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18

BANNON REDUX

Bannon was back, according to the Bannon faction. According to Bannon himself: “I’m good. I’m good. I’m back. I said don’t do it. You don’t fire the director of the FBI. The geniuses around here thought otherwise.”

Was Bannon back? asked the worried other side of the house—Jared and Ivanka, Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Hope Hicks, H. R. McMaster.

If he was back, that meant he had successfully defied the organizational premise of the Trump White House: the family would always prevail. Steve Bannon had, even in his internal exile, not stopped his running public verbal assault on Jared and Ivanka. Off the record became Bannon’s effective on the record. These were bitter, sometimes hilarious, denunciations of the couple’s acumen, intelligence, and motives: “They think they’re defending him, but they are always defending themselves.” Now he declared they were finished as a power center—destroyed. And if not, they would destroy the president with their terrible and self-serving advice. Even worse than Jared was Ivanka. “She was a nonevent on the campaign. She became a White House staffer and that’s when people suddenly realized she’s dumb as a brick. A little marketing savvy and has a look, but as far as understanding actually how the world works and what politics is and what it means—nothing. Once you expose that, you lose such credibility. Jared just kind of flits in and does the Arab stuff.” The folks on the Jarvanka side seemed more and more genuinely afraid of what might happen if they crossed the Bannon side. Because the Bannonites, they truly seemed to fear, were assassins.

On the flight to Riyadh, Dina Powell approached Bannon about a leak involving her to a right-wing news site. She told him she knew the leak had come from Julia Hahn, one of Bannon’s people and a former Breitbart writer.

“You should take it up with her,” said an amused Bannon. “But she’s a beast. And she will come at you. Let me know how it works out.”

Among Bannon’s many regular targets, Powell had become a favorite. She was often billed as Deputy National Security Advisor; that was her sometime designation even in the New York Times. Actually, she was Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy—the difference, Bannon pointed out, between the COO of a hotel chain and the concierge.

Coming back from the overseas trip, Powell began to talk in earnest to friends about her timetable to get out of the White House and back into a private-sector job. Sheryl Sandberg, she said, was her model.

“Oh my fu@king god,” said Bannon.

On May 26, the day before the presidential party returned from the overseas trip, the Washington Post reported that during the transition, Kushner and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, had, at Kushner’s instigation, discussed the possibility of having the Russians set up a private communications channel between the transition team and the Kremlin. The Post cited “U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.” The Jarvanka side believed that Bannon was the source.

Part of the by now deep enmity between the First Family couple and their allies and Bannon and his team was the Jarvanka conviction that Bannon had played a part in many of the reports of Kushner’s interactions with the Russians. This was not, in other words, merely an internal policy war; it was a death match. For Bannon to live, Kushner would have to be wholly discredited—pilloried, investigated, possibly even jailed.

Bannon, assured by everyone that there was no winning against the Trump family, hardly tried to hide his satisfied belief that he was going to outplay them. In the Oval Office, in front of her father, Bannon openly attacked her. “You,” he said, pointing at her as the president watched, “are a fu@king liar.” Ivanka’s bitter complaints to her father, which in the past had diminished Bannon, were now met by a hands-off Trump: “I told you this is a tough town, baby.”

But if Bannon was back, it was far from clear what being back meant. Trump being Trump, was this true rehabilitation, or did he feel an even deeper rancor toward Bannon for having survived his initial intention to kill him? Nobody really thought Trump forgot—instead, he dwelled and ruminated and chewed. “One of the worst things is when he believes you’ve succeeded at his expense,” explained Sam Nunberg, once on the inside of the Trump circle, then cast to the outside. “If your win is in any way perceived as his loss, phew.” For his part, Bannon believed he was back because, at a pivotal moment, his advice had proved vastly better than that of the “geniuses.” Firing Comey, the solve-all-problems Jarvanka solution, had indeed unleashed a set of terrible consequences.

