Lately, there have been a lot of jokes about who has really been president since January 20. Is it Donald Trump, or is it his chief strategist, Steve Bannon? After all, Bannon has actually been the one writing many of the executive orders that bear Trump’s signature. The folks at “Saturday Night Live” sent this up bigly.
But it’s entirely possible that there actually was something to all of the jokes. If two Trump administration officials are to be believed, Bannon tried to overrule an effort by the Department of Homeland Security to dilute some of the more offensive aspects of Trump’s travel ban–and had to be told that he wasn’t the president.
On Saturday morning, The Washington Post reported that on the weekend after Trump issued the travel ban, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly wanted to issue a waiver that would exempt green card holders, or permanent residents, from the ban. According to two sources in the Trump administration, Bannon hit the ceiling when he got wind of this.
However, when Bannon tried to overrule Kelly, he got a rude surprise. Like a general lecturing an out-of-line subaltern, Kelly told Bannon that he could only cancel the waiver on orders from Trump himself. Such an order never came, and Kelly issued the waiver. Both Bannon and White House press secretary Sean Spicer adamantly denied that there was any confrontation over the waiver, and Spicer also rapped The Post for not talking to anyone in the White House about the matter.
However, The Post also reported that early on the morning of January 29, Kelly, Defense Secretary Mad Dog Mattis, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and a senior State Department official let it be known that they were fed up with how Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller–known as the “Breitbart wing” of the White House staff–had implemented the travel ban. Specifically, they were angered at not even being consulted before the order was drafted.
Eventually, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus ordered a pause in further executive orders until new procedures could be drafted. Apparently those procedures were in place by the end of the following week, when Trump issued an executive order on financial regulation.
But even without that to consider, it would have been very hard to take Spicer at his word. On at least one occasion, he himself didn’t know about an order to reconsider the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (read: torture).
Last month, Post opinion writer Catherine Rampell mused that if Trump ran his real estate empire like he’s running the government, it could explain why he filed for bankruptcy six times. It’s hard not to agree, in light of this episode. After all, it says a lot about Trump that his top political operative even thought he could directly overrule a cabinet official. And it also says a lot that it took this long for Trump to take the basic step of ensuring that executive orders were properly vetted. Had he done so then, maybe Bannon wouldn’t have gotten it in his head that he could act like he was the president.
(featured image courtesy DonkeyHotey, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)