Bannon's Cardinal Sin: Crossing 'Jarvanka'

The White House's reaction to Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury has been -- let me be kind -- incoherent and self-defeating. One day, excerpts from the book were treated as pure gospel and the basis for launching a withering attack on Steve Bannon; the next, President Trump takes to Twitter to dismiss the author as a "total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book". The empty threats of legal action against Bannon and the publisher only ensure that the book will be a bestseller and a major topic of conversation for weeks instead of days. Again on Twitter, the president declared that he never authorized Wolff's access to the White House, but a few hours later we learn that the author lingered around the West Wing for months and that staffers were instructed to speak to him. The White House could have held its fire against Bannon, dismissed Wolff's work as fiction, and waited a couple of days for the media to move on to the next shiny object. Instead, Trump chose the only approach that would maximize interest in the book, because for the president, settling an outstanding personal score with Bannon was more important than avoiding negative headlines.

The cathartic and personal nature of Trump's statement on Bannon confirms my suspicion that the president has been looking for an opening to unload on his former aide for quite some time. The attack was launched supposedly to defend the honor of Donald Trump Jr., and yet there is no mention of him or the offending quotes. Rather, it is solely focused on minimizing Bannon's contribution to Trump's campaign and his role at the White House, while portraying him as a treacherous poser who doesn’t know how to win elections. Bannon understands how his former boss operates. He knows that - despite Trump's reputation as a bully, he seldom throws the first punch and his real skill is in counter-punching. Ever since Bannon left the White House, he has been very careful not to attack the president and instead said he was Trump's "wingman" working to help him from the outside -- and it worked, until quotes from last summer surfaced. 

Sharing the spotlight with the president was not the only cardinal sin Bannon committed. It is no secret that he has a very low opinion of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and believes they are liability to the administration. On Breitbart, headlines about Ivanka often feature a princess emoji. Jared is sarcastically referred to as 'Mr. Perfect,' and the site never misses an opportunity to recount his mistakes with relish. Bannon gave the couple its own celebrity nickname, Jarvanka -- not exactly a subtle approach, but consistent with Bannon’s tendency to poke people in the eye.

In all likelihood, Bannon was not the only person in the administration who believed Trump’s children were not qualified to hold the positions they do. Neither has any political experience. Ivanka’s background includes working in her father’s real estate business, a brief stunt as a model, and having a fashion company. Jared also worked in his family’s real estate business and dabbled in publishing. Besides lacking qualifications, they also create a very disruptive dynamic at the White House.  Some individuals will use them to curry favor with the president by showering them with praise, and others will simply find it very difficult to criticize or disagree with them. The latter probably explains why an old political veteran like Paul Manafort went along with holding the meeting with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. If Donald didn’t have “Jr.” after his name, Manafort would have upbraided him for replying “I love it” to an email stating that it was part of an effort by a foreign government to help his father’s campaign and then slapped down as moronic any suggestion that anyone close Trump attend the meeting, let alone hold it at the campaign headquarters. Instead, Manafort probably smiled and said “That’s a brilliant idea, Junior. Your father is so lucky to have you and Jared working on his campaign.”

Does anyone believe that Rex Tillerson – a very accomplished man who managed a global corporation larger than the State Department – enjoys having to play second fiddle to Kushner? What exactly in Jared’s curriculum vitae suggests that he should be handling Middle East peace negotiations -- Bibi Netanyahu staying at his parents' house while visiting New York City? Tillerson has every reason to demand that Kushner take a backseat. Instead, he apparently has chosen to go along with the arrangement rather than risk Trump’s ire.

The other destructive aspect of having Jarvanka at the White House is that careers have been made or destroyed based on their own personal whims or demands. Trump’s closing campaign ad labeled Goldman Sachs executives as part of the elite that did not have the best interest of the forgotten man at heart. So how did the former number two at Goldman Sachs land as chief economic adviser to the president? The answer is Jared Kushner. Why was Chris Christie kept away from the administration and removed as the head of the transition team?   The answer again is Jared Kushner, who never forgave Christie for sending his father to jail. It also appears that Kushner may have played a role in General Michael Flynn’s legal troubles. Could it be that the reason Flynn lied to the Vice President and the FBI about the content of his conversation was because he was asked by Kushner to keep it private? It's pure speculation on my part -- but it would explain why Flynn would lie about a perfectly legal and perfunctory contact with the Russian ambassador.

Unlike others, Bannon was unwilling to shower praise on Jarvanka, whether deserved or not. He was unwilling to ignore the damage they are doing to the administration and, more importantly, to the populist agenda he champions. He did not shy away from confronting Jarvanka -- and that was Bannon's ultimate cardinal sin.