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The knives are out for Steve Bannon — as they should be

The White House chief strategist is responsible for many of the Trump administration’s biggest failures.

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The initial spin on White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council was that nothing was amiss. He had only been there in the first place to keep an eye on the now-fired Michael Flynn, senior officials told reporters. Or maybe it was to “de-operationalize” the NSC, whatever that means. Either way, he’s not mad about the demotion; he’s happy about it!

A set of counter-leaks soon indicated that the exact opposite was true. Both the New York Times and Politico reported that Bannon was so annoyed about this move that he threatened to quit. (A wealthy and influential donor helped convince him not to, per Politico’s Eliana Johnson, Ken Vogel, and Josh Dawsey.)

More significantly, the demotion appears to be a sign of Bannon’s overall diminishing influence in the administration, since it’s being paired with leaks that the senior White House son-in-law / adviser, Jared Kushner, is unhappy with him — and that the president himself may be as well.

They have good reason to be. Though blame for the disastrous first two and a half months of Trump’s presidency should surely be widely shared — and much of it must go to the president himself— it’s difficult to think of another Trump staffer who still has his job who’s had as much of a malign, counterproductive influence on the administration as Bannon. Shockingly, it turns out that the former Breitbart News chief, a guy whose political experience is entirely based on outraging and provoking people, is not exactly great at governing.

Bannon’s biggest and most consequential blunder was, of course, the immigration and travel order aimed at people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. This was a failure on every level, and Bannon bears much of the blame for it. He and another White House aide, Stephen Miller, quickly crafted and rushed out the order with minimal input from the relevant agencies. One of its most objectionable and indefensible features — the sudden ban on entry for previously approved green card holders from targeted countries — was personally dictated by Bannon and Miller over the Department of Homeland Security’s objections, per CNN.

Even for those who sympathized with Trump’s goals, the order appeared to be handled in an incompetent and downright cruel way — travelers approved to enter the US were being suddenly detained at airports! What the order proved most effective at doing was mobilizing liberals across the country to protest in massive numbers. It was also too incompetently written to pass legal muster, and was soon frozen by the courts. Even when the administration tried for a do-over by redrafting it, it hasn’t been able to escape the consequences of that disastrous process — the revised order, too, has been blocked in court.

Bannon has caused other problems. Take his comment at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that one of Trump’s key goals was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This comment was certainly provocative and effective in getting headlines, but whether it actually meant anything beyond the typical Republican deregulatory agenda wasn’t clear. It did succeed in, once again, mobilizing liberals by convincing them that something deeply wrong was happening (many stories about this as Trump’s now-revealed secret agenda went viral), and I’d bet it hardened the already formidable resistance to Trump among employees of government agencies too. Again: counterproductive.

Bannon has also been spearheading the administration’s messaging strategy of making the media the enemy — he called the media the “opposition party” during the administration’s first week. The problem is that this is a messaging strategy for a conservative media entrepreneur, not a president, because you can’t beat the media in an election. Maybe it’s helping keep some of Trump’s base on board, but it sure doesn’t seem to be doing much for his overall approval rating, which started off mediocre and has become downright awful.

Though the failure of the GOP health care bill should be laid mainly at the feet of Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, and Tom Price (and Trump), Bannon proved ineffective on that front too, and sometimes comically so. According to Mike Allen of Axios, Bannon tried to twist House Freedom Caucus members’ arms by insisting, “This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” But this didn’t work — one member replied, “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn't listen to him, either."

Bannon’s slash-and-burn approach to politics ended up succeeding in the campaign, when his main goal was to make Hillary Clinton toxic. But building consensus around a policy agenda requires a different set of skills. And while he’s still in the administration for now, more and more people appear to be recognizing the limits of his skills.

Also, the “President Bannon” narrative really did get on Trump’s nerves

Another great tidbit from Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush’s piece on Bannon:

Moreover, Mr. Bannon’s Svengali-style reputation has chafed on a president who sees himself as the West Wing’s only leading man. Several associates said the president had quietly expressed annoyance over the credit Mr. Bannon had received for setting the agenda — and Mr. Trump was not pleased by the “President Bannon” puppet-master theme promoted by magazines, late-night talk shows and Twitter.

This is particularly amusing because while the “President Bannon” narrative did indeed appear to be based in some truth at the beginning of the administration, many liberals referenced and deployed it as part of a deliberate attempt to provoke the famously thin-skinned president. I guess it worked!

Nuclear time


Our daily politics news roundup will check in on several other big stories, so here’s a look at what else is in the news.

Meanwhile, Trump does appear to be set to get one major win this week, though it will be ugly: Senate Republicans are preparing to change the chamber’s rules so they can approve Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination with a simple majority.

Though much has gone wrong for the president during his first two and a half months in office, it should be noted that he has handled the Supreme Court nomination quite dexterously.

Rather than nominate an obviously far-right bomb thrower with a history of making provocative statements or decisions, Trump chose Gorsuch, someone whom Democrats couldn’t really contrive a convincing reason to oppose other than that he is conservative (or that they wanted revenge for the GOP blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination).

So it was easy to unite Republicans in support of Gorsuch and — it’s expected — in support of changing Senate rules to overcome what they viewed as a completely unjustified Democratic filibuster.

Russia watch: Nunes temporarily steps aside from investigation

Out of the three major investigations into Trump associates and Russia, the most compromised appeared to be the House Intelligence Committee investigation, which was led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA).

Nunes often appeared to be running defense for the White House rather than investigating. He sometimes went about this in a remarkably ham-handed way — for instance, getting a tip about “unmasking” from White House staffers, and then announcing it publicly before telling his committee members while denying it came from the White House. Liberal groups filed complaints over his behavior here, and Politico reports the House Ethics Committee is looking into the matter too.

So on Thursday morning, Nunes bowed to the criticism and announced he’d temporarily step aside from the House investigation. It will now be run by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), with “assistance” from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Tom Rooney (R-FL). Now, don’t expect a complete change in the committee’s approach — Gowdy’s questioning at the committee’s recent hearing indicated that, similarly to Nunes, he wants to focus on the Obama administration behavior rather than Trump associates and Russia. But Nunes had clearly lost credibility — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he was running an “Inspector Clouseau investigation” — so it was time for him to step aside.

Today’s top politics reads

  • “Trump and his ‘America First’ philosophy face first moral quandary in Syria”: “‘The president just made a statement on Assad that looks 180 degrees different from his actual policy,’ said Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University and former official in the George W. Bush administration. ‘This may be a scattershot administration with a president that responds to near-term stimulus rather than long-term planning or strategy.’” —Greg Jaffe, Washington Post
  • “The Trump era of climate policy will bring a few huge surprises. Let’s try to predict them”: “My starting point is that the evolution of policy, energy markets, and technology can be hugely unpredictable. Not in the hand-wavy sense of ‘the future’s always uncertain, blah blah.’ Rather, over the past 17 years, we’ve seen some monumental surprises in the energy world — ground-shaking court decisions, unexpected swings in coal use, the sudden emergence of new technologies — that have radically revised the climate picture. And it’s a safe bet we’ll see more such shocks in the Trump era.” —Brad Plumer, Vox
  • “The long, lucrative right-wing grift is blowing up in the world’s face”: “Because there was a lot of money in it for various hucksters and moguls and authors and politicians, the conservative movement spent decades building up an entire sector of the economy dedicated to scaring and lying to older white men. For millions of members of that demographic, this parallel media dedicated to lying to them has totally supplanted the ‘mainstream’ media. Now they, and we, are at the mercy of the results of that project. “ —Alex Pareene, Fusion

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