لغو و جایگزینیکتاب: خشم و آتش / فصل 12
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REPEAL AND REPLACE
Afew days after the election, Steve Bannon told the president-elect—in what Katie Walsh would characterize with a raised eyebrow as more “Breitbart shenanigans”—that they had the votes to replace Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House with Mark Meadows, the head of the Tea Party-inspired Freedom Caucus and an early Trump supporter. (Meadows’s wife had a particular place of regard in the Trump camp for continuing a campaign swing across the Bible Belt over Billy Bush weekend.) Nearly as much as winning the presidency itself, removing Ryan—indeed, humiliating him—was an ultimate expression of what Bannon sought to accomplish and of the mind-meld of Bannonism and Trumpism. From the beginning, the Breitbart campaign against Paul Ryan was a central part of its campaign for Donald Trump. Its embrace of Trump, and Bannon’s personal enlistment in the campaign fourteen months after it began, was in part because Trump, throwing political sense to the wind, was willing to lead the charge against Ryan and the GOP godfathers. Still, there was a difference between the way Breitbart viewed Ryan and the way Trump viewed him.
For Breitbart, the House rebellion and transformation that had driven the former Speaker, John Boehner, from office, and which, plausibly, was set to remake the House into the center of the new radical Republicanism had been halted by Ryan’s election as Speaker. Mitt Romney’s running mate, and a figure who had merged a conservative fiscal wonkishness—he had been the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and, as well, chairman of the House Budget Committee—with an old-fashioned idea of unassailable Republican rectitude, Ryan was the official last, best hope of the Republican Party. (Bannon, typically, had turned this trope into an official Trumpist talking point: “Ryan was created in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”) If the Republican Party had been moved further right by the Tea Party rebellion, Ryan was part of the ballast that would prevent it from moving further, or at least at a vastly slower pace. In this he represented an adult, older-brother steadiness in contrast to the Tea Party’s ADD-hyper immaturity—and a stoic, almost martyrlike resistance to the Trump movement.
Where the Republican establishment had promoted Ryan into this figure of not only maturity but sagaciousness, the Tea Party-Bannon-Breitbart wing mounted an ad hominem campaign pushing an image of Ryan as uncommitted to the cause, an inept strategist and incompetent leader. He was the Tea Party-Bannon-Breitbart punch line: the ultimate empty suit, a hee-haw sort of joke and an embarrassment.
Trump’s distaste for Ryan was significantly less structural. He had no views about Ryan’s political abilities, and had paid no real attention to Ryan’s actual positions. His view was personal. Ryan had insulted him—again and again. Ryan had kept betting against him. Ryan had become the effective symbol of the Republican establishment’s horror and disbelief about Trump. Adding insult to injury, Ryan had even achieved some moral stature by dissing Trump (and, as usual, he considered anybody’s gain at his expense a double insult). By the spring of 2016, Ryan was still, and by then the only, alternative to Trump as the nominee. Say the word, many Republicans felt, and the convention would stampede to Ryan. But Ryan’s seemingly smarter calculation was to let Trump win the nomination, and then to emerge as the obvious figure to lead the party after Trump’s historic defeat and the inevitable purge of the Tea Party-Trump-Breitbart wing.
Instead, the election destroyed Paul Ryan, at least in Steve Bannon’s eyes. Trump had not only saved the Republican Party but had given it a powerful majority. The entire Bannon dream had been realized. The Tea Party movement, with Trump as its remarkable face and voice, had come to power—something like total power. It owned the Republican Party. Publicly breaking Paul Ryan was the obvious and necessary step.
But a great deal could fall into the chasm between Bannon’s structural contempt for Ryan and Trump’s personal resentment. If Bannon saw Ryan as being unwilling and unable to carry out the new Bannon-Trump agenda, Trump saw a chastened Ryan as suddenly and satisfyingly abject, submissive, and useful. Bannon wanted to get rid of the entire Republican establishment; Trump was wholly satisfied that it now seemed to bend to him.
“He’s quite a smart guy,” Trump said after his first postelection conversation with the Speaker. “A very serious man. Everybody respects him.”
Ryan, “rising to a movie-version level of flattery and sucking-up painful to witness,” according to one senior Trump aide, was able to delay his execution. As Bannon pressed his case for Meadows—who was significantly less yielding than Ryan—Trump dithered and then finally decided that not only was he not going to push for Ryan’s ouster, but Ryan was going to be his man, his partner. In an example of the odd and unpredictable effects of personal chemistry on Trump—of how easy it can be to sell the salesman—Trump would now eagerly back Ryan’s agenda instead of the other way around.
