Analysis

Bannon’s Removal Is Reassuring, Until You Remember Trump Is Still in Charge

The president ad-libs on Syria’s chemicals and North Korea’s missiles, but at least he’s eased concerns about politicization of his national security apparatus.

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates Steve Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the White House, January 22, 2017.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

A popular saying, often attributed on the internet to Albert Einstein, claims that a clever person gets out of trouble that a wise one wouldn’t have gotten into in the first place. By that measure, U.S. President Donald Trump may yet turn out to be clever, because Wednesday’s announcement that he had revoked Steve Bannon’s membership in the National Security Council extricates him just in time from an intolerable situation that he created in the first place.

The specific backdrop to the removal of Bannon – a demotion, no matter how the White House spins it – will probably become clearer over the next few days. It may or may not be connected to the ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s links to the Kremlin. It obviously comes at the demand, if not ultimatum, of Trump’s no-nonsense National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, who rejects any semblance of political interference in the National Security Council and who was not privy to the decision to appoint Bannon, which was made during Mike Flynn’s brief tenure as NSA. Bannon’s deposal will also be viewed as a victory for Trump’s increasingly visible and powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been trying to steer Trump away from Bannon’s alt-right leanings and worldview.

But the removal of Bannon is significant above and beyond the internal power struggles inside the White House, which seem to be continuing unabated. Bannon was perceived by the outside world as a sort of political commissar sent by Trump to oversee the NSC’s diplomatic and defense decisions. Such a role might have given right-wing fringes cause to celebrate, but it would have tainted the White House’s national security decisions and cast international doubt on their reasoning. With McMaster now clearly in charge, and with the return of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs to full membership in the Council, Trump’s decisions on national security matters, including the emerging crises with Syria and North Korea, will be freed, to some extent at least, of lingering suspicions about their motivation.

The removal of Bannon won’t solve all of Trump’s problems, of course. At his press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday, Trump seemed to be ad-libbing. He appeared out of his depth in discussing the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapon attack on Idlib. He talked loudly, by expressing his shock at the attack and by sharply criticizing Syrian President Bashar Assad, but seemed to be carrying only a small stick, alluding to terrible retributions awaiting Assad that he had clearly not thought out yet. Perhaps McMaster was waiting in the wings with possible suggestions.

Trump also continued in distinctly unpresidential mode by trashing the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis in 2013, conveniently forgetting that he had urged Obama at the time to refrain from any military attack on Syria. Earlier, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump also accused McMaster’s predecessor Susan Rice of having committed a crime in asking to “unmask” Trump campaign staff who were caught up in FBI wiretapping of foreign, presumably Russian, officials. Which shows that while Bannon may no longer have access to the National Security Council, he certainly continues to wield influence inside Trump’s head.

Ironically, and not for the first time, the only issue on which Trump remains levelheaded and consistent is his professed wish to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who seems to have found a way to Trump’s heart, praised Trump’s early foray into the peacemaking process and pledged to extend Arab support for U.S. efforts. He even angered many Israelis by claiming that their conflict with the Palestinians is key to winning the war on terror, a statement that would have been loudly condemned by Bannon types on the American right if Obama had been standing next to the Jordanian monarch rather than Trump.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is growing wary by the day of Trump’s peacemaking ambitions, is probably mulling whether he can suggest that Bannon replace Kushner, who has also been charged with the Arab-Israeli peace process, given that he has a hole now in his schedule. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if it turned out that Jerusalem is the one foreign capital that isn’t quite sure that Bannon’s downgrade is actually good news.