Putting the Pieces Together

President Donald Trump and Jordan’s King Abdullah II hold a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House, Wednesday, April 5, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP

There’s no subtle insight required to note that Steven Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council’s principals’ committee may be a significant development. White House officials claim Bannon’s role had primarily been to monitor the activities of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. Bannon himself said in a statement: “Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration. I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized.” These explanations barely rise to the level of preposterous and seem to employ big words to make up whatever gap remains. But this dramatic step comes in the midst of other developments which we cannot know are explicitly connected but together look like a qualitative sea-change in the evolution of this still quite new administration.

Jared Kushner or his supporters appear to want to take credit for Bannon’s demotion. Who knows whether there’s any truth to that. What I had heard was that Kushner was actually more enamored with Bannon’s slapdash ‘nationalism’ than most observers believed. However that may be, the far more probable explanation is that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is slowly consolidating his own authority.

Bannon’s presence on the principals’ committee was a completely aberrant development in the NSC’s more than half century of existence. The demotion of many of the President’s most important national security advisors – most notably the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – broke with the practice of recent administrations. Today’s development places the National Security Council back on its normal footing. That makes perfect sense for a National Security Advisor trying to consolidate his authority and particularly for one acculturated by decades in the country’s national security apparatus.

We also have President Trump’s comments today about Syria and the Assad regime. Clearly the primary trigger for these comments was the shocking and unpredicted new chemical weapons attack apparently by the Assad regime rather than some evolving bureaucratic developments within the White House. The presence of King Abdullah, whose country has been battered by the Syrian Civil War on his border, also likely played a role. But President Trump’s comments were still a dramatic volte-face, turning on their head positions he’s stuck to consistently for almost two years. My point is that even though Trump’s comments were clearly triggered by yesterday’s events, he’s has been immune, blasé, indifferent, ridiculous in the face of other dramatic events. Something seems different.

Also remember the on-going Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sub-plot of the Ezra Cohen-Watnick/Devin Nunes ‘un-masking’ story.

Let’s review some key aspects of that. A lot of conservative commentators are seizing on the bright shiny object of Susan Rice’s alleged role in all this. The President himself said today that he thinks she committed a criminal act, despite there being zero evidence this is the case. But I suspect what is more significant was when Cohen-Watnick’s shenanigans were shut down by the White House Counsel’s office.

The ‘review’ began under Mike Flynn. Cohen-Watnick is a Flynn protege. It seems quite likely Flynn initiated the whole caper himself. McMaster tried to fire Cohen-Watnick soon after taking over the NSC and while this review was going on. He was blocked by Bannon and Kushner. The Donald McGahn’s White House Counsel’s Office shut down Cohen-Watnick’s ‘review’ when he brought them his ‘findings’. That, as the AP now seems to have confirmed, led him to try to end run his story to Chairman Devin Nunes.

As I noted earlier this week, the Counsel’s Office works to defend and protect the President in his role as President. McGahn is a GOP party lawyer. But his office’s actions in this case suggest he acted as you would expect and want the Counsel’s office to act – moving to shut down the kind of gonzo antics that get people sent to jail or bog a White House down for months or years in endless scandals. (Think of Oliver North era Reagan NSC.)

Cohen-Watnick is still in place. But he was put in his place on that front. And I suspect the on-going Susan Rice brouhaha is more the fluff and flotsam of partisans than anything we’ll see later as a matter of any real consequence. I also suspect that we’ll eventually see that Bannon’s demotion, Cohen-Watnick’s interaction with the Counsel’s Office and even today’s comments by the President as being part of one interconnected story.

That story looks in large part to be the growing power and authority of McMaster. But I think we can also widen our field of view to see a wider picture. Donald Trump will never become normal. He’s a psychically damaged, impulsive, clownish man. He’ll never change. The Russia scandal of which he is the epicenter continues to metastasize with a mix of counter-intelligence, law enforcement and congressional inquiries. That’s not going away. At the same time, the people who were at the center of it are going away, or at least they are being reduced in their power and influence. Bannon and Flynn – whatever their role in the Russia scandal – are both people who embodied the melange of extremism and corruption which typified Trump and his campaign. Slowly but surely those people are being pushed from the center of power.

Growing in power are people like McMaster, McGahn, Mattis and others. There’s no need to lionize these people. This is no attempt to do so. I’m simply noting that unless things are wildly different than we imagine, these men had no role in the Russia shenanigans or the hothouse crazy of PizzaGate and all the rest which is the world of Flynn and Bannon and all their crazies. These are each more conventional players, trying to build up their own power but also seemingly trying to regularize the conduct of the administration into more accustomed patterns.

Does this mean the Trump administration is getting tamed and going mainstream? I very much doubt it. Trump is still the boss, with all that entails. Bannon, Flynn and their cronies are all part of the extremism and corruption I described above. But the real corruption stems from Trump himself, as does the impulsiveness and The Crazy. They could fire everyone else tied to the Russia scandal tomorrow. But it still all happened. The investigations won’t stop. Trump is still President. But we do seem to be seeing a group of normal people – I use this term advisedly and in a very broad sense – trying to create a functioning administration, at least on the foreign policy front around Trump, in spite of Trump.

Interesting developments.

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