“I don’t think that we quite calculated that the president would give him carte blanche,” reflected Katie Walsh. “The president and Paul went from such a bad place during the campaign to such a romance afterward that the president was happy to go along with whatever he wanted.”
It didn’t exactly surprise Bannon when Trump flipped; Bannon understood how easy it was to bullsh@t a bullsh@tter. Bannon also recognized that the Ryan rapprochement spoke to Trump’s new appreciation of where he found himself. It was not just that Ryan had been willing to bow to Trump, but that Trump was willing to bow to his own fears about how little he actually knew about being president. If Ryan could be counted on to handle Congress, thought the president, well, phew, that takes care of that.
Trump had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare. An overweight seventy-year-old man with various physical phobias (for instance, he lied about his height to keep from having a body mass index that would label him as obese), he personally found health care and medical treatments of all kinds a distasteful subject. The details of the contested legislation were, to him, particularly boring; his attention would begin wandering from the first words of a policy discussion. He would have been able to enumerate few of the particulars of Obamacare—other than expressing glee about the silly Obama pledge that everyone could keep his or her doctor—and he certainly could not make any kind of meaningful distinction, positive or negative, between the health care system before Obamacare and the one after.
Prior to his presidency, he had likely never had a meaningful discussion in his life about health insurance. “No one in the country, or on earth, has given less thought to health insurance than Donald,” said Roger Ailes. Pressed in a campaign interview about the importance of Obamacare repeal and reform, Trump was, to say the least, quite unsure of its place on the agenda: “This is an important subject but there are a lot of important subjects. Maybe it is in the top ten. Probably is. But there is heavy competition. So you can’t be certain. Could be twelve. Or could be fifteen. Definitely top twenty for sure.” It was another one of his counterintuitive connections to many voters: Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed actually to want to talk about health care plans, whereas Trump, like most everybody else, absolutely did not.
All things considered, he probably preferred the notion of more people having health insurance than fewer people having it. He was even, when push came to shove, rather more for Obamacare than for repealing Obamacare. As well, he had made a set of rash Obama-like promises, going so far as to say that under a forthcoming Trumpcare plan (he had to be strongly discouraged from using this kind of rebranding—political wise men told him that this was one instance where he might not want to claim ownership with his name), no one would lose their health insurance, and that preexisting conditions would continue to be covered. In fact, he probably favored government-funded health care more than any other Republican. “Why can’t Medicare simply cover everybody?” he had impatiently wondered aloud during one discussion with aides, all of whom were careful not to react to this heresy.
It was Bannon who held the line, insisting, sternly, that Obamacare was a litmus Republican issue, and that, holding a majority in Congress, they could not face Republican voters without having made good on the by now Republican catechism of repeal. Repeal, in Bannon’s view, was the pledge, and repeal would be the most satisfying, even cathartic, result. It would also be the easiest one to achieve, since virtually every Republican was already publicly committed to voting for repeal. But Bannon, seeing health care as a weak link in Bannonism-Trumpism’s appeal to the workingman, was careful to take a back seat in the debate. Later, he hardly even made an effort to rationalize how he’d washed his hands of the mess, saying just, “I hung back on health care because it’s not my thing.” It was Ryan who, with “repeal and replace,” obfuscated the issue and won over Trump. Repeal would satisfy the Republican bottom line, while replace would satisfy the otherwise off-the-cuff pledges that Trump had made on his own. (Pay no attention to the likelihood that what the president construed as repeal and replace might be very different from what Ryan construed as repeal and replace.) “Repeal and replace” was a useful slogan, too, in that it came to have meaning without having any actual or specific meaning.
The week after the election, Ryan, bringing Tom Price—the Georgia congressman and orthopedist who had become Ryan’s resident heath care expert—traveled to Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, estate for a repeal and replace briefing. The two men summed up for Trump—who kept wandering off topic and trying to turn the conversation to golf—seven years of Republican legislative thinking about Obamacare and the Republican alternatives. Here was a perfect example of an essential Trump paradigm: he acceded to anyone who seemed to know more about any issue he didn’t care about, or simply one whose details he couldn’t bring himself to focus on closely. Great! he would say, punctuating every statement with a similar exclamation and regularly making an effort to jump from his chair. On the spot, Trump eagerly agreed to let Ryan run the health care bill and to make Price the Health and Human Services secretary.
