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Washington: Approaching the 100-day point, the marker at which there’s a reckoning on the performance of a new American president, there’s much speculation that Donald Trump is contemplating a shake-up.
It would be a bid to break from endless reporting on internal ideological wars and less than stellar success in implementing key policy.
The words that issued from Trump’s mouth when he was asked if he still supported the divisive, nationalist Bannon stopped the chattering classes in their tracks – “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late.”
And the words that issued from Spicer’s, in a truly bizarre Hitler-was- better-than-Assad riff as he denounced the Syrian dictator’s use of chemical weapons, were strong grounds for any boss to tell him: You’re fired!”
In police parlance, the Bannon case reads like attempted murder; and in Spicer’s, it looked like an attempted suicide.
If Trump were to throw over both of them, it would be a scalp from each of two of the dominant White House factions and a lesson to all to at least manage, if not bury ideological difference that keep the administration on a constant war footing.
In suddenly keeping Bannon at arms length, Trump dismissed him as little more than an adornment in his stunning November election victory, telling the New York Post: “[By the time Bannon joined the campaign,] I’d already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
Bannon’s trouble is he fights too hard – he calls his office “the war room.” And his mistake was to go to war against Trump’s son-in-law and counselor Jared Kushner and his less hardline allies in the administration.
On Monday, Spicer hosed down reports of the Bannon-Kushner infighting, but on Tuesday, Trump was talking them up.
He told the New York Post that he had issued an ultimatum: “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.”
It was a cruel jab – Bannon headed the Trump campaign for the last 11 decisive weeks; he was a key player in the transition; and on arriving at the White House he was the man.
But there was an echo in Trump claiming that he hardly knew Bannon. It was the language the administration has resorted to in disowning a cast of troublesome characters, including sacked National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Bannon’s predecessor as campaign boss, Paul Manafort.
Spicer’s Tuesday gaff was so bad that he went on national TV to make an abject, if rare White House apology for what was an appalling clanger – “Hitler ??? didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
The spokesman told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust – I apologise. It was a mistake to do that.” But he still hadn’t recovered his stride – having earlier mispronounced Assad’s name, he expressed regret that his comments had distracted from Trump’s “attempts to destabilise the region.”
Later on Tuesday, Spicer was still groveling in an interview with Politico: “I don’t even know how to explain it. It was a straight up mistake.”
Spicer is no stranger to trouble – often because his boss demands that he trade in falsehoods, like his first inauguration day appearance in the press room, when he insisted against all the evidence that the Trump crowd had been bigger that Barack Obama’s. He’s also confiscated his staff’s phones to have them searched for clues to identify the dozens of White House staffers who leak to the media.
Ari Fleischer, a press secretary for George W. Bush, came to Spicer’s defense – “Until you’ve stood at that podium, you have no idea how hard it is day in and day out to never make a mistake -Sean made a big one today. He handled it properly. He apologised.”
“Now, he’s going to take a pounding, and he’s going to move forward,” Fleisher told The Washington Post.
Some media critics gave Spicer a pass, blaming his stumble into such a weird rabbit warren not on anti-Semitism so much as the failure by Donald Trump to enunciate a coherent Middle East policy that Spicer might then be able to sell from the lectern.
There have been occasional reports of Trump’s frustration with Spicer, but his cutting public remarks about Bannon sounded like a kiss of death, though the signaling from the White House on how they might be read was contradictory – probably because they were being filtered by factional allies and enemies.
But it follows Bannon’s ceremonial removal from his prestigious perch on the National Security Council, at a time when the portfolio of Kushner, husband to Ivanka Trump has been expanding. And Trump, apparently is sick and tired of hearing about how Bannon won the election and is deemed to be so such a force in the White House that some refer to him as President Bannon.
Trump has had a go at both Kushner and Bannon – but in private. He has reportedly taken to mocking media coverage of the breadth of Kushner’s vast portfolio; but he has also taken to evicting Bannon from some meetings, telling him that his presence is not required.
But Kushner has something that Bannon can never trump – Kushner is family. And even if Bannon is retained, it could be challenging for such boisterous and aggressive operators to continue to serve a president who so dissed him in public.
Even before Trump’s outburst, there were reports that Bannon’s influential connections beyond the White House were looking for a post for him. Trump reportedly holds Bannon responsible for the bungled launch of Trump’s migrant and refugee crackdown and, in part, for the botched negotiations with Congress on the failed GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
But as the self-appointed holder of the torch for the populist and nationalist policies, on which Trump ran for election, Bannon collides frequently with Kushner, Ivanka and others – who he disparages as “the Democrats” – who have been urging Trump to back away from some of his campaign promises and much of his rhetoric.
To the extent that the internecine wars are about the direction and future of the Trump presidency, the timing could not be worse for Bannon – in the aftermath of Trump’s missile strike on Syria and his Florida summit with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping, some analysts detect a retreat from the isolationist cocktail of his America First rhetoric and Bannon’s “destruction of the administrative state,” as Trump aligns himself more with the Washington foreign policy and national security establishment.
The evidence, they say, is that he is backing away from his frothy anti-China rhetoric – on Wednesday he even abandoned his oft-repeated threat to formally brand Beijing as a currency manipulator. On trade with China, Trump is talking about diplomacy, not tariffs.
And though Trump personally has not backed away from his bromance with Russia, his national security team is hammering Moscow – on Syria and on Crimea.
If the shift is on, it’s a work in progress – and it remains to be seen if Bannon will hang around to shape or thwart it; and if Spicer can survive to spruik it in the pressroom.