The Jarvanka side believed that Bannon was in essence blackmailing the president. As Bannon went, so went the virulence of right-wing digital media. Despite his apparent obsession with the “fake news” put out by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN, for the president the threat of fake news was actually greater on the right. Though he would never call out fake news on Fox, Breitbart, and the others, these outlets—which could conceivably spew a catchall of conspiracies in which a weak Trump sold out to a powerful establishment—were potentially far more dangerous than their counterparts on the left.

Bannon, too, was seen to be rectifying an earlier bureaucratic mistake. Where initially he had been content to be the brains of the operation—confident that he was vastly smarter than everybody else (and, indeed, few tried to challenge him for that title)—and not staff up, now he was putting his organization and loyalists firmly in place. His off-balance-sheet communications staff—Bossie, Lewandowski, Jason Miller, Sam Nunberg (even though he had long fallen out with Trump himself), and Alexandra Preate—formed quite a private army of leakers and defenders. What’s more, whatever breach there had been between Bannon and Priebus came smoothly together over their mutual loathing of Jared and Ivanka. The professional White House was united against the amateur family White House.

Adding to Bannon’s new bureaucratic advantage, he had maximum influence on the staffing of the new firewall team, the lawyers and comm staff who would collectively become the Lanny Davis of the Trump defense. Unable to hire prestige talent, Bannon turned to one of the president’s longtime hit-man lawyers, Marc Kasowitz. Bannon had previously bonded with Kasowitz when the attorney had handled a series of near-death problems on the campaign, including dealing with a vast number of allegations and legal threats from an ever growing list of women accusing Trump of molesting and harassing them.

On May 31, the Bannon firewall plan went into effect. Henceforth, all discussion related to Russia, the Mueller and congressional investigations, and other personal legal issues would be entirely handled by the Kasowitz team. The president, as Bannon described the plan in private and as he urged his boss, would no longer be addressing any of these areas. Among the many, many efforts to force Trump into presidential mode, this was the latest.

Bannon then installed Mark Corallo, a former Karl Rove communications staffer, as the firewall spokesperson. He was also planning to put in Bossie and Lewandowski as part of the crisis management team. And at Bannon’s prompting, Kasowitz attempted to further insulate the president by giving his client a central piece of advice: send the kids home.

Bannon was indeed back. It was his team. It was his wall around the president—one that he hoped would keep Jarvanka out.

Bannon’s formal moment of being back was marked by a major milestone. On June 1, after a long and bitter internal debate, the president announced that he had decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. For Bannon, it was a deeply satisfying slap in the face of liberal rectitude—Elon Musk and Bob Iger immediately resigned from Trump’s business council—and confirmation of Trump’s true Bannonite instincts.

It was, likewise, the move that Ivanka Trump had campaigned hardest against in the White House.

“Score,” said Bannon. “The bit@h is dead.”

There are few modern political variables more disruptive than a dedicated prosecutor. It’s the ultimate wild card.

A prosecutor means that the issue under investigation—or, invariably, cascading issues—will be a constant media focus. Setting their own public stage, prosecutors are certain leakers.

It means that everybody in a widening circle has to hire a lawyer. Even tangential involvement can cost six figures; central involvement quickly rises into the millions.

By early summer, there was already an intense seller’s market in Washington for top criminal legal talent. As the Mueller investigation got under way, White House staffers made a panicky rush to get the best firm before someone else got there first and created a conflict.

“Can’t talk about Russia, nothing, can’t go there,” said Katie Walsh, now three months removed from the White House, on advice of her new counsel.

Any interviews or depositions given to investigators risked putting you in jeopardy. What’s more, every day in the White House brought new dangers: any random meeting you might find yourself in exposed you more.

Bannon kept insisting on the absolute importance of this point—and for him the strategic importance. If you didn’t want to find yourself getting wrung out in front of Congress, your career and your net worth in jeopardy, be careful who you spoke to. More to the point: you must not under any circumstances speak to Jared and Ivanka, who were now Russia toxic. It was Bannon’s widely advertised virtue and advantage: “I’ve never been to Russia. I don’t know anybody from Russia. I’ve never spoken to any Russians. And I’d just as well not speak to anyone who has.” Bannon observed a hapless Pence in a lot of “wrong meetings,” and helped to bring in the Republican operative Nick Ayers as Pence’s chief of staff, and to get “our fallback guy” out of the White House and “running around the world and looking like a vice president.” And beyond the immediate fears and disruption, there was the virtually certain outcome that a special prosecutor delegated to find a crime would find one—likely many. Everybody became a potential agent of implicating others. Dominos would fall. Targets would flip.

