Posts Tagged ‘Steve Bannon’

The Free-Speech University

February 18, 2018

Steve Bannon is giving a talk at Chicago. Its president is confident he won’t be shouted down.

The Free-Speech University


Snow carpets the ground at the University of Chicago, and footfalls everywhere are soft, giving the place a hushed serenity. Serene, too, is Robert Zimmer, the university’s 70-year-old president, as he talks about a speaking invitation that could turn his campus turbulent.

Steve Bannon is scheduled to talk at the school early next month—there’s no confirmed date—and Mr. Zimmer is taking criticism for the imminent appearance of Donald Trump’s former right-hand man, a paladin of alt-robust conservatives. Mr. Bannon is precisely the sort of figure who is anathema on American campuses, yet Mr. Zimmer is unfazed by the prospect of his visit, confident that it will pass with no great fuss.

“It’s been quite interesting to watch this because, as you can imagine, there are many people who are opposed to Steve Bannon and wish that he hadn’t been invited,” Mr. Zimmer says. Nonetheless, “the students have been remarkable. The student government had a ‘town hall’ with the faculty member who invited Bannon.” The students ran the event, “and they were very clear that there was to be no disruption, that they wanted to have a conversation.”

But at American universities, it isn’t just the students you need to worry about. More than 100 Chicago professors have signed an open letter to Mr. Zimmer objecting to Mr. Bannon’s invitation: “The university should model inclusion for a country that is reeling from the consequences of racism, xenophobia, and hate.” They propose to “model inclusion” by excluding viewpoints they find objectionable: “We believe that Bannon should not be afforded the platform and opportunity to air his hate speech on this campus.”

Mr. Zimmer says most Chicago faculty support free speech, and the letter’s signers are exceptions. “What we see among our faculty is that only a few of those who dislike what they view Bannon as representing have asked that he be disinvited.” Most of their colleagues have instead “talked about counterprogramming, and have talked about protests—nondisruptive protests—which, of course, is totally fine.” He sums up their strategy: “It’s ‘How are we going to effectively argue with this guy?’, not ‘How are we going to prevent him from coming to campus?’ ”

Mr. Bannon was invited to the university by Luigi Zingales, a finance professor. Would Mr. Zimmer ever contemplate having a quiet word with the prof and asking him to withdraw his invitation to Mr. Bannon? “I wouldn’t even think of it,” Mr. Zimmer answers, in a mildly but unmistakably indignant tone. And no, he won’t be attending the Bannon event. “We have many, many talks,” he says. “I’m really pretty busy.”

Mr. Zingales’s attitude is consistent with the norm Mr. Zimmer seeks to uphold. When I asked the professor by email why he extended the invitation, he replied that Mr. Bannon “was able to interpret a broad dissatisfaction in the electorate that most academics had missed. Remember the shock on November 9, 2016? Regardless of what you think about his political positions, there is something faculty and students can learn from a discussion with him.” Mr. Zingales, too, welcomed peaceable protests as a healthy exercise of free speech. “I admire the way our students have conducted their protests,” he wrote. “It speaks very well to the values that our university shares.”

The University of Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation for tough, even remorseless, intellectual inquiry. Its world-famous economics faculty, for instance, is not a place where faint-hearted academics go to road-test their research. In recent years, as colleges across America have censored unfashionable views, Chicago has also come to be known for setting the gold standard for free expression on campus. Mr. Zimmer, who became president in 2006, deserves much credit. He has been outspoken in defense of free speech and in 2014 even set up a committee—under the constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone —that produced the Chicago Principles, the clearest statement by any American university in defense of uninhibited debate.

Mr. Zimmer, a mathematician, says Chicago’s intellectual and moral strengths are “totally tied together.” He’s also quick to point out that its commitment to free debate precedes him, naming virtually every one of his predecessors as a guardian of openness. Mr. Zimmer created the Stone committee, he says, after watching free-speech struggles at other schools: “People were starting to be disinvited from campuses—speakers of some stature, in fact. You started to see this pattern.”

A nadir came in 2013. That year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counted 34 “disinvitation attempts”—a record. The University of Pennsylvania canceled a keynote from the future prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, for fear of “potential polarizing reactions.” At Brown, New York’s then police commissioner, Ray Kelly, was shouted down by students holding signs like “Ray(cist) Kelly.” FIRE reports that the 2013 record was exceeded three years later, when the group counted 42 incidents.

Mr. Zimmer attributes this campus intolerance to “the national mood,” as well as a change in “the ambient environment” in which universities exist. He describes a sort of national attention-deficit disorder: “How much is the national environment amenable to long-term thinking and investment, versus just responding to particular issues, particular needs?” The importance of education and research, he says, “has certainly come under question” in recent years, in part because “the entire tone of the country has shifted toward people being more focused on the immediate and the short-term.”

Mr. Zimmer shames this age of ours by pointing to the Morrill Act of 1862, one of his favorite examples of investing in the long term: “In the middle of the greatest single crisis in the history of the country—the Civil War—the Congress passed, and President Lincoln signed, this act which essentially established the land-grant university system.” The foresight was there then, he says. It isn’t now.

Two examples: budget cuts that are starving state universities of the money they need to grow, and “the nature of our immigration policies.” Mr. Zimmer takes a particular interest in the latter: “Even just in the last two decades, if you look at Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in the sciences, something like 40% are immigrants. And this doesn’t include those whose parents may have migrated to the United States.” Mr. Zimmer laments that Americans no longer seem to recognize fully “the unbelievable power that being attractive to the most talented people in the world has brought to the capacity of this country.” Trying to imagine the scientific and technological output of the U.S. over the past century without immigration, he says, is “simply inconceivable.”

But America, Mr. Zimmer believes, is “getting less attractive than other places,” so much so that it is in peril of “discarding this huge comparative advantage.” The problem, he says, precedes Donald Trump’s presidency: “It’s been exacerbated, but it’s not a new problem. Trump has obviously taken a position more pronounced than others, but it’s been a problem for some time.” Specifically, foreign students who come to the U.S. and earn doctorates face a lot of obstacles “to be able to work here, to have a spouse who can work here.” Ultimately, he says, people are going to look for other places to go—to America’s detriment.

Although conflict on campuses “is not a new thing,” Mr. Zimmer does think that “right now, we’re in a particular period of moral fervor,” with people believing that there’s “a sense of urgency about the rightness of what they’re doing.” Mr. Zimmer was an undergraduate in the 1960s, so he’s no stranger to political ferment. The activists then, however, were motivated by two issues, civil rights and the Vietnam War: “There was a huge amount of focus on what the laws were, and what rights people had under them. And the Vietnam War was very much a matter of government policy.”

The 1960s protests “may have had cultural roots,” Mr. Zimmer says, “but there was a lot of focus on what actions the government should be taking.” Today’s campus indignation is “a bit more broad-based. Yes, what should the government be doing—but it’s also focused on corporations and NGOs, and what communities and universities should be doing.”

One could argue, perhaps paradoxically, that today’s campus activists are much more atomized as well. Identity groups push for their own particular agendas, often in absolutist terms: It matters to me more than anything else in the world that you call me “they,” not “she.” That’s not exactly a broad-based concern.

When I put this argument to Mr. Zimmer, he gently deflects: “Again, I’d go to the point that the main issue is—whether everybody is focused on one thing, or whether there are multiple groups focused on multiple things—that you get the same . . . kind of fervor, which says certain ideas should not be discussed and thought about. And that’s what the problem is.”

Mr. Zimmer has his eye on the future of free speech in another, innovative way. As president of a university, he sees himself as a stakeholder in America’s high schools. “High schools prepare students to take more advanced mathematics, and they prepare them to write history papers, and so on,” he says. But “how are high schools doing in preparing students to be students in a college of open discourse and free argumentation? I’ve started thinking about this.”

The free-speech president, as some of his colleagues call him, is going on a free-speech roadshow. Mr. Zimmer invited six high-school principals—including from his alma mater, Lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High—to dinner in New York City to talk about this question last month. He plans two similar dinners in Chicago, followed by more in other cities. The initiative is still embryonic, and although Mr. Zimmer insists he’s “not going to pretend to tell high schools how to prepare people,” he does consider it “an important question for high schools to confront.”