Kushner, largely staying silent during the health care debate, publicly seemed to accept the fact that a Republican administration had to address Obamacare, but he privately suggested that he was personally against both repeal alone and repeal and replace. He and his wife took a conventional Democratic view on Obamacare (it was better than the alternatives; its problems could be fixed in the future) and strategically believed it was best for the new administration to get some easier victories under its belt before entering a hard-to-win or no-win fight. (What’s more, Kushner’s brother Josh ran a health insurance company that depended on Obamacare.) Not for the last time, then, the White House would be divided along the political spectrum, Bannon taking an absolutist base position, Priebus aligned with Ryan in support of the Republican leadership, and Kushner maintaining, and seeing no contradiction in, a moderate Democratic view. As for Trump himself, here was a man who was simply trying to get out from under something he didn’t especially care about.
Ryan and Priebus’s salesmanship promised to get the president out from under other issues as well. Health care reform, according to the Ryan plan, was something of a magic bullet. The reform the Speaker would push through Congress would fund the tax cuts Trump had guaranteed, which, in turn, would make all that Trump-promised infrastructure investment possible.
On this basis—this domino theory that was meant to triumphantly carry the Trump administration through to the August recess and mark it as one of the most transformational presidencies in modern times—Ryan kept his job as Speaker, rising from hated campaign symbol to the administration’s man on the Hill. In effect, the president, quite aware of his and his staff’s inexperience in drafting legislation (in fact, nobody on his senior staff had any experience at all), decided to outsource his agenda—and to a heretofore archenemy.
Watching Ryan steal the legislative initiative during the transition, Bannon faced an early realpolitik moment. If the president was willing to cede major initiatives, Bannon would need to run a counteroperation and be ready with more Breitbart shenanigans. Kushner, for his part, developed a certain Zen—you just had to go with the president’s whims. As for the president, it was quite clear that deciding between contradictory policy approaches was not his style of leadership. He simply hoped that difficult decisions would make themselves.
Bannon was not merely contemptuous of Ryan’s ideology; he had no respect, either, for his craft. In Bannon’s view, what the new Republican majority needed was a man like John McCormick, the Democratic Speaker of the House who had served during Bannon’s teenage years and had shepherded Johnson’s Great Society legislation. McCormick and other Democrats from the 1960s were Bannon’s political heroes—put Tip O’Neill in that pantheon, too. An Irish Catholic working-class man was philosophically separate from aristocrats and gentry—and without aspirations to be either. Bannon venerated old-fashioned pols. He looked like one himself: liver spots, jowls, edema. And he hated modern politicians; they lacked, in addition to political talents, authenticity and soul. Ryan was an Irish Catholic altar boy who had stayed an altar boy. He had not grown up to be a thug, cop, or priest—or a true politician.
Ryan certainly wasn’t a vote counter. He was a benighted figure who had no ability to see around corners. His heart was in tax reform, but as far as he could tell the only path to tax reform was through health care. But he cared so little about the issue that—just as the White House had outsourced health care to him—he outsourced the writing of the bill to insurance companies and K Street lobbyists.
In fact, Ryan had tried to act like McCormick or O’Neill, offering absolute assurances of his hold on the legislation. It was, he told the president during his several daily calls, a “done deal.” Trump’s trust in Ryan rose still higher, and it seemed to become in his own mind proof that he had achieved a kind of mastery over the Hill. If the president had been worried, he was worried no more. Done deal. The White House, having had to sweat hardly at all, was about to get a big victory, bragged Kushner, embracing the expected win over his dislike of the bill.
The sudden concern that the outcome might be otherwise began in early March. Katie Walsh, who Kushner now described as “demanding and petulant,” began to sound the alarm. But her efforts to personally involve the president in vote collecting were blocked by Kushner in a set of increasingly tense face-offs. The unraveling had begun.
Trump still dismissively called it “the Russian thing—a whole lot of nothing.” But on March 20, FBI director James Comey appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and tied the story up in a neat package:
I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counter intelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. Because it is an open, ongoing investigation and is classified I cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining.
He had, however, said quite enough. Comey converted rumor, leaks, theory, innuendo, and pundit hot air—and until this moment that was all there was, at best the hope of a scandal—into a formal pursuit of the White House. Efforts to pooh-pooh the narrative—the fake news label, the president’s germaphobe defense against the golden shower accusations, the haughty dismissal of minor associates and hopeless hangers-on, the plaintive, if real, insistence that no crime had even been alleged, and the president’s charge that he was the victim of an Obama wiretap—had failed. Comey himself dismissed the wiretap allegation. By the evening of Comey’s appearance, it was evident to everyone that the Russia plot line, far from petering out, had a mighty and bloody life to come.
Kushner, ever mindful of his father’s collision with the Justice Department, was especially agitated by Comey’s increasing focus on the White House. Doing something about Comey became a Kushner theme. What can we do about him? was a constant question. And it was one he kept raising with the president.
