Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Analysis: Bannon is out, but his agenda may live on

WASHINGTON — In his West Wing office, Stephen Bannon kept a chart listing trade actions — on China, steel and autos — that the Trump White House planned to roll out, week by week, through the fall. Now that Bannon, the president's chief strategist, has been pushed out, the question is whether his agenda will be erased along with him.

It is not just trade: Bannon has had a strong voice on issues from climate change and China to immigration and the war in Afghanistan. He has been an unyielding advocate for a visceral brand of nationalism, and though he lost as often as he won in policy debates, his departure could tip the balance on some fiercely contested issues toward a more mainstream approach, even if the core tenets of his philosophy survive.

Bannon's dormlike office functioned as a sort of command center for the administration's nationalist wing. He met there with a coterie of mostly young, like-minded colleagues, planning strategy and plotting against foes, from Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to Gary D. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council.

Some of Bannon's proteges have already been sidelined while others may depart soon, people in the White House told the New York Times.

Still, there are reasons to believe Bannon's core worldview will outlast him. On Friday, the United States announced it would open an investigation into China's alleged theft of technology from U.S. companies. The decision, only days after Trump formally asked his trade representative to look into the issue, suggested the United States would continue to pursue a hard economic line against China, even without Bannon.

On immigration, Trump listens to another adviser, Stephen Miller, who pushed the administration's travel ban on Muslims. Miller has strengthened his position in the West Wing, in part by building a rapport over 18 months with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Miller, who has been seen by some as a member of the Bannon camp, chafes at suggestions that he is a creation of Bannon.

"Trump and Bannon share similar views on these issues," said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump who said he advised both the president and Bannon to part ways. "The big difference is that Donald Trump is much more practical and pragmatic than Steve."

Even if Bannon had hung on to his job, it is clear his bomb-throwing style was not going to work well in a West Wing under the control of Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, has moved to tighten discipline and access to the president, cracking down on a culture where aides often loitered around the Oval Office without appointments, interrupting scheduled meetings to bend Trump's ear on their pet issues.

Kelly, officials told the newspaper, has particular disdain for people sounding off on sensitive national security issues without background or expertise, as Bannon did when he told a liberal publication, the American Prospect, that the United States had no military option against North Korea.

Although he was saying what virtually every military commander believes — that a military attack on the North would prompt a catastrophic reprisal on the South — his comments contradicted Trump's bellicose warning to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, that he would rain "fire and fury" down on him.

Bannon, a former Navy officer who spent most of his career in banking and media, also immersed himself in how the United States should wage the military campaign in Afghanistan. He pushed unorthodox proposals, like substituting mercenaries for U.S. soldiers, which were greeted with disdain by military commanders but appealed to the president.

His departure helps those in the administration who favor a more interventionist military approach, whether on Syria, where Bannon opposed Trump's missile strike on President Bashar Assad, or on Afghanistan.

With Bannon out of the picture, McMaster will have less internal resistance to his proposals for Afghanistan. But Trump himself has expressed deep skepticism about an open-ended U.S. military commitment in that country. And Bannon is likely to turn up the pressure on McMaster from his perch at his old employer, Breitbart News, where he is again the executive chairman.

Bannon predicted he would be far more effective outside the White House. But some White House veterans said he should not underestimate the value of geographic proximity.

"I don't think Bannon can have more influence on policy from the outside, whatever he does, simply because he won't be at the table to make the case when decisions are made," said David Axelrod, who served as President Barack Obama's chief strategist and has written about his frustration over his diminished access to Obama after he left the White House in 2011.

"A lot depends on Trump," Axelrod continued. "If Bannon and Breitbart are spinning him up, Trump may dial him up on a regular basis. That may give him leverage."

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