Mr. Zimmer says, optimistically, that even universities that “may not have been talking about issues of free expression two years ago” are at least “trying to confront them, at least recognizing that maybe there’s a problem.” In the same vein, it would be very healthy, he thinks, for high-school teachers “to actually be thinking about this in a kind of systematic way.” He’s observed that “a lot of students are not prepared for this environment.” Some of that is inevitable, Mr. Zimmer believes, because “free expression doesn’t come naturally for most people. It’s not an instinctive response.” Young people need “to be taught it”—and it’s better if universities don’t have to start from scratch.

Mr. Varadarajan is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition.


Russians charged over US 2016 election tampering

February 16, 2018

BBC News

 Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Russians used ‘information warfare’ against the US election process

Thirteen Russians have been charged with interfering in the US 2016 election, in a major development in the FBI investigation.

Three of those named have been accused of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and five have been accused of aggravated identity theft.

The announcement was made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling.

Three Russian companies are also named in the indictment.

One of them is the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, which the 37-page indictment said “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election”.

Speaking at a news conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there was no allegation that any American was “a knowing participant in this illegal activity” nor was it alleged that the meddling altered the election outcome.

What does the indictment say?

It says a group of Russians:

  • Posed as Americans, and opened financial accounts in their name
  • Spent thousands of dollars a month buying political advertising
  • Purchased US server space in an effort to hide their Russian affiliation
  • Organised and promoted political rallies within the United States
  • Posted political messages on social media accounts that impersonated real US citizens
  • Promoted information that disparaged Hillary Clinton
  • Received money from clients to post on US social media sites
  • Created themed groups on social media on hot-button issues, particularly on Facebook and Instagram
  • Operated with a monthly budget of as much as $1.25m (£890,000)

The indictment says those involved systematically measured how well their internet posts were doing and adjusted their strategies to maximise effectiveness.

It also says those named in the indictment began discussing how to affect the election as early as 2014.

“By 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online persons to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election,” the indictment continues.

“They engaged in operations primarily to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

President Trump was briefed on the indictment earlier on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

How has Russia reacted?

“There were 13 of them, according to the US Department of Justice. Thirteen people interfered with the US elections?” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said. “Thirteen against the billion-dollar budgets of the security services? Against espionage and counter-espionage, against new systems and technologies? Absurd? Yes.”

One of the men named in the indictment – Evgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” denied election tampering.

“The Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Ria Novosti on Friday.

“I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

Grey line

Heat of investigation is increasing

Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

On Friday, Robert Mueller’s team released a slate of indictments that lays bare what it asserts is the full shape of the Russian meddling apparatus.

And what an apparatus it was. In the run-up to the US presidential election “Project Lakhta”, as it was called, had an operating budget of more than $1m a month.

Russians associated with the organisation travelled to the US, posed as Americans and gathered information on where best to target its attempts to “sow discord” in the US political process. Swing states were identified and efforts, according to the indictment, were made to boost the prospects of Republican Donald Trump and undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Although the indictment does not suggest collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it says the meddling effort may have been aided by “unwitting individuals” associated with the Republican nominee.

The White House may breathe a sigh of relief with that particular revelation. But the heat is increasing, and the investigation isn’t over yet. At the very least, if Mr Mueller’s allegations hold up in court, it will become increasingly difficult for the president to argue that Russian meddling on his behalf is an unsubstantiated hoax.

Grey line

What is the investigation about?

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the 2016 presidential election in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In May last year, Mr Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate whether anyone from his campaign colluded in the effort.

As part of the inquiry, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with conspiring to defraud the US in his dealings with Ukraine, and conspiracy to launder money.

A business associate of his, Rick Gates, was also charged with conspiracy to launder money. A third adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

This week President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was interviewed by Mr Mueller.

Mr Trump has been accused by opponents of trying to interfere with the investigation. The president denies this – as well as any allegation of collusion with Russia during the campaign.

Includes video:


Bannon Stays Mostly Mum in House Hearing, Prompting Bipartisan Ire — Committee weighing whether to hold Bannon in contempt

February 16, 2018

Continued refusal to provide full testimony comes amid Trump administration concerns of privacy and executive privilege

Image result for steve bannon, house intelligence committee, photos

WASHINGTON—Former White House adviser Steve Bannon drew bipartisan ire on Capitol Hill Thursday by refusing to answer a range of questions from the House Intelligence Committee, with lawmakers vowing to take more drastic steps to compel his testimony.

Mr. Bannon, a onetime confidant of President Donald Trump who has since become estranged from him, appeared under subpoena before the committee as part of its continuing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.



Bannon stonewalls House panel after WH advised him to invoke executive privilege

(CNN) — Steve Bannon told the House Intelligence Committee that he had been instructed by the White House to invoke executive privilege on behalf of President Donald Trump, declining to answer a wide array of key questions pertinent to the Russia investigation and prompting lawmakers to consider holding him in contempt.


GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California said Thursday that the only questions Bannon would answer were 25 authorized by the White House. The President’s former chief strategist answered “no” to all of them, they said.
The committee is weighing whether to hold Bannon in contempt. Conaway said he hasn’t spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan yet but will meet with him about the next steps.
The questions Bannon avoided covered a range of topics about what happened after the 2016 campaign season, prompting pushback from lawmakers from both parties.
“The breadth of that claim of executive privilege is breathtaking and insupportable and indeed, at times, it was laughable,” Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, told reporters Thursday.
Bannon would not discuss matters after the campaign, his time at the White House or even conversations he had with certain individuals after he left the administration last August, the lawmakers said.
The move comes as the White House has taken extraordinary steps to limit Bannon’s testimony to Congress, taking a far more aggressive posture toward the President’s former close confidant than any other witness who has come before Congress.
After the meeting, which lasted less than three hours, Conaway said he would discuss how to proceed with Ryan and House lawyers about the scope of executive privilege sought by the White House. He declined to say whether Bannon should be held in contempt of Congress, a process that could lead to months of legal wrangling.
“I think he should answer our questions,” Conaway, who runs the panel’s Russia investigation, said Thursday.
The White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill late Wednesday laying out its explanation for why Trump’s transition period falls under its authority to assert executive privilege, a move intended to shield Bannon from answering questions about that time period, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
In the letter, the White House argued to the Hill that because “some of the same factors are implicated in terms of the President needing to have candid advice of others during the transition that a privilege that has never been held to apply during the transition should be held to apply,” according to Schiff.
The dispute now is for the White House and House panel to resolve, a person close to Bannon said Thursday.
House members from both parties have so far rejected that broad interpretation of executive privilege, raising the stakes for Bannon’s standoff with Congress.
Bannon took a similar tack in his first appearance before the panel last month, infuriating lawmakers in a contentious and marathon session where he engaged in testy exchanges with both sides and refused to answer questions about matters after the 2016 campaign. The panel issued a subpoena to compel him to answer questions, but that did little to convince him to talk. Instead, he pushed back his return to the committee on three separate occasions until his Thursday appearance, and committee members were uncertain he’d appear until he arrived just minutes before the hearing began.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and member of House Intelligence Committee who led his side’s questioning, said Thursday that “I’m not OK with” Bannon refusing to answer questions about topics during the transition period.
Bannon is one of several key Trump associates whose testimony has been delayed before the House panel. The others include White House communications director Hope Hicks as well as Corey Lewandowski, the President’s former campaign manager, who told the panel in his testimony last month that he wasn’t prepared to answer questions about matters after he was dismissed from the campaign in June 2016. While Democrats have demanded Lewandowski be hit with a subpoena to reappear before the panel to answer more questions, Republicans have resisted.
“I don’t think he needs to be subpoenaed,” Florida’s GOP Rep. Tom Rooney, a key member of the panel, said of Lewandowski. “I think he came in and answered eight hours’ worth of questions based on the letter we sent him and his employment with the Trump Organization and Trump campaign. … We did not ask him to come in to answer questions about his time as a private citizen — so I think that’s clearly a difference between him and Steve Bannon.”
Indeed, Republicans — who have long detested Bannon over the attacks he’s waged against them over the years — have joined Democrats in expressing anger over his refusal to answer questions.
Bannon’s decision not to talk about those periods with Congress has come as his team has indicated his willingness to answer any questions that special counsel Robert Mueller may have, a stance that has further annoyed lawmakers in both parties.
But Democrats charge that Conaway and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, haven’t shown a willingness yet to hold Bannon accountable for flouting Congress if he ignores the subpoena. Conaway said, however, that Nunes has no role in determining next steps on the Bannon matter.
“If they don’t force him to answer legitimate questions, they will be ceding Congress’ authority, and we’ll be setting a very, very dangerous precedent that people can just tell Congress what they will and will not answer, and will show no resolve to use our subpoena power to get to the bottom of what’s going on,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat.