Paul Manafort, making a good living in international financial gray areas, his risk calculation based on the long-shot odds that an under-the-radar privateer would ever receive close scrutiny, would now be subjected to microscopic review. His nemesis, Oleg Deripaska—still pursuing his $17 million claim against Manafort and himself looking for favorable treatment from federal authorities who had restricted his travel to the United States—was continuing his own deep investigation into Manafort’s Russian and Ukrainian business affairs.

Tom Barrack, privy to the president’s stream of consciousness as well as his financial history, was suddenly taking stock of his own exposure. Indeed, all the billionaire friends with whom Trump got on the phone and gossiped and rambled were potential witnesses.

In the past, administrations forced to deal with a special prosecutor appointed to investigate and prosecute matters with which the president might have been involved usually became consumed by the effort to cope. Their tenure broke into “before” and “after” periods—with the “after” period hopelessly bogged down in the soap opera of G-man pursuit. Now it looked like the “after” period would be almost the entirety of the Trump administration.

The idea of formal collusion and artful conspiracy—as media and Democrats more or less breathlessly believed or hoped had happened between Trump and the Russians—seemed unlikely to everybody in the White House. (Bannon’s comment that the Trump campaign was not organized enough to collude with its own state organizations became everybody’s favorite talking point—not least because it was true.) But nobody was vouching for the side deals and freelance operations and otherwise nothing-burger stuff that was a prosecutor’s daily bread and the likely detritus of the Trump hangers-on. And everybody believed that if the investigation moved into the long chain of Trump financial transactions, it would almost certainly reach the Trump family and the Trump White House.

And then there was the president’s insistent claim that he could do something. I can fire him, he would say. Indeed, it was another of his repetitive loops: I can fire him. I can fire him. Mueller. The idea of a showdown in which the stronger, more determined, more intransigent, more damn-the-consequences man prevails was central to Trump’s own personal mythology. He lived in a mano a mano world, one in which if your own respectability and sense of personal dignity were not a paramount issue—if you weren’t weak in the sense of needing to seem like a reasonable and respectable person—you had a terrific advantage. And if you made it personal, if you believed that when the fight really mattered that it was kill or be killed, you were unlikely to meet someone willing to make it as personal as you were.

This was Bannon’s fundamental insight about Trump: he made everything personal, and he was helpless not to.

Dissuaded by everyone from focusing his anger on Mueller (at least for now), the president focused on Sessions.

Sessions—“Beauregard”—was a close Bannon ally, and in May and June the president’s almost daily digs against the attorney general—beyond even his loyalty and resolve, Trump issued scathing criticism of his stature, voice, and dress—provided a sudden bit of good news for the anti-Bannon side of the house. Bannon, they reasoned, couldn’t really be on top if his key proxy was now being blamed for everything bad in Trump’s life. As always, Trump’s regard or scorn was infectious. If you were in favor, then whatever and whomever he associated with you was also in favor. If you weren’t, then everything associated with you was poisonous.

The brutality of Trump’s dissatisfaction kept increasing. A small man with a Mr. Magoo stature and an old-fashioned Southern accent, Sessions was bitterly mocked by the president, who drew a corrosive portrait of physical and mental weakness. Insult trauma radiated out of the Oval Office. You could hear it when passing by.

Bannon’s efforts to talk the president down—reminding Trump of the difficulties they would encounter during another attorney general confirmation, the importance of Sessions to the hard conservative base, the loyalty that Sessions had shown during the Trump campaign—backfired. To the anti-Bannon side’s satisfaction, they resulted in another round of Trump’s dissing Bannon.

