Bannon v Kushner: a battle for the soul of the White House

Bannon's 'America First' nationalism seems to be proving less successful than Kushner's pragmatism


Of Donald Trump’s many extraordinary claims on the campaign trail last year, one perhaps stands out the most. “We’re going to win so much,” he promised Americans if he became president, “you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.”

But with his travel ban entangled in the courts, a bloody nose from Congress over his healthcare plans and record low approval ratings, the first three months of the Trump presidency have been characterised by a near-unbroken losing streak.

As Mr Trump’s crew struggle to right the listing ship of state, two of the president’s key lieutenants now appear locked in a titanic battle to seize the wheel. Mr Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, wants to steer the administration towards calmer seas and a more traditional course; his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is convinced that — however choppy the waters — the president must continuing riding the populist wave that brought him victory last November.

It is a fight which Mr Kushner seems currently to be winning. As his White House sphere of influence grows — alongside responsibility for relations with Canada, Mexico and China and securing what the president terms the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians — Mr Kushner is also in charge of the newly established White House Office of American Innovation. Meanwhile, Mr Bannon’s responsibilities are shrinking: last week, he was ejected from his seat on the National Security Council.

Among each man’s key allies are some of the administration’s leading Jewish members. Mr Kushner is, unsurprisingly, supported by his wife, Ivanka (now the proud occupant of her own West Wing office), and by Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president who now heads Mr Trump’s National Economic Council. Media reports suggest Mr Cohn’s star is rising and that he is in line to become chief of staff if the president throws the current occupant of the post, Reince Priebus, overboard. “Is Gary Cohn now Trump’s new favourite aide?” asked Vanity Fair last week.

Mr Bannon, however, has the support of Stephen Miller, Mr Trump’s senior policy adviser. Although brought up in a liberal Jewish home in Santa Monica, Mr Miller became a right-wing firebrand at high school, railing against multiculturalism on radio shows. He is a firm supporter of Mr Bannon’s agenda of “economic nationalism” and opposition to immigration and, alongside the president’s chief strategist, crafted both Mr Trump’s “America First” inaugural speech and the travel ban.

While Mr Bannon once proclaimed Mr Kushner “really gets this grassroots, populist movement in a huge way” and the president’s son-in-law jokingly suggested knocking down the wall between their offices, the two men are now apparently using rather less warm words about one another. Mr Bannon is alleged to have dubbed Kushner a “globalist” and a “cuck” (right-wing slang which combines “cuckold” and “conservative”) behind his back. Mr Kushner is reported to have suggested Mr Bannon is an ideologue who plays to the president’s worst instincts.

But while President Trump blames Mr Bannon and Mr Miller for the snafu over the travel ban — and both Mr Kushner and Mr Cohn’s internal opposition to the healthcare bill has been vindicated — the president will also be highly aware of the need to tend his political base. That both Mr Kushner and Mr Cohn are long-standing Democrats — Mr Cohn donated to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and made no contribution to the president’s campaign last year — has been used by their opponents to question the two men’s ideological credentials. “Gary Cohn would be too liberal for the Obama administration. I don’t know what he’s doing in a Republican White House,” one conservative charged over the weekend. Mr Bannon, meanwhile, is said to have told Mr Kushner: “Here’s the reason there’s no middle ground. You’re a Democrat.”

The battle is not, however, simply one about politics and policy. Mr Kushner and Ivanka appear concerned about the damage their carefully polished media image is sustaining, letting it be known, for instance, that they squelched an executive order that would have reduced LGBT workers’ employment protections. “I’m sure Steve Bannon’s politics are vaguely embarrassing to Jared and Ivanka when they go to these Tony parties on the Upper West Side,” sneered one Trump associate to the Guardian. At the same time, Mr Trump is said to be less than amused by comedy sketches portraying Mr Bannon as the puppet master and was rankled by a Time magazine cover portraying his aide as “The Great Manipulator”.

But most of all, of course, Mr Trump is simply sick and tired of losing.

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