Reince Priebus on the Donald Trump White House

February 15, 2018
Months after his chaotic resignation as chief of staff, and with his successor on the hot seat, Priebus comes clean about everything: the inauguration crowd-size fiasco, the decision to fire Comey, the Mooch, the tweets, how he helped saved Jeff Sessions’s job, and his mercurial former boss. “I still love the guy,” he says.
Reince Priebus (right) with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, January 2017.
Photograph by Andrew Harnik/A.P. Images.
Just after six a.m. on January 21, 2017, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Reince Priebus was watching the cable morning news shows, getting ready to leave for the White House. Suddenly his cell phone went off. It was Donald Trump. The new president, sworn in less than 24 hours earlier, had just seen The Washington Post, with photos showing Trump’s inaugural crowd dwarfed by that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The president was livid, screaming at his chief of staff. “He said, ‘This story is bullshit,’ ” recalled Priebus. “He said, ‘There’s more people there. There are people who couldn’t get in the gates. . . . There’s all kind of things that were going on that made it impossible for these people to get there.’ . . . The president said, ‘Call [Interior Secretary] Ryan Zinke. Find out from the Park Service. Tell him to get a picture and do some research right away.’ ” The president wanted his chief of staff to fix this story. Immediately.

Priebus tried to talk Trump off the ledge. “It doesn’t matter,” Priebus argued. “It’s Washington, D.C. We’re in an 85 percent Democrat area. Northern Virginia’s 60 percent. Maryland’s 65 percent. . . . This is a Democrat haven, and nobody cares.” But Trump was having none of it. Priebus thought, “Is this something that I really want to go to battle over on day one? Who needs a controversy over the inauguration?” Priebus realized he faced a decision: “Am I going to go to war over this with the president of the United States?”

Hours later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the White House briefing room. “What happened,” Priebus remembered, “was Spicer decided to say that actually, if you combine online and television, radio, and in-person, it was the most watched inauguration.” The trouble with that reasoning was that Spicer’s response—a belligerent, Orwellian performance beamed around the world—was a lie. From the very start, the credibility of the Trump presidency became a laughingstock, immortalized by actress Melissa McCarthy in her devastating parody of Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

On day one, instead of going to war with Donald Trump, Priebus had gone along.

Adapted from a new edition of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, published in paperback on March 6, 2018, by Crown.

Priebus cannot say he wasn’t warned. Just a month before the inauguration, he had been invited to lunch by Barack Obama’s outgoing chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Following the example of a memorable breakfast hosted eight years earlier by George W. Bush’s chief Josh Bolten—when 12 former White House chiefs had come to give advice to Obama’s incoming chief, Rahm Emanuel—McDonough was joined by 10 chiefs, Republicans and Democrats, in his West Wing office. And as they gathered around a long table, none doubted the enormity of the challenge facing Priebus. “We wanted to help Reince in any way we could,” said Jack Watson, who served President Jimmy Carter. “But I don’t think there was a chief in the room that thought he was going to be able to do the job, given Trump as his president.” Most of the former chiefs believed Trump was intellectually and temperamentally unfit for office—and few thought Priebus could rein him in or tell him hard truths. “We were thinking, God bless him. Godspeed. Good luck,” said Watson. “But he doesn’t have a prayer.”

Priebus was hobbled by two other factors. A former Republican National Committee chairman from Kenosha, Wisconsin, he barely knew his new boss, and he was part of the establishment that Trump had vilified. Moreover, during the campaign, the two men had been known to feud. Trump had been especially resentful of Priebus’s reaction to the campaign’s existential crisis just a month before Election Day: the release of the tawdry Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump had made graphic misogynist comments that were caught by an open microphone.

The morning after the video surfaced, Trump’s candidacy had been pronounced all but dead in the media. In response, the beleaguered nominee’s top aides—campaign C.E.O. Stephen Bannon, former New York mayor Rudy Giu­liani, New Jersey governor Chris ChristieJared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump—gathered at Trump Tower for a war council to advise the candidate on whether he should stay in the race or quit.

The nominee, sleep-deprived, surly, his jaw clenched, posed the crucial question: in light of the videotape, what were his chances of winning? Priebus went first: “If you decide to stay in, you will lose in the biggest landslide in American political history.” One by one, Trump’s other advisers danced around the question—until finally it was Bannon’s turn. “One hundred percent,” he declared. “One hundred percent you’re going to win this thing. Metaphysical.” (Priebus recalled things differently, saying no one was that emphatic.)

Trump, of course, pulled off an astonishing upset. And a month later, McDonough met his successor as chief of staff in the West Wing lobby and escorted him to his office. As the former chiefs went around the table, giving Priebus advice, they were unanimous about one thing: Trump would be unable to govern unless Priebus was empowered as first among equals in the West Wing. Trump’s incoming chief dutifully took notes on a yellow pad.

Suddenly there was a commotion; Barack Obama was entering the room. Everyone stood and shook hands, then Obama motioned for them to sit. The 44th president’s own chiefs—Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew, McDonough, and Pete Rouse (who served unofficially)—were all pres­ent, and Obama nodded toward them. “Every one of these guys at different times told me something that pissed me off,” Obama said, flashing his familiar grin. “They weren’t always right; sometimes I was. But they were right to do that because they knew they had to tell me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear.” Obama looked at Priebus. “That’s the most important function of a chief of staff. Presidents need that. And I hope you will do that for President Trump.” With that, Obama said his good-byes and departed.

The chiefs were not sure Priebus got the message. “I caught the eye of several of the others and we exchanged worried expressions,” one Republican in attendance remembered. “He seemed much too relaxed about being able to navigate a difficult job. I think he struck a lot of us as clueless.” Another was even more blunt about Priebus’s nonchalance: “He was approaching the job like it was some combination of personal aide and cruise director.”

Former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Priebus; Priebus and Spicer.

Left, by Martin H. Shannon/Redux; right, by Susan Walsh/A.P. Images.

Dining alone with Priebus a few weeks earlier, Bush’s chief Josh Bolten had been alarmed: Priebus seemed to regard himself as Trump’s babysitter and had given little thought to governing. “I could tell that he was nervous about leaving Trump alone and was kind of candid about ‘If I’m not there, Lord knows what happens,’” Bolten recalled. In his view, Priebus seemed “neither focused on organizing his White House staff nor in control of his own life. He was just responding to the fire of the day.”

And there was another ominous sign. Obama’s staff had spent months preparing voluminous transition briefs, thick binders designed to help the next administration get up to speed on subjects ranging from Iran to Cuba to climate change. Every previous incoming team had studied such volumes with care. But as the inauguration drew near, McDonough realized that the binders had not even been opened: “All the paperwork, all the briefings that had been prepared for their transition team, went unused,” he said. “Unread. Unreviewed.”

The inept start of the Trump presidency—with the flagrant lying about crowd sizes—confirmed the ex-chiefs’ worst fears. “It told me that Reince wasn’t in control,” observed Jack Watson. “It told me Reince had no power to say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we can’t do that! We are going to get killed if we do that.’ ” George W. Bush’s first chief, Andrew Card, watched with a sinking feeling: “I said to myself, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no process. And they don’t have discipline. You must taste your words before you spit them out!’”

