Michael D'Antonio: Jared Kushner appears to be winning against Steve Bannon in the battle for dominance in Trump's White House
However, Kushner is untested and inexperienced, and his victory doesn't guarantee smooth sailing moving forward, writes D'Antonio
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
One is the self-proclaimed Dark Lord in the House of Trump (you may call it the White House). Profane, self-certain and supremely ambitious, Stephen Bannon looks like the old, scarred survivor of more battles than he can recall. His approach to government calls for destroying much of it, as per the so-called alt-right political movement, which sees him as an inspiration. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” he says.
The other is the young Prince of Light. Despite his heavy responsibilities, which include vexing domestic and diplomatic problems, Jared Kushner never looks weary or burdened. He strides across the tarmac, Air Force One behind him, accompanied by his Princess wife and holding his son’s hand. Kushner rarely speaks in public, and when he does, he reveals little of himself. “We should have excellence in government,” he says.
Palace intrigue is nothing new in Washington. Although it was muted in the time of No Drama Obama, the sport of jockeying for influence and favor is as constant as the Potomac and as old as the Republic. (So, too, is the sport of denying that the game exists.)
As of late, the President himself has even intervened, trying to temper the feud between the two factions. In a Monday press briefing, Sean Spicer said that Trump acknowledged his advisers had differences of opinions, but believes “our battles and our policy differences need to be behind closed doors.”
However, this current feud between the Kushner and Bannon factions includes the unusual feature of a First Daughter and First Son-in-Law installed in West Wing offices and close to the President’s heart. This only serves to make the story of the feud even more intriguing.
Past presidents including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton brought powerful spouses to the White House and their influence was, at times, disruptive. But not one commander in chief in the post-Watergate age has made other family members into almost instant Oval Office advisers. Trump’s reliance on his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared is consistent, however, with his life before presidential politics. This is a man who trusts few, and always depends on family.
In the past decade it has been Ivanka, not Trump’s wife Melania, who served as his sounding board and ballast in the development and operation of the Trump business empire. Well-liked and well-spoken, Ivanka’s mere presence reassured people who found Trump unbearable that there must be something good in him. When she married Jared, she brought into the family a young man her father was likely to embrace as the son he could have never had on his own.
Trump’s two actual sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, live with the burden of being third generation heirs to an outer-borough real estate fortune that was established by their grandfather Fred and enlarged through their father’s expansion in Manhattan. They came of age without the burning need to prove themselves by capturing the attention of the real estate elite. That work was already done. Fully overshadowed by their father, they have accepted that they will be stewards of what he created and distinguish themselves mainly through their side interests. Eric likes charitable activity; Donald Jr., the outdoors.
Jared Kushner, on the other hand, performed the same magic that the future President worked. He brought a suburban property development firm into the big city by making a huge deal to buy a Fifth Avenue skyscraper. This audacity surely resonated with his father-in-law and, as a man who believed his real estate skill could be translated to any purpose, he thought that Jared’s strengths, unproven as they were, could work in White House. Together with Ivanka, Jared has grown in reputation during the first months of the new administration, serving as the conduit to the President for foreign leaders and as a steady hand amid the swirl of intrigue.
Though even the Prince of Light has been subject to some criticism, including for his meeting with a Russian banker and Russian ambassador during the campaign and his recent wardrobe choice for a trip to Baghdad.
However, even with his stumbles, Kushner continues to serve as a loyal adviser to the President. And in contrast to the serene-looking Kushner, Bannon has appeared to be flailing – if not incompetent. His role was evident in Trump’s inaugural speech, which was an ode to the kind of dystopia predicted by one of Bannon’s favorite books, “The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy.” The speech was riddled with inaccuracies, and reviews of the address were almost uniformly negative. In its headline, Time called it an “Unprecedented, Divisive Speech.” The Washington Post regarded it as “most dreadful.”
Bannon was also the architect behind Trump’s first big policy initiative, which was the attempted ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. The order was a disaster that was met by protests across the country and was immediately suspended by federal judges.
In addition to the travel ban fiasco, Bannon may have been responsible for Trump’s other big failure, the collapse of his effort to repeal-and-replace Obamacare. Like other Republicans who have promised for years to destroy the Affordable Care Act , Trump campaigned on the notion of dismantling the reform program that added 20 million to the insurance roles. Unfortunately for him, he was no more prepared to write a replacement law than the Republicans in Congress. As the President’s effort to keep his promise was threatened with defeat, Bannon went to Capitol Hill to pressure representatives who were not in favor.
According to one person who was in the room, Bannon said, “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” This did not go over well with those opponents of the bill who felt they had principle on their side. In the end, the collapse of repeal-and-replace could be seen, at least in part, as Bannon’s failure.
The situation grew worse when word got out that Bannon wanted to make sure the House was polled on the legislation so that he could put those who didn’t support it on an enemies list. The showdown was averted when House Speaker Paul Ryan withdrew it before it was formally rejected.
Last week, as Trump was reportedly sickened by the Syrian regime’s poison gas attack on a rebel area, which killed many children, he punished Damascus with 59 cruise missiles. Though mainly a matter of message-sending, the strike won Trump praise from many pundits. But it represented the kind of international activism that Bannon would oppose, and he apparently tried to talk Trump out of it.
A photo from the makeshift situation room where the decision was taken showed Bannon consigned to a seat in the background and Kushner at the table with the President. Other signs, including the prominence of Kushner friend Gary Cohn, now a White House staffer, are bad for Bannon.
Seen from the outside, Bannon’s decline and Kushner’s rise signal the possibility of normalcy in the Trump White House, and this should reassure those who feared the alt-right ideology, which is long on xenophobia and short of engagement with the world.
However, Bannon is not gone yet, and Kushner is, while less frightening, an untested and inexperienced political figure. The Prince of Light may defeat the Dark Lord, but his victory won’t guarantee that the House of Trump will serve the people well. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote over the weekend, Kushner’s steadier style of leadership likely favors the wealthy elite, which is one of the groups voters sought to punish when they elected Trump.