Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Leadership week happened upon the White House just when President Trump needed it most. After the major disappointment of the healthcare bill, the President desperately needed an opportunity to look presidential – he got three. In a single week span that was symptomatic of the speed at which the political news cycle moves in the Trump era, Washington saw a new Supreme Court justice confirmed and its Senate process changed forever; a bilateral summit between the two most powerful world leaders; and a return to American military interventionism in the Middle East after years of diplomatic dithering under President Obama. Behind the news headlines and shifting political tectonic plates, factions within the White House still threaten to undermine a rare period of clear leadership.
It’s rationalists versus nationalists, but family will always win
With a policy background based that is limited beyond New York real estate, it is a well known fact that this president leans heavily on his advisers to fill in the gaps, whereas more establishment politicians rely on a worldview developed over a career. The ideology of those advisers therefore becomes critical as the battle for the President’s heart and mind is fought by two competing camps – the rationalists and nationalists.
In an acute exercise in political PR, the rationalist camp, spearheaded by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, presents itself as the sensible, centrist wing of the administration committed to more ‘sensible’ policy objectives. Their domestic and international view is more digestible amongst the moderate Republicans whose support for Trump is not guaranteed but absolutely required in the legislative process. An important moderating force, the rationalists are a typically New York set, bejewelled with Goldman Sachs alumni including Gary Cohn and Dina Powell.
The rationalists’ perspective is the polar opposite to that of the nationalists. Led by the America-Firster-in-Chief, Steve Bannon, they are at the more extreme fringes of Republican policy; not many chief strategists to the President would be found on a public stage willingly outlining their plans to “break up the administrative state”. Bannon is joined on the front line by Peter Navarro, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller in pursuing the America First agenda, no matter how domestic and diplomatic allegiances are sacrificed in the process.
It was the nationalist wing who scored the early big wins in the administration, best exemplified by the first immigration executive order. Since then, their power has faded; Bannon is now rumoured to be fighting for his job. The removal of Kathleen McFarland from the role of deputy national security adviser showed the growing influence of HR McMaster, the national security adviser who replaced Michael Flynn. McMaster is considered to be among the ‘adult’ cadre of establishment Republicans, ushering the President towards a more conventional foreign policy agenda.
The key indicator for the rising influence of the rationalists is the ever-growing profile of Kushner, Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law and princeling in the White House. His workload has expanded to superhuman levels and he is charged with: leading the Office of American Innovation; the Middle East peace process; American military involvement in Iraq; and external liaison with Muslim communities. While Kushner’s stock is continually rising, Bannon’s is falling. This week he was kicked off the National Security Council, the position to which he was controversially appointed during his highest point of influence. His views appear better suited to the campaign trail, where sweeping statements about Chinese steel dumping and Mexican wage undercutting fired voters up from Alabama to Arkansas. When navigating the intricate waters of policy making in Washington, it is the suit and tie approach of Kushner that appears more able to get business done. That he is the husband of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, only serves to boost Kushner’s standing in what essentially remains a family business at its core.
In his latest press briefing, Sean Spicer reported the President is “very confident” that Bannon and Kushner can resolve their differences, after claims that Trump ordered the two men to sit down and iron things out last weekend. In the battle for the heart and mind of the President, the winner will find himself in a position of unparalleled power in this White House. Luckily for Kushner, family always wins.
The standalone Syria reaction doesn’t tell us much about Trumpism
The leading source of influence over President Trump’s decision to return fire on Bashar al Assad’s heinous act of barbarism is unknown. The now routine photo of a president and his top team huddled around monitors showed Kushner with a seat at the table while Bannon was pushed to the periphery. Trump’s shift to intervention did not represent a changing foreign policy agenda. He is neither interventionist nor protectionist, but at most an opportunist and the chance to look presidential was too good to pass up. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, and Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, offered completely contrasting views of intervention in Syria on the Sunday shows, whereas the President himself remains silently on the fence. Trumpism on the international stage remains a great unknown. It is of course possible that seeing images of babies struggling to breathe under the weight of poisonous chemicals motivated Trump to act in with the most immediate impact. Since then, it has been the populist right of Trump’s support that has vocally opposed the air strikes. A loss for the Bannon camp is a victory for Kushner’s.