In late October 2017, almost three months after he resigned as chief of staff, Priebus met me for dinner at a posh but empty restaurant near the White House. Wearing a blazer, tieless, and without his usual American-flag pin, he had been off the radar and had given no extensive interviews since his abrupt departure six months into his job as Trump’s chief. Unlike his friend Sean Spicer, who had struggled to find employment after his turn as Trump’s disgraced White House spokesman, Priebus had landed back at his old Washington law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP—as president. He was drumming up paid engagements on the lecture circuit. And he was conferring frequently by phone with Donald J. Trump.

The president, Priebus said, speaks with him often on a phone that is unmonitored by John Kelly, who replaced him as Trump’s chief of staff—sometimes just to chat, sometimes for counsel. Trump often called Bannon too—at least before his excommunication following his comments in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. Priebus insisted, contrary to Wolff’s description, that he never called Trump an “idiot.” In fact, for all the humiliation he endured, he said, “I still love the guy. I want him to be successful.” While visiting South Korea last November to give a speech, Priebus made a side trip to the demilitarized zone between South and North, and recommended to Trump that he go there during his Asia trip. (The president and his party tried but were forced to turn back due to bad weather.)

Even so, Priebus’s account of his tenure as Trump’s chief confirms the portrayal of a White House in disarray, riven by conflict. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus said as we sat down. Being White House chief had been even more arduous than it looked from the outside. “No president has ever had to deal with so much so fast: a special counsel and an investigation into Russia and then subpoenas immediately, the media insanity—not to mention we were pushing out executive orders at rec­ord pace and trying to repeal and replace Obama­care right out of the gate.” Priebus was nervous, repeatedly asking, “This is all off the record, right?” (He later agreed to be quoted.)

“People mistake me for a laid-back guy from the Midwest,” he continued. “I’m much more aggressive, and much more of a knife fighter. Playing the inside game is what I do.” Before Priebus, 45, accepted the job, he had had an impressive, if modest, track rec­ord. “I took the R.N.C. from oblivion,” he explained. “Our team raised a ton of money, built the biggest full-time political-party operation ever, ran two conventions, won more races than anyone else, and hit all the marks—without drama, mistakes, or infighting.”

At first, Priebus had been stung by the relentless criticism of his White House run and was especially sensitive to the brickbats hurled by the pundits. But with time he had understood where they came from—including a jab or two thrown by me during interviews on television news shows. “You got me real good one time on Fox,” he said. “My point is, I know what you were saying. You were saying that Trump needed someone in control, and that we had set up a weak structure. But you have to remember: the president was the Trump campaign. The R.N.C. was the organization—but he accomplished almost everything in his life by himself. The idea that he was suddenly going to accept an immediate and elaborate staff structure regulating every minute of his life was never in the cards.

“One of the things all [the chiefs] told me,” Priebus said, “was: don’t take the job unless you’re designated A number 1, in charge of everything, beginning to end.” All of that was right for a typical president, Priebus thought, but Trump wasn’t typical; he was one of a kind.

As it turned out, there was a moment on Election Night when it looked as though the chief’s job might go to Bannon, who eventually became Priebus’s ally in the West Wing. (Others would be considered as well.) But he didn’t look the part. “Trump looked around and I remember I had a combat jacket on and I hadn’t shaved in a week,” said Bannon, who spoke with me at length just before the release of Fire and Fury. “I had the greasy hair [hanging] down. . . . I’m the senior guy—but look, it was obvious Reince had to be chief of staff.” Priebus, however, would be chief in name only: Trump, instead, anointed Bannon as Priebus’s co-equal, with Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, getting top billing.

Priebus with ousted communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

By T. J. Kirkpatrick/Redux.

From the beginning, Priebus would face a challenge unique to this presidency: how to curb the commander in chief’s tweets. “We can get thrown off our message by tweeting things that aren’t the issues of the day,” he told Trump. At first Priebus thought he had succeeded in wresting Trump’s phone from him. “I talked about the security threat of having your own cell in the West Wing and got the Secret Service to go along with me to mothball his phone.” Priebus had managed to silence one device. But it turned out Trump had another.

Early on, the staff wrote daily tweets for him: “The team would give the president five or six tweets every day to choose from,” said Priebus, “and some of them would real­ly push the envelope. The idea would be at least they would be tweets that we could see and understand and control. But that didn’t allow the president to be fully in control of his own voice. Everybody tried at different times to cool down the Twitter habit—but no one could do it. . . . After [last year’s] joint session [of Congress] we all talked to him, and Melania said, ‘No tweeting.’ And he said, ‘O.K.—for the next few days.’ We had many discussions involving this issue. We had meetings in the residence. I couldn’t stop it. [But] it’s now part of the American culture and the American presidency. And you know what? In many ways, the president was right. And all of us so-called experts might be totally wrong.

“[Trump] is a man who fears no one and nothing,” continued Priebus, “and there is absolutely nothing he’s intimidated by. . . . And that’s very rare in politics. Most people in politics are people who have sort of an approval addiction. Now, granted, President Trump does too, but he’s willing to weather one storm after the next to get to an end result that most people are not willing to weather. . . . He doesn’t mind the craziness, the drama, or the difficulty, as long as an end goal is in sight. He will endure it.”

Soon after the inauguration, the president began to lash out wildly at members of the Justice Department who were poised to open probes into possible misconduct or overreach by members of his administration. On his 11th day in office, he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce his controversial travel ban. Then Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District. Next up: F.B.I. director James Comey.

Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGahn tried to stall the freight train coming toward them, sensing that sacking Comey would be a fateful political mistake. But Jared Kushner supported Trump’s decision, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo—criticizing the F.B.I. director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation—gave Trump the pretext. On May 9, Trump fired Comey. It would trigger the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel and would prove to be among the most politically disastrous decisions since Richard Nixon fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.


While Priebus and Bannon watched the fiasco explode as the pundits excoriated the Trump White House on every cable news show, Kushner did a slow burn. He was livid, furious that the communications team could not defend Comey’s firing. Bannon blew his stack. “There’s not a fucking thing you can do to sell this!,” he shouted at Kushner. “Nobody can sell this! P. T. Barnum couldn’t sell this! People aren’t stupid! This is a terrible, stupid decision that’s going to have massive implications. It may have shortened Trump’s presidency—and it’s because of you, Jared Kushner!

The screaming matches and white-knuckle showdowns continued. Eight days later, Priebus got an unexpected visit from the White House counsel—a story he has not told publicly before. “Don McGahn came in my office pretty hot, red, out of breath, and said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we just got a special counsel, and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions just resigned.’ I said, ‘What!? What the hell are you talking about?’ ”

It was bad enough that Trump, having fired Comey, would now be the target of a special prosecutor. Even worse, unbeknownst to Priebus, the president, only moments before, had subjected Sessions to a withering tirade in the Oval Office, calling him an “idiot” and blaming Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation for the whole mess. Humiliated, Sessions said he would resign.

Priebus was incredulous: “I said, ‘That can’t happen.’” He bolted down the stairway to the West Wing parking lot. He found Sessions in the backseat of a black sedan, with the engine running. “I knocked on the door of the car, and Jeff was sitting there,” Priebus said, “and I just jumped in and shut the door, and I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’ And then he told me that he was going to resign. I said, ‘You cannot resign. It’s not possible. We are going to talk about this right now.’ So I dragged him back up to my office from the car. [Vice President Mike] Pence and Bannon came in, and we started talking to him to the point where he decided that he would not resign right then and he would instead think about it.” Later that night, Sessions delivered a resignation letter to the Oval Office, but, Priebus claimed, he ultimately persuaded the president to give it back.

In June, Trump was still on a tear. He considered dumping special counsel Mueller, according to The New York Times, but was dissuaded from doing so. And by July, Trump was back on Sessions’s case, tweeting insults and calling him “weak.” “Priebus was told to get Sessions’s resignation flat out,” said a White House insider. “The president told him, ‘Don’t give me any bullshit. Don’t try to slow me down like you always do. Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.’ ”

Once more, Priebus stalled Trump, recalled a White House insider. “He told the president, ‘If I get this resignation, you are in for a spiral of calamity that makes Comey look like a picnic.’ Rosenstein’s going to resign. [Associate Attorney General] Rachel Brand, the number three, will say, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to be involved with this.’ And it is going to be a total mess.” The president agreed to hold off. (Sessions didn’t comment on the resignation letter and last July publicly stated that he planned to stay on the job “as long as that is appropriate.” Brand, in fact, resigned this month.)