The attack on Sessions now became, at least in the president’s mind, the opening salvo in an active effort to replace Sessions as attorney general. But there were only two candidates to run the Justice Department from whom Trump believed he could extract absolute loyalty, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. He believed they would both perform kamikaze acts for him—just as everyone else knew they would almost certainly never be confirmed.

As James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee approached—it would take place on June 8, twelve days after the presidential traveling party returned home from the long trip to the Middle East and Europe—there began among senior staffers an almost open inquiry into Trump’s motives and state of mind.

This seemed spurred by an obvious question: Why hadn’t he fired Comey during his first days of office, when it would likely have been seen as a natural changing of the guard with no clear connection to the Russian investigation? There were many equivocal answers: general disorganization, the fast pace of events, and a genuine sense of innocence and naïveté about the Russian charges. But now there seemed to be a new understanding: Donald Trump believed he had vastly more power, authority, and control than in fact he had, and he believed his talent for manipulating people and bending and dominating them was vastly greater than it was. Pushing this line of reasoning just a little further: senior staff believed the president had a problem with reality, and reality was now overwhelming him.

If true, this notion directly contravened the basic premise of the support for Trump among his staff. In some sense, not too closely questioned, they believed he had almost magical powers. Since his success was not explainable, he must have talents beyond what they could fathom. His instincts. Or his salesman’s gifts. Or his energy. Or just the fact that he was the opposite of what he was supposed to be. This was out-of-the-ordinary politics—shock-to-the-system politics—but it could work.

But what if it didn’t? What if they were all profoundly wrong?

Comey’s firing and the Mueller investigation prompted a delayed reckoning that ended months of willing suspension of disbelief. These sudden doubts and considerations—at the highest level of government—did not quite yet go to the president’s ability to adequately function in his job. But they did, arguably for the first time in open discussions, go to the view that he was hopelessly prone to self-sabotaging his ability to function in the job. This insight, scary as it was, at least left open the possibility that if all the elements of self-sabotage were carefully controlled—his information, his contacts, his public remarks, and the sense of danger and threat to him—he might yet be able to pull it together and successfully perform.

Quite suddenly, this became the prevailing view of the Trump presidency and the opportunity that still beckoned: you can be saved by those around you or brought down by them.

Bannon believed the Trump presidency would fail in some more or less apocalyptic fashion if Kushner and his wife remained Trump’s most influential advisers. Their lack of political or real-world experience had already hobbled the presidency, but since the Comey disaster it was getting worse: as Bannon saw it, they were now acting out of personal panic.

The Kushner side believed that Bannon or Bannonism had pushed the president into a harshness that undermined his natural salesman’s abilities to charm and reach out. Bannon and his ilk had made him the monster he more and more seemed to be.

Meanwhile, virtually everybody believed that a large measure of the fault lay in Reince Priebus, who had failed to create a White House that could protect the president from himself—or from Bannon or from his own children. At the same time, believing that the fundamental problem lay in Priebus was easy scapegoating, not to mention little short of risible: with so little power, the chief of staff simply wasn’t capable of directing either Trump or those around him. Priebus himself could, not too helpfully, argue only that no one had any idea how much worse all this would have been without his long-suffering mediation among the president’s relatives, his Svengali, and Trump’s own terrible instincts. There might be two or three debacles a day, but without Priebus’s stoic resolve, and the Trump blows that he absorbed, there might have been a dozen more.

On June 8, from a little after ten in the morning to nearly one in the afternoon, James Comey testified in public before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The former FBI director’s testimony, quite a tour de force of directness, moral standing, personal honor, and damning details, left the country with a simple message: the president was likely a fool and certainly a liar. In the age of modern media politesse, few presidents had been so directly challenged and impugned before Congress.

Here it was, stark in Comey’s telling: the president regarded the FBI director as working directly for him, of owing his job to him, and now he wanted something back. “My common sense,” said Comey, “again, I could be wrong, but my common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job.” In Comey’s telling, the president wanted the FBI to lay off Michael Flynn. And he wanted to stop the FBI from pursuing its Russia-related investigation. The point could hardly have been clearer: if the president was pressuring the director because he feared that an investigation of Michael Flynn would damage him, then this was an obstruction of justice.

