he considers Barack Obama a hugely accomplished president, a great partner for Britain and a good friend to our country and to him personally.”
If you did feel that way, Mr. Cameron . . . well, let’s just say we understand.