The Trump presidency’s first six months were the most incompetent and least accomplished in modern history. And its very survival was clouded by the gathering storm of the special prosecutor’s probe.

When it came to Mueller’s investigation, Priebus insisted he personally had nothing to worry about. But Bannon warned that the hounds had been loosed. “You’ve got Mueller’s team, which has got 19 killers who are all experts in wire fraud, money-laundering, and tax evasion,” Bannon said. “Doesn’t sound like collusion to me. But they’ve got unlimited budgets and subpoena power. And here’s what we’ve got on our side: two guys who’ve got legal pads and Post-Its.

Trump, Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, Bannon, onetime communications director Sean Spicer, and embattled national-security adviser Michael Flynn.

By Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

“It’s like [certain members of the administration think that] no one took down the Gambino family,” Bannon continued. “Mueller’s doing a roll-up just like he did with the Gambinos. [Former campaign manager Paul] Manafort’s the caporegime, right? And [Rick] Gates [Manafort’s deputy] is a made man! [George] Papadopoulos is equivalent to a wiseguy out in a social club in Brooklyn. This is like a Wagner opera. In the overture you get all the strands of the music you’re going to hear for three hours. Well, Mueller opened with a bang. He totally caught these guys by surprise. So if you’re not going to fight, you’re going to get rolled over.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign to eradicate Obamacare went nowhere. “Repeal and replace” crashed and burned—not once but twice, the second time when John McCain delivered a dramatic 1:30 a.m. thumbs-down on the Senate floor. The debacle proved that Priebus could not count—or deliver—votes. “When McCain voted against it,” Bannon recalled, “I said to myself, Reince is gone. This is going to be so bad. The president is going to get so lit up.”

Priebus soon became a target of Trump’s ritual belittling as the president took to referring to him as “Reincey.” At one point, he summoned Priebus—to swat a fly. Priebus seemed to have been willing to endure almost any indignity to stay in Trump’s favor. There was that scene right out of The Manchurian Candidate when, at a Cabinet meeting, the president’s most powerful advisers virtually competed to see who could be more obsequious; Priebus won hands down, declaring what a “blessing” it was to serve the president.

By the summer, however, Priebus knew that his job hung by a thread. According to insiders, he was already in the crosshairs of “Javanka/Jarvanka”—as Bannon would take to calling the president’s daughter and son-in-law—for refusing to help Kushner in his efforts to oust Bannon. And then came the last straw: the sudden arrival of a new, flamboyant communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. Priebus had opposed his hiring. Scaramucci immediately turned the West Wing into a circular firing squad, calling Trump’s chief of staff a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” in an interview with The New Yorker. He went on, in a tweet, to all but accuse Priebus of leaking classified information about Scaramucci’s finances (which were publicly available). “When he accused me of a felony,” recalled Priebus, “I thought, What am I doing here? . . . I went in to the president and said, ‘I gotta go.’ ” Trump would say nothing publicly in Priebus’s defense. The president accepted his resignation.

Priebus had hoped to exit gracefully within a week or two, but the next day, as Air Force One sat on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Trump tweeted, “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American. . . . ” The sudden shake-up was vintage Trump; the timing blindsided Priebus, who stepped off the plane into a drenching rain and was whisked away by car.

John Kelly, a four-star Marine general who had run the Southern Command, was 22 years Priebus’s senior. At the start, he had the president’s full confidence and wasted no time transforming the West Wing into a tighter ship. All visitors to the Oval Office—including Bannon, Kushner, and even the president’s adviser-daughter, Ivanka—were now vetted by the chief. Kelly also started heaving loose cannons over the side: Scaramucci was fired within 72 hours of Kelly’s appointment; Sebastian Gorka, another overzealous White House staffer, would soon follow; even Bannon himself would be gone within a month. Kelly declared that he was not put on earth to manage the president; instead, he would impose discipline on the staff and streamline the flow of information to the Oval Office.

Still, expectations were high that Kelly would be the “grown-up in the room,” who would smooth over Trump’s authoritarian edges. And yet, week after week—during the president’s fulminations against “fake news,” his sympathetic comments toward white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, his taunting of “Rocket Man” before the U.N. General Assembly, and his racist slurs against “shithole countries”—Kelly stood at Trump’s side. He not only reinforced the president’s worst instincts; he doubled down on them. He maligned Congresswoman Frederica Wilson from the White House Press Briefing Room with a false story after she criticized Trump’s handling of a Gold Star widow. In early February, the news broke that Kelly’s deputy Rob Porter—accused of beating both of his ex-wives (Porter denied the allegations)—had served in the sensitive post of staff secretary for more than a year without a permanent security clearance. The debacle surrounding his abrupt resignation showed that Kelly could not manage the West Wing, let alone Trump.

Suddenly Kelly’s future looked uncertain. And Priebus looked more effective in hindsight. “Reince was better than his press,” said Bannon. “If Reince had the exact track record that Kelly has, he would be deemed the worst chief of staff in the history of politics—and that’s not a slam on Kelly. . . . Folks felt [Priebus] didn’t have the gravitas. He’s always the little guy from Kenosha, right?”

Adapted from The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, to be published in paperback on March 6, 2018, by Crown, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC; © 2017, 2018 by the author.

John Kelly Forges Role as Immigration Hard-Liner

January 22, 2018

Trump’s chief of staff has helped scuttle bipartisan deals the White House deems too liberal

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, waiting for President Trump to speak via video link to an antiabortion rally Friday in Washington.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, waiting for President Trump to speak via video link to an antiabortion rally Friday in Washington.PHOTO: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON—White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is emerging from his usual behind-the-scenes role to become one of the president’s chief conservative anchors on the immigration issue, a spot once occupied by former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

While Mr. Kelly drew the president’s ire last week after suggesting his boss’s campaign promises were uninformed and had “evolved,” he also helped scuttle a bipartisan Senate deal and made the phone call that ended immigration negotiations on Friday. That paved the way for the partial government shutdown, as Democrats have tied their support for a government-spending bill to an extension of an Obama -era immigration program that President Donald Trump ended last year.

“I don’t think [Mr. Trump] was well-served by his staff,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told reporters last week after the White House shelved his bipartisan attempt at an immigration plan. Asked if he was talking about Mr. Kelly, Mr. Graham didn’t back down. “John Kelly is a fine man,” Mr. Graham said. “But he’s also part of the staff.”

When Mr. Trump installed Mr. Kelly as his chief of staff in August, the pairing struck Washington insiders as an odd fit: the free-wheeling real-estate executive with a chaotic management style and a four-star Marine general who eschews politics and spent a lifetime following chain of command.

But time has revealed similarities between men, White House aides said. They argue like brothers, with intense bursts of debate, only to sort things out moments later, and they both hold hard-line views in the immigration debate, according to people familiar with them. The White House and Mr. Kelly didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Steeled by three years in Latin America as the head of U.S. Southern Command, where Mr. Kelly had a front-row seat for drug trafficking and illegal immigration troubles in the region, White House aides said their staff chief is just as adamant about border security as the president. Mr. Kelly also led the Department of Homeland Security, where he began implementing Mr. Trump’s tougher immigration-enforcement policies.

His interest in border security overlaps with the nationalist impulses within the administration, including Stephen Miller, the White House’s senior policy adviser, and Mr. Bannon, the former chief strategist. But White House aides said that Mr. Kelly isn’t as restrictionist as Mr. Miller: Mr. Kelly privately has told lawmakers and top aides he would like to see an agreement protecting young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, but he has insisted that other restrictions be included in any deal.

In a private meeting with lawmakers this month where Mr. Trump questioned why the U.S. would admit people from “shithole countries” in Africa, Mr. Kelly remained straight-faced as the president repeatedly used language that Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) described as “hate-filled, vile and racist,” a person familiar with the exchange said. That came days after Mr. Trump in a bipartisan White House meeting had sounded optimistic that a deal could be had protecting Dreamers.