The contrast between the two men, Comey and Trump, was in essence the contrast between good government and Trump himself. Comey came across as precise, compartmentalized, scrupulous in his presentation of the details of what transpired and the nature of his responsibility—he was as by-the-book as it gets. Trump, in the portrait offered by Comey, was shady, shoot-from-the-hip, heedless or even unaware of the rules, deceptive, and in it for himself.

After the hearing ended, the president told everybody he had not watched it, but everybody knew he had. To the extent that this was, as Trump saw it, a contest between the two men, it was as direct a juxtaposition as might be imagined. The entire point of the Comey testimony was to recast and contradict what the president had said in his angry and defensive tweets and statements, and to cast suspicion on his actions and motives—and to suggest that the president’s intention was to suborn the director of the FBI.

Even among Trump loyalists who believed, as Trump did, that Comey was a phony and this was all a put-up job, the nearly universal feeling was that in this mortal game, Trump was quite defenseless.

Five days later, on June 13, it was Jeff Sessions’s turn to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. His task was to try to explain the contacts he had had with the Russian ambassador, contacts that had later caused him to recuse himself—and made him the president’s punching bag. Unlike Comey, who had been invited to the Senate to show off his virtue—and had seized the opportunity—Sessions had been invited to defend his equivocation, deception, or stupidity.

In an often testy exchange, the attorney general provided a squirrelly view of executive privilege. Though the president had not in fact evoked executive privilege, Sessions deemed it appropriate to try to protect it anyway.

Bannon, watching the testimony from the West Wing, quickly became frustrated. “Come on, Beauregard,” he said.

Unshaven, Bannon sat at the head of the long wooden conference table in the chief of staff’s office and focused intently on the flat-screen monitor across the room.

“They thought the cosmopolitans would like it if we fired Comey,” he said, with “they” being Jared and Ivanka. “The cosmopolitans would be cheering for us for taking down the man who took Hillary down.” Where the president saw Sessions as the cause of the Comey fiasco, Bannon saw Sessions as a victim of it.

A sylphlike Kushner, wearing a skinny gray suit and skinny black tie, slipped into the room. (Recently making the rounds was a joke about Kushner being the best-dressed man in Washington, which is quite the opposite of a compliment.) On occasion the power struggle between Bannon and Kushner seemed to take physical form. Bannon’s demeanor rarely changed, but Kushner could be petulant, condescending, and dismissive—or, as he was now, hesitating, abashed, and respectful.

Bannon ignored Kushner until the younger man cleared his throat. “How’s it going?”

Bannon indicated the television set: as in, Watch for yourself.

Finally Bannon spoke. “They don’t realize this is about institutions, not people.”

“They” would appear to be the Jarvanka side—or an even broader construct referring to all those who mindlessly stood with Trump.

“This town is about institutions,” Bannon continued. “We fire the FBI director and we fire the whole FBI. Trump is a man against institutions, and the institutions know it. How do you think that goes down?”

This was shorthand for a favorite Bannon riff: In the course of the campaign, Donald Trump had threatened virtually every institution in American political life. He was a clown-prince version of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Trump believed, offering catnip to deep American ire and resentment, that one man could be bigger than the system. This analysis presupposed that the institutions of political life were as responsive as those in the commercial life that Trump was from—and that they yearned to meet the market and find the Zeitgeist. But what if these institutions—the media, the judiciary, the intelligence community, the greater executive branch itself, and the “swamp” with its law firms, consultants, influence peddlers, and leakers—were in no way eager to adapt? If, by their nature, they were determined to endure, then this accidental president was up against it.

Kushner seemed unpersuaded. “I wouldn’t put it like that,” he said.

“I think that’s the lesson of the first hundred days that some people around here have learned,” said Bannon, ignoring Kushner. “It’s not going to get better. This is what it’s like.”

“I don’t know,” said Kushner.

“Know it,” said Bannon.

“I think Sessions is doing okay,” said Kushner. “Don’t you?”

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