The abrupt removal of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, from the National Security Council’s principals committee on Wednesday surprised the American and global communities as much as his initial addition had, and the explanations offered beg more questions than they answer.
The move was reportedly the decision of the president himself at the urging of Lt. Gen. Herbert R. McMaster, who replaced the scandal-ridden Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Trump also reinstated the status of the national intelligence director and Joint Chiefs chairman to the NSC.
Breitbart News, the website Bannon headed before joining the Trump campaign, presented the story as, “Steve Bannon Leaves National Security Council After Susan Rice Takedown.” Breitbart’s story, the only one to catapult Rice, Barack Obama’s former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor, to the headline, mirrored Bannon’s statement to the Wall Street Journal today: “Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration. I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized.” Other news websites noted just that Bannon’s addition and removal had been “planned.”
Bloomberg, which broke the news earlier, quoted a senior White House official elaborating that Bannon’s addition to the NSC was never meant to be permanent, his role was to “monitor” then-national security adviser Michael Flynn. “We all knew Flynn had issues,” the official said.
Same official says the president made the decision, this was the deal from the beginning, and "we all knew Flynn had issues"— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) April 5, 2017
(Flynn resigned on February 13 after revelations that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence, who in defense of Flynn unwittingly parroted him, about discussions he’d had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about possibly lifting U.S. sanctions. Flynn has since also admitted failure to disclose lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government and Russian companies, and accepting payments from Russian state propaganda network RT.)
Bannon, the first and only former campaign manager in history to be placed on the NSC, was given that post on January 29. It was nine days after Trump’s inauguration and three days after then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration appointee, raised concerns about Flynn and his communications with Russian officials.
The Susan Rice controversy
Bannon’s claim about Susan Rice is the latest in an on-going narrative involving her and the “alt-right” troll and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich.
On April 2, Cernovich claimed in a post on publishing site Medium that the “White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking” Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials “after examining Rice’s document log requests.” The claim spread like wildfire among far-right websites like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit, which said the unmasking “was purely for political purposes.”
Cernovich, who claims that mainstream media outlets were sitting on the story, has since been lauded by Donald Trump, Jr., who tweeted that he deserves the Pulitzer.
The president since elevated Cernovich’s accusations to the Oval Office, saying, “I think it’s going to be the biggest story. It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time” - while also suggesting that Rice’s actions were criminal.
Rice has denied any wrongdoing: “The allegations that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes are absolutely false,” she said. “[Unmasking] is necessary to do my job. ... Imagine if we saw something of grave significance about Russia, or China, or anybody else interfering with our political process.”
Revealing the name of transition officials who were caught up in legal wiretaps of foreigners is not the same thing as illegally spying on the Trump campaign. That fact has not stopped the Susan Rice story from becoming the dominant story on the American right, writes Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, explaining the controversy surrounding Rice.
‘Fire Steve Bannon’
Bannon and Breitbart evoking Rice to explain why he was removed from the National Security Council is an argument difficult to parse (what does “de-operationalize” even mean?), let alone prove, and will likely be highly scrutinized in coming days. But there are other theories to Rice being the impetus behind Trump’s latest move.
Since joining candidate Trump in August of 2016 to help run his campaign, Bannon has been a lightning rod of controversy. He was credited, along with Stephen Miller, for the dark, nationalist tone of Trump’s inaugural address, and for sloppy handling of Trump’s original executive order banning travel and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries, which was later shot down by the courts. Critics claim he holds extremist positions.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, have called him everything from a Nazi to a white supremacist, respectively. In 2013, Bannon told a writer for the Daily Beast, "Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
“Saturday Night Live” portrayed Bannon as the Grim Reaper, commanding the desk in the Oval Office, while President Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, sat at a child-sized desk off to the side. In one sketch, mocking a media observation that many of Trump’s more inflammatory tweets happen when Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are keeping Shabbat, Alec Baldwin’s Trump quipped to the Grim Reaper character, “when the Jews are away the goys will play.”
Recent opinion polls show Trump to be cratering. Bannon’s ouster from the NSC could be a swing of the pendulum back towards the First Daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner. On Tuesday Trump confidant Roger Stone accused Kushner of leaking intel to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, with whom he was texting on a daily basis. Scarborough recently insisted that in order to save his presidency, Trump should fire Steve Bannon.
That night Ivanka Trump gave her first television interview since joining the West Wing almost a week before, and asked people “not to conflate lack of public denouncement with silence.”
“If he [Trump] wants to get his 36 [percent] to 56 [percent], he’s going to have to fire Steve Bannon,” Scarborough had said, “and anyone else who calls himself a Leninist who wants to destroy the American republic, and start working with Republicans and Democrats.”
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