With the government on the brink of a shutdown on Friday, Mr. Kelly was the only White House aide to join Mr. Trump for a 90-minute meeting with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. Mr. Kelly said little during the meeting but was vocal when Mr. Trump later phoned the New York Democrat to voice his objections, according to a person briefed on the call. As Messrs. Trump and Schumer spoke, the president constantly turned to Mr. Kelly to have him explain the details behind his misgivings, the person said.

And it was Mr. Kelly himself who eventually phoned Mr. Schumer to say the framework was too liberal. Mr. Kelly told him that any deal needed to include an end to the system that prioritizes immigrants who already have family ties in the U.S.—what critics call “chain migration”—effectively shutting down the talks, the person familiar said.

After that phone call, White House officials took the position that they would no longer negotiate on immigration issues unless the government was first properly funded. Mr. Schumer took to the Senate floor on Saturday to essentially say the president was an unreliable negotiating partner, comparing his talks with the Trump White House to “negotiating with Jell-O.”

After speaking with Mr. Kelly, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney said it was Mr. Schumer who was mischaracterizing the negotiations.

“Mr. Schumer is going to have to up his game a little bit and be a little bit more honest with the president of the United States if we’re going to see progress,” Mr. Mulvaney told reporters.

Under Mr. Kelly’s directive, the White House was told to be careful with the politics surrounding the shutdown. For example, he ordered his staff to find unspent money to keep high-profile services like national monuments and parks open, another top White House aide said.

The president values Mr. Kelly’s processes, top aides said, which gives him “time to think,” as one person described it. In an interview Thursday on Fox News, Mr. Kelly said his job wasn’t to control the president but to make sure he is “informed across the spectrum of an issue” and has all the data points needed to make a decision.

One of those moments, he said, was last week when Messrs. Graham and Durbin said they had a bipartisan immigration deal. Mr. Kelly said he called other Republican lawmakers to find out the deal represented just “one end of the spectrum” of the immigration debate.

“This ain’t a regular job,” Mr. Kelly said in the interview, adding that if the president is uninformed and makes the wrong decision, “that’s on me.”

Mr. Graham on Sunday said that while Mr. Kelly has “wanted to be fair” with the population of so-called Dreamers, if he and other immigration hard-liners primarily have Mr. Trump’s ear, “it’s going to be hard to get this issue over.”

Write to Michael C. Bender at

Appeared in the January 22, 2018, print edition as ‘Kelly Forges Hard-Line Immigration Role.’

White House official: House intel panel broke an agreement on limiting scope of questions for Bannon

January 17, 2018
  • The White House believed it had an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to limit questions for Steve Bannon only to events on the presidential campaign, a White House official told CNBC.
  • According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, staffers for the committee and the White House on Friday discussed the parameters of Bannon’s testimony.
  • Asked if negotiations over Bannon’s testimony are ongoing as of Wednesday morning, the official said: “There’s no negotiation now, they haven’t engaged with us.”
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Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon leaves a House Intelligence Committee meeting where he was interviewed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington.

The White House believed it had an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to limit questions for Steve Bannon only to events on the presidential campaign, and not during the ousted former chief strategist’s time in the Trump administration, a White House official told CNBC.

According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, staffers for the committee and the White House on Friday discussed the parameters of Bannon’s testimony. The White House emerged from that conversation believing it had an agreement to limit the questioning of Bannon just to events during the campaign, and not during the transition period or his time in the White House.

Then, hours into Bannon’s closed door testimony, Bannon’s lawyers informed the White House from Capitol Hill that the questions would extend beyond the scope of what the White House understood the agreement to be. At that point, the White House told Bannon not to answer any further.

 Image result for adam schiff, photos
Adam Schiff

“We said ‘Hey, hey, pump the brakes,'” the official said. “We said to Bannon, ‘Don’t answer those questions because we haven’t agreed to that scope under the process.'”

The official declined to say who initiated the mid-testimony phone call or who took part on behalf of the White House.

At that point, House Intelligence Committee Republicans and Democrats joined forces to issue Bannon a subpoena on the spot to compel his testimony. It is not clear what, if any, questions Bannon answered after that. A Reuters report said the former top Trump aide refused to comply with the subpoena.

Bannon did not comment substantively Tuesday evening as he left Capitol Hill.

The House Intelligence Committee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

Despite the attempt to limit questioning of Bannon, the White House official insisted the administration is not asserting executive privilege. “We’re not asserting anything,” the official said. “They need to discuss it with us. There’s a process that’s existed for decades.”

The official would not say what the White House wants to discuss with House Intelligence or what questions about Bannon’s time on the transition or in the White House the administration would seek to block.

Still, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used the phrase “executive privileges” when asked Tuesday whether the White House was blocking Bannon from testifying fully.

“Look, we’ve been completely cooperative throughout this entire process,” Sanders said. “We’re going to continue to be cooperative. But we’re also going to maintain some of the executive privileges here at the White House.”

In essence, the White House is hoping to reap many of the benefits of executive privilege, without President Donald Trump officially asserting the privilege. Formally asserting executive privilege could be embarrassing for the White House, which has insisted it has nothing to hide in the ongoing Russia investigation and that it is cooperating fully.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., one of the Republicans leading the committee’s investigation, reacted with exasperation to Bannon and the White House’s claims.

“It is the most tortured analysis of executive privilege I have ever heard of,” Gowdy said on Fox News. “Executive privilege now covers things before you become the chief executive — which is just mind-numbing and there is no legal support for it.”

Democrats were also frustrated with the 10-hour Bannon meeting.

“This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration and many questions even after he left the administration,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

The committee had earlier rebuffed a White House offer Friday to have a White House attorney sit in on the Bannon session to referee the questions surrounding scope of the interview. “The committee’s belief was it was not necessary,” the official said.

Asked if negotiations over Bannon’s testimony are ongoing as of Wednesday morning, the White House official said: “There’s no negotiation now, they haven’t engaged with us.”

But committee members say they still want to hear from Bannon.

“We have additional questions,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “The subpoena remains in effect. And we have additional questions we don’t have the answers to yet. We’re going to work to get those answers.”

Bannon says under White House orders not to answer House committee

January 17, 2018

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon Tuesday refused to answer questions from a congressional committee probing the president’s campaign links to Russia, saying he was under orders from the White House not to.

Bannon was quizzed voluntarily behind closed doors by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, the first time he has testified in the probe investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in its bid to influence the 2016 US elections.

It was unlikely to be Bannon’s last such testimony: the New York Times and the Washington Post reported late Tuesday that Bannon has been subpoenaed by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel investigating the same issue.


Stephen K. Bannon arrived to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session on Tuesday. CreditJoshua Roberts/Reuters

That made Bannon the first person from Trump’s inner circle to receive a grand jury subpoena from Mueller in the probe, which is also looking at whether Trump has tried to obstruct the investigation.

When appearing before the Intelligence Committee, Bannon refused to answer a number of questions, citing “executive privilege” allowing the president to keep information from the public.

“Steve Bannon and his attorney asserted a remarkably broad definition of executive privilege,” Representative Jim Himes, a Democratic member of the committee, said on CNN.

“Now remember, it’s the president who has the executive privilege and so they went back, conferred with the White House, and the White House said that anything that happened, any communications that happened while Steve Bannon was in the White House or during the transition, any communications were off limits,” Himes said.

– ‘Gag order’ –

“There were an awful lot of questions we weren’t able to answer based on this novel theory of executive privilege,” he said.

The committee itself eventually subpoenaed Bannon for refusing to answer its questions, reports said. Still, he again balked after the White House was consulted, said Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee.

Bannon “got the same instruction back again. Basically, ‘we don’t care whether it’s under compulsory process or a voluntary basis — we’re instructing you, effectively putting in place a gag rule,'” said Schiff.

The unrestricted testimony of Trump’s estranged political strategist could be explosive: he had a front-row seat as chief executive of the 2016 election campaign in its final months, and as a top policy advisor in the first seven months of the administration.

An incendiary book released last week, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, quoted Bannon as saying that a pre-election meeting involving Trump’s eldest son Donald Jr. and a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer was “treasonous.”