Yet this was also—as Bannon, without too much internal success, tried to explain—a structural issue. It was an opposition move. You could express surprise at how fierce, creative, and diabolical the moves turned out to be, but you shouldn’t be surprised that your enemies would try to hurt you. This was check, but far from checkmate, and you had to continue to play the game, knowing that it would be a very long one. The only way to win the game, Bannon argued, was with a disciplined strategy.
But the president, prodded here by his family, was an obsessive and not a strategist. In his mind, this was not a problem to address, this was a person to focus on: Comey. Trump eschewed abstractions and, ad hominem, zeroed in on his opponent. Comey had been a difficult puzzle for Trump: Comey had declined to have the FBI pursue charges against Clinton for her email dodge. Then, in October, Comey had single-handedly boosted Trump’s fortunes with the letter reopening the Clinton email investigation.
In their personal interactions, Trump had found Comey to be a stiff—he had no banter, no game. But Trump, who invariably thought people found him irresistible, believed that Comey admired his banter and game. When pressed, by Bannon and others, to fire Comey as one of his early acts—an idea opposed by Kushner, and thus another bullet on Bannon’s list of bad recommendations by Kushner—the president said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got him.” That is, he had no doubt that he could woo and flatter the FBI director into positive feeling for him, if not outright submission.
Some seducers are preternaturally sensitive to the signals of those they try to seduce; others indiscriminately attempt to seduce, and, by the law of averages, often succeed (this latter group of men might now be regarded as harassers). That was Trump’s approach to women—pleased when he scored, unconcerned when he didn’t (and, often, despite the evidence, believing that he had). And so it was with Director Comey.
In their several meetings since he took office—when Comey received a presidential hug on January 22; at their dinner on January 27, during which Comey was asked to stay on as FBI director; at their Valentine’s Day chat after emptying the office of everybody else, including Sessions, Comey’s titular boss—Trump was confident that he had laid on the moves. The president was all but certain that Comey, understanding that he, Trump, had his back (i.e., had let him keep his job), would have Trump’s back, too.
But now this testimony. It made no sense. What did make sense to Trump was that Comey wanted it to be about him. He was a media whore—this Trump understood. All right, then, he, too, could play it this way.
Indeed, health care, a no-fun issue—suddenly becoming much less fun, if, as seemed increasingly possible, Ryan couldn’t deliver—palled before the clarity of Comey, and the fury, enmity, and bitterness Trump, and Trump’s relatives, now bore him.
Comey was the larger-than-life problem. Taking Comey down was the obvious solution. Getting Comey became the mission.
In Keystone Cops fashion, the White House enlisted House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes in a farcical effort to discredit Comey and support the wiretap theory. The scheme shortly collapsed in universal ridicule.
Bannon, taking a public hands-off with respect to both health care and Comey, began to advise reporters that the important story wasn’t health care but Russia. This was cryptic advice: it was not clear whether he was trying to distract attention from the coming health care debacle, or couple it with this new dangerous variable, thus amping up the kind of chaos that he usually benefited from.
But Bannon was unequivocal about one thing. As the Russia story unfolds, he advised reporters, keep your eye on Kushner.
By mid-March, Gary Cohn had been drafted into the effort to salvage the faltering health care bill. This might have seemed like a form of hazing for Cohn, whose grasp of legislative matters was even more limited than that of most in the White House.
On Friday, March 24, the morning of the theoretical House vote for the Republican health care bill, Politico’s Playbook characterized the chances of a vote actually coming to the floor as a “toss-up.” In that morning’s senior staff meeting, Cohn was asked for an assessment of where things stood and promptly said, “I think it’s a toss-up.”
“Really?” thought Katie Walsh. “That’s what you think?”
Bannon, joining Walsh in a pitiless contempt for the White House effort, targeted Kushner, Cohn, Priebus, Price, and Ryan in a series of calls to reporters. Kushner and Cohn could, per Bannon, be counted on to run at the first sound of gunfire. (Kushner, in fact, had spent much of the week on a skiing holiday.) Priebus mouthed Ryan talking points and excuses. Price, supposedly the health care guru, was an oafish imposter; he would stand up in meetings and mumble nothing but nonsense.
These were the bad guys, setting up the administration to lose the House in 2018, thereby assuring the president’s impeachment. This was vintage Bannon analysis: a certain and immediate political apocalypse that sat side by side with the potential for a half century of Bannonism-Trumpism rule.
Convinced he knew the direction of success, keenly aware of his own age and finite opportunities, and—if for no clear reason—seeing himself as a talented political infighter, Bannon sought to