Steve Bannon vs. “the Democrats”

Who will win the battle for the soul that Trump doesn’t have?

Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council.
If a deal on health care policy is reached, it won’t be because a Team Kushner member like Gary Cohn, pictured on Jan. 22 in the White House, has better access to Trump.

Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner are at war, creating the necessary conditions for a grand press narrative about the future of the administration, the country, and the world. The feud between the frumpy white nationalist and the preppy nepotism case “reflects a larger struggle to guide the direction of the Trump presidency,” the New York Times writes, “played out in disagreements over the policies Mr. Trump should pursue, the people he should hire and the image he should put forward to the American people.” In short, Bannon is pushing Trump to govern the way he campaigned while Kushner is urging him to adopt the sort of useless, elitist centrism that Kushner personifies.

All of this is thrilling to watch unfold. A Bannon ally, for example, saying, “I see some bad press in [Jared’s] future”—more of this, please.

But what are the real stakes of this personality clash? A White House that employs Jared Kushner and not Steve Bannon still wouldn’t be able to get 216 votes on a health care bill, and vice versa. The only adviser that will ever truly have Trump’s ear is the host of whatever cable news show he happens to be watching. The stakes here aren’t the future of the country. The stakes are whether Bannon’s tell-all book will come out in 2018 or 2020.

The conflict between nationalists, like Bannon and policy director Stephen Miller, and those the Bannon-ites derisively call “the Democrats,” like Kushner and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, has mostly played out in executive orders. It’s not that Team Bannon gets some and Team Kushner gets others. Instead, Team Bannon gets some and Team Kushner blocks other ones that Team Bannon wanted, and then Team Kushner brags to the press about how it blocked an order requiring every person to punch the nearest LGBTQ person, because Team Kushner cares and would like to get back on the guest list for the parties thrown by its liberal friends.

In the long run, the Trump administration will be judged by its ability to make meaningful progress outside the purview of a few teed-up, set-piece executive orders. This means passing legislation in Congress.

I am trying to think of how Republicans might have reached 216 votes for the American Health Care Act if Kushner had been in Washington the week of the failure and not gone skiing. What alchemical methods would Trump’s son-in-law have used to gin up 20 or 30 extra votes for a piece of bad legislation? It would seem that no human could fail more spectacularly than Bannon did at whipping Freedom Caucus votes on the health care bill. That’s probably because Kushner never tried.

What is happening on Capitol Hill is independent of the palace intrigue at the White House. If a breakthrough is ever made on health care policy, it will not be because Gary Cohn has better access to Trump’s ear than Stephen Miller. It will be because conservative Rep. Mark Meadows and moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur came up with a policy that allowed health care markets to be simultaneously regulated and unregulated. If Trump now decides to abandon Republican-driven health policy, instead choosing to make “tweaks” to the Affordable Care Act with the help of Democratic votes, it will not be because Kushner successfully caught Bannon in a bear trap and hid the wounded beast in the White House bunker. It will be because Trump wanted to cobble together a health care bill that could get 216 votes, and this was the only option.

The same goes for tax reform. Trump is open to working with Democrats on overhauling the tax code, allowing him to circumvent the Freedom Caucus. If he chooses this path, it won’t be a “win” for more moderate members of the administration. It will indicate that the only roads to 216 and 51 run through Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and Trump just wants to sign bills.

The richest part of the speculation about which direction Trump may be heading in is the idea that the man is capable of choosing a direction and sticking to it. Trump has no attention span, doesn’t know anything, and bases his “directions” on whatever channel the TV landed on the last time he sat on the remote.

Consider the decision to bomb Syria. Viewed through the lens of intra–White House politics, this would be viewed as a “win” for Kushner. “On foreign policy, Mr. Kushner is more inclined toward intervention in the Middle East,” the New York Times writes, “while Mr. Bannon would prefer that the United States remain as uncommitted as possible.”

It is unlikely that Trump came around to bombing a Syrian airfield because Kushner, flanked by a collection of Brookings scholars, drew the president to his interventionist ideology on the merits. It is much more likely that Trump saw sad pictures on the television and also wanted to distract from his vice president’s failed efforts to broker a health care deal. For all we know, Trump could be inviting Bashar al-Assad to a golf outing in Palm Beach in a couple weeks. If that happens, it would be wrong to call that a “win” for Bannon. Nobody is winning anything in this deeply stupid administration.