Wolff, who painted a picture of an erratic and poorly informed president, was given substantial access to the White House during Trump’s first year by Bannon.

A hard-line nationalist who sought to shake up US domestic and foreign policy, Bannon, 64, was forced out as Trump’s chief strategist in August.

His actions since then — most notably supporting the failed Senate campaign of Alabama Republican Roy Moore, but also his comments in the Wolff book — have left him increasingly isolated in conservative circles.

Last week he stepped down from Breitbart News, which he had helped make a powerful conservative force, and he lost the support of the Mercer family, wealthy conservative power brokers.

Underscoring the break, Trump said Bannon had “lost his mind” and branded him “Sloppy Steve” via Twitter.

Steve bannon Being Questioned by House Intelligence Committee

January 16, 2018

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Steve Bannon, the onetime close confidant to President Donald Trump, arrived early Tuesday for his interview before the House Intelligence Committee.

His interview follows his spectacular fall from power after being quoted in a book that he sees the president’s son and others as engaging in “treasonous” behavior for taking a meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

In Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Bannon accuses Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of essentially betraying the nation by meeting with a group of Russian lawyers and lobbyists who they believed were ready to offer “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

More recently, Bannon has said he was not referring to Trump Jr. but rather to Manafort. Wolff stands by his account.

After the book’s release, Trump quickly disavowed “Sloppy Steve Bannon” and argued extensively there was no evidence of collusion between his presidential campaign and operatives tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bannon apologized a few days later, but was stripped of his job leading the pro-Trump news site Breitbart News.

Bannon last year had largely avoided the scrutiny of congressional investigators, who instead focused much of their energy on trying to secure interviews with top witnesses like Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

But Bannon played a critical role in the campaign, the presidential transition and the White House — all during times now under scrutiny from congressional investigators looking for possible evidence of a connection between Trump’s operations and Russia.

Bannon recently retained the same lawyer being used by former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House general counsel  Don McGahn . Neither Bannon nor his lawyer immediately responded to a request for comment on Monday.

The House Intelligence Committee is speeding toward a conclusion of its interviews in its Russia investigation. The final result could be marred by partisan infighting, which has some members discussing the probability that Republicans on the panel will issue one set of findings and the Democrats will issue their own report.

Fire, fury and the real trouble with Trump

January 12, 2018

The discord revealed in Michael Wolff’s exposé is all too plausible. Yet behind it is a story that should worry us much more

By Edward Luce
The Financial Times (FT)

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President Donald Trump, watched by national security adviser HR McMaster, speaks in Seoul, South Korea, November 2017. Eyevine

On Human Rights Day last month, Donald Trump’s White House issued a statement in support of those suffering under the “yolk” of authoritarianism. Cue the inevitable puns about egg on White House faces. Amid a constant stream of Trumpian typos, this ranked among the best. It captured the indolence of an understaffed presidency that is barely going through the motions. Details are revealing. But you do not need to be a copy-editor to know that Trump cares little about human rights. The error captured the span of Trump’s persona — entertaining and chilling at the same time.

The same applies to Michael Wolff’s controversial book about Trump, Fire and Fury. The furore around it has already ended Trump’s alliance with Steve Bannon, his alt-right alter-ego, who is also Wolff’s biggest source. On Tuesday Bannon quit his job as head of Breitbart News, having lost the confidence of his financial backers. He is surely now regretting having spoken so candidly to the author. Wolff may or may not deserve his reputation as a chancer — a journalist who allegedly disrespects the meaning of “off the record” and embellishes reconstructed scenes. I do not know him personally. But having conducted my own off-the-record conversations with Bannon and others, I find his book to be largely credible.

He paints a White House in which virtually no one has any respect left for the president and where the staff are in “a state of queasy sheepishness, if not constant incredulity”. Both Reince Priebus, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary, are quoted as calling the president an “idiot”. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, reportedly describes him as “dumb as shit”. We already knew that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, thinks the president is a “f***ing moron”. For good measure, Rupert Murdoch, whose approval Trump craves, apparently called him a “f***ing idiot”. I doubt it needs spelling out but this is not a suitable book for family reading. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump is “dumb as a brick”, according to Bannon, while Donald Trump Junior is “Fredo” — the low-IQ sibling in the movie The Godfather. But where is Don Corleone? In his bedroom on the phone complaining to his friends, it seems.

Axios, the email-based newsletter, revealed last week that Trump is cutting his office hours ever shorter. He now only emerges for appointments at around 11am — two hours later than when he started the job. He often concludes his lightly scheduled routine before 6pm then retires to the presidential apartment upstairs. There he is surrounded by three giant flatscreen televisions and likes to order a cheeseburger, make “self-pitying calls to friends” and send tweets, says Wolff. John Kelly, the retired general and White House chief of staff, whom Wolff claims can barely conceal his distaste for the president, has professionalised Trump’s Oval Office day. People can no longer wander in and out at will. Trump’s response has been to curtail the hours that Kelly controls.

The journalist Joe Scarborough asked Trump whom he most trusted, according to Wolff: “The answer is me,” said Trump. “I talk to myself.” For those around him, it is a losing battle. Trump will always win. It is “like trying to figure out what a child wants,” says Katie Walsh, a former White House official who left last year (though she has disputed some of Wolff’s quotes).

Doubtless some of Wolff’s examples are cherry-picked. There must be occasions where Trump uses a grammatically correct sentence, or reads a briefing sheet to the end. There are surely some officials who retain loyalty to their president. But the spirit of Wolff’s narrative rings true amid suspicion over some of the details. In one quoted email purporting to represent the views of Gary Cohn, Trump’s White House is cruelly depicted as “an idiot surrounded by clowns”. The truth is that the Trump administration has no Don Corleone. Yet in spite of lacking a respected authority figure, the show is likely to go on. To work out why, readers should turn to David Frum’s Trumpocracy and How Democracies Die, a slim volume by two Harvard academics, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Frum, a former speech writer to George W Bush and one of the most articulate “Never Trumpers”, asks how a man like Trump could have reached high office in the first place. One answer is that Trump does possess real skills. Among these is an almost diabolical knack for divining other people’s resentments — perhaps because he is riddled with so many of his own. Trump often tries out different applause lines at rallies and sticks with the ones that resonate. Such market testing appears to work. He has an ability to identify with people who feel slighted. Wolff describes how on a tour of Atlantic City with foreign investors many years ago, Trump was asked to define “white trash”. He replied: “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.” Trump converted their frustrations into electoral gold.

Much of their plight is real. Between the late 1990s and 2015, according to Frum, non-college-educated white Americans went from 30 per cent less likely to 30 per cent more likely to die in their fifties than non-college-educated African-Americans. White males account for just under a third of America’s population but over two-thirds of its suicides. Yet white working-class America’s collapsing morale has been downplayed by mainstream society. In the year leading up to Trump’s election victory, the word “transgender” appeared in The New York Times 1,169 times. The word “opioid” appeared just 284 times.

Now picture Trump in his tweet on December 25 2016, standing in front of a Christmas tree with his fist clenched in defiance; “We’ll all be saying Merry Christmas again!” had been the refrain. That image captured the rage against political correctness that fuelled his campaign. It also expressed the mythology. No American was banned from saying “Merry Christmas”. But people started to repeat Trump’s line. They are still doing so. As the writer Dale Beran, quoted by Frum, puts it: “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no centre, because the labyrinth with no centre is how they feel.”

Trumpocracy is a far more rewarding book than Fire and Fury. The significance of Trump’s administration goes so much deeper than Wolff’s “idiot and clown” account. Trump’s fate will shape the future of liberal democracy. That is what makes it so alarming. As Frum points out: “Democracy is a work in progress. So is democracy’s undoing.” All it takes is for good men, and women, to do nothing. Just over a third of Republican senators called on Trump to quit the race after the Access Hollywood tapes were released in October 2016. He ignored them. Thirty-two minutes after the “pussy-grabbing” transcript came out, WikiLeaks dumped its largest cache of Hillary Clinton emails to date, including those of John Podesta, her campaign manager. Most of those Republican senators are now firmly behind Trump. Roughly half of the conservative intellectuals who signed the famous “Never Trump” letter published by the National Review during the campaign have now fallen into line behind Trump.

Trump’s inauguration committee raised $107m — twice the previous record — with donations from financiers who had previously shunned Trump. Paul Singer, the “Never Trump” hedge fund billionaire, donated $1m. In the first four months of 2017, the Trump International Hotel in Washington took in $4.1m more in revenues than projected at a time when other hotels’ occupancy rates were flat or declining. Meanwhile, senior Republican figures such as Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, now routinely sing Trump’s praises. The party’s gatekeepers have decided to swallow their doubts. “It is their public actions, despite their private qualms, that sustain Trumpocracy,” writes Frum.

Where does it go from here? The great strength of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that it rejects the exceptionalist account of US democracy. Their lens is comparative. The authors say America is not immune to the trends that have led to democracy’s collapse in other parts of the world. “Even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity,” they write. “Our constitutional system, while older and more robust than any in history, is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere.”

Since the turn of this century, according to the Stanford scholar Larry Diamond, no fewer than 25 countries have ceased to be democratic. In almost all cases this happened by stealth within an existing system that retained outwardly democratic trappings. Think of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Gone are the days of military coups. During the cold war, coups d’état accounted for three-quarters of democratic breakdowns. Today they barely feature. “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it,” they write.

They set out four tests for whether a democracy is in danger. Trump fulfils them all. The first is when an elected leader rejects the democratic rules of the game. Trump more than meets this test. Campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 2016, he threatened to “lock her up” and said the poll would be “rigged”. Since then he has alleged electoral fraud and repeatedly vowed to use the vast law enforcement powers at his disposal to investigate the defeated Democratic candidate. The second test is whether the leader rejects the legitimacy of his opponents. Ditto. The third is whether he tolerates or encourages violence. During the campaign he encouraged supporters to beat up protesters and even defray their legal costs. Since becoming president, he has goaded law enforcement officers to beat up immigrants and other arrestees. The final one is whether the leader is willing to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Trump almost daily accuses the media of bias and threatens them with libel action. It took Trump’s lawyers less than 48 hours to issue a “cease and desist” threat to Wolff’s publishers.

As these authors diligently show, and Frum eloquently argues, democracy is based on norms rather than rules. The system is only as good as the people who uphold it. Plenty of Latin American democracies adopted the US constitution almost word for word. It offered them little protection against the depredations of strongmen. According to Wolff — Trump does not even understand the basics of the US Constitution. An aide who was asked to explain it to him stopped after the Fourth Amendment — Trump’s mind had wandered elsewhere. The only people who hold real sway in his White House are his “shamelessly grasping extended family,” says Frum.

That may be true. But American democracy’s ultimate arbiters are those on Capitol Hill, in the federal bureaucracy, in the media and elsewhere who have the power to block or enable him. Whether Trump’s White House heralds a new phase in American politics — or a grotesque aberration — is in the hands of those whose names we may not know. Above all else, the secret sauce of democracy is the integrity of people.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, Little, Brown, RRP£20/Henry Holt, RRP$30, 336 pages

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, by David Frum, Harper, RRP£20 (February)/RRP$25.99, 320 pages

How Democracies Die:What History Reveals About Our Future, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Viking, RRP£16.99/Crown, RRP$26, 320 pages

Edward Luce is an FT columnist and author of ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’ (Little, Brown)

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Review: ‘Fire and Fury’ in the Trump White House — He was only ever going to write one kind of book

January 8, 2018

The author writes as if he were the omniscient narrator of a novel, offering up assertions that are provocative but often conjectural. Barton Swaim reviews ‘Fire and Fury’ by Michael Wolff.

Author Michael Wolff stands in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York in January 2017.
Author Michael Wolff stands in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York in January 2017. PHOTO: JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

Michael Wolff has done what the rest of us chump writers can only dream of: He has gotten himself and his book denounced by a sitting U.S. president on live television. That, together with a cease-and-desist letter sent from the president’s attorneys to the publisher, will ensure not only that the book makes Mr. Wolff a truckload of money but also that it gets talked about for a generation. “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is thus in a class with Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”—by itself a forgettable book, certainly not Mr. Rushdie’s best, but remembered forever as having provoked a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr. Wolff was allowed to lurk around the White House for something like six months, presumably because someone in the first days of Donald Trump’s administration thought he would write a sympathetic account. It was an idiotic decision. Mr. Wolff is known in New York and Hollywood for his withering takedowns of popular public figures; he was only ever going to write one kind of book.

In one sense, “Fire and Fury” is a typical piece of “access journalism,” as it’s known, like many titles by Bob Woodward or, on the more gossipy side, like the “Game Change” books by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Mr. Wolff takes the genre to another level, and perhaps a lower level. If he has employed objective criteria for deciding what to include or exclude, it’s not clear what those criteria are. By the looks of it, he included any story, so long as it was juicy. We’re told, for instance, of Mr. Trump’s supposed method of bedding other men’s wives in his pre-presidential days; of Mr. Trump’s promise to his wife, who had no interest in being first lady, that everything was OK because he wasn’t going to win anyway; of the president’s scolding of the White House cleaning staff for picking up his shirt from the floor (“If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor”); and many other such weird tales.

Former chief political strategist Steve Bannon was evidently the source of the book’s most staggering revelations—if “revelations” is the right word for the sort of titillating office gossip that Mr. Wolff reports as fact. A typical story: Mr. Bannon, in a heated argument with the president’s daughter Ivanka, called her a “liar”—with a choice modifier to go with it. This took place in front of the president. The father’s response: “I told you this is a tough town, baby.

Review: ‘Fire and Fury’ in the Trump White House


By Michael Wolff
Holt, 321 pages, $30

Perhaps the book’s most important passage appears in the Author’s Note ahead of the narrative itself. There Mr. Wolff explains how he assembled what he learned from his interviews. “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House,” Mr. Wolff writes, “are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book. Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”

Thus has Mr. Wolff encountered the most commonplace problem of reporting: what to do when two sources make contradictory claims. A responsible reporter, or one more scrupulous than Mr. Wolff, would seek out corroborating evidence or do more research. Mr. Wolff simply “settles” on his preferred version.

But maybe Mr. Wolff’s approach isn’t so unconventional. Much of his writing is sheer pronouncement—not the reporting of facts or the weighing of evidence but merely the stringing together of unverifiable assertions. These assertions are sometimes idiosyncratic, more often conventional; but almost always they are conjectural, no more provable or valuable than the crotchets of a barroom political junkie.

Mr. Wolff often writes as if he were the omniscient narrator of a novel. One example, taken more or less at random from a passage on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation: “Sessions was certainly not going to risk his job over the silly Russia business, with its growing collection of slapstick Trump figures. God knows what those characters were up to—nothing good, everybody assumed. Best to have nothing to do with it.” This and many similar claims may be true or false, but they are highly interpretive and resistant to empirical verification. It seems unlikely that Mr. Wolff interviewed Mr. Sessions, and unlikelier still that the attorney general told him any such thing about his own thoughts on recusal. How does Mr. Wolff know then?

Mr. Wolff has been hotly criticized by prominent members of the news media for his slipshod reporting, but in this regard his manner isn’t so different from much of today’s political journalism—not just books of access journalism like this one but the day-to-day reporting issuing from our most prestigious news outlets. Reporters, especially though not exclusively political reporters, are more interested in the meaning of facts than in the facts themselves. They’re concerned with interpretation rather than accuracy, with “narrative” rather than detail, with explaining rather than disclosing, with who’s happy or angry about a story rather than whether it’s true, with what’s likely to happen next week or next year rather than with what happened yesterday.

If Mr. Wolff had considered it his job to tell us what happened, and not merely to offer up his own clever interpretation of what happened, he might not have felt emboldened to repeat every unseemly tidbit he could extract from murmuring White House staffers. But then he wouldn’t have gotten rich.

Mr. Swaim, the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics,” writes a column on political books for the Weekend Journal.

Appeared in the January 8, 2018, print edition as ‘The Hour Of the Wolff.’