As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump praised autocrats and exhibited strongman tendencies. But as president of the United States, Trump is proving to be one of the weakest, most disinterested executives in memory. He seems happy — even eager — to be both operationally and ideologically marginalized inside his own administration.
This is, I think, the best way to understand the ouster of chief strategist Steve Bannon.
White House staff, congressional Republicans, military leaders, and executive branch officials are increasingly confident simply ignoring President Trump. After Trump tweeted that he wanted the military to ban transgender service members from serving, for instance, the Pentagon quickly said that it had not received an official order and was going to carry on with business as usual until it did. Similarly, after Trump tweeted his threats at North Korea, the key organs of American foreign policymaking — the State Department, the Defense Department, and so on — were quick to declare that nothing had changed, there was no military buildup or new red lines, and everyone should just ignore the commander in chief’s morning outburst.
A list like this could go on. Senate Republicans are ignoring the president’s demand to keep holding votes on health reform. The National Economic Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services are ignoring Trump’s campaign promises to raise taxes on the rich and protect Social Security and Medicaid from cuts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — one of the few executive branch officials who seems to ideologically align with Trump — is ignoring Trump’s clear desire that he resign, or at least take a more aggressive hand overseeing Bob Mueller.
As CNBC’s John Harwood concluded in a recent overview, “fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself.”
Trump could react to all this with fury. He could elevate aides, like Bannon, who are committed to his ideological agenda and invested in reshaping the federal government around his vision, and fire Cabinet officials and top staffers who seem to be using his administration to drive their agendas. But he isn’t.
In a recent interview on my podcast, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes outlined a theory as to why. He argued that it’s wrong to see this as the government defying the president. This, he thinks, is exactly how Trump wants it:
I don't think the president wants to be in charge. I think he wants to sit on his couch and yell at his TV screen and tweet things, but he's almost happy to be able to kind of get it out of his system and not have anyone listen to him. I think his optimal equilibrium is hectoring Jeff Sessions but Jeff Sessions not quitting, or tweeting out the thing about transgender service members and the military ignoring him, or tweeting out threats to North Korea and not actually changing American posture.
I think that that we have arrived at a new equilibrium in which both the interior members of his staff, the actual federal bureaucracy, the US Congress, the US public, the global public, and global leaders all basically understand the president is fundamentally a bullshit artist and you just shouldn't listen to what he says.
Which brings us back to Bannon’s ouster, and what it means for the Trump administration going forward.
There are two ways a president can make sure the federal policy roughly tracks his wishes. One way is to insist on it himself, but Trump has no interest in doing that. Another way is to outsource ideological enforcement to committed, empowered lieutenants.
Bannon was the closest thing Trump had to a lieutenant like that: He was the true believer running around the federal government trying to force various agencies and officials to align their work with Trump’s campaign promises. In his interview with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Bannon said that forcing the government to actually carry out Trump’s trade agenda was a daily struggle. “That’s a fight I fight every day here,” he said. “We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and [National Economic Council Chair] Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying. ... The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy.”
The problem is that Bannon could only win those fights if Trump wanted him to win those fights — and now we see Trump didn’t. Instead, Trump has systematically elevated outsiders to his campaign and operation like John Kelly and Gary Cohn while alienating or firing allies like Bannon and Reince Priebus. The result is a White House where the top staff doesn't care what Trump says and the president doesn't seem to care that they don't care.
This doesn’t make much sense unless you buy Hayes’s theory of Trump’s presidency: that we’re watching a president who wants to comment on his own presidency without actually driving its agenda or being held accountable for anything he says. Having someone like Bannon running around demanding the federal government conform to Trump’s campaign promises and forcing Trump himself to step in and resolve angry disputes is contrary to that vision.
The presidency Trump wants is one in which he can say whatever he likes but other people do the work and ignore him when necessary. Chief of Staff John Kelly seems to understand that:
As the new White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly routes all calls to and from President Trump through the White House switchboard, where he can sign off on them. He stanches the flow of information reaching the president’s desk. And he requires that all staff members — including Trump’s relatives — go through him to reach the president.
American politics is hurtling toward a very strange place. The president of the United States is clearly unfit for the job, but the good news, to the extent that there is good news, is that everyone around him knows it, and he is willing to be sidelined as long as no one takes away his phone. Whether he is being marginalized by his own administration or choosing to marginalize himself I don’t know, but Bannon’s ouster is another piece of evidence that Trump is interested in Twitter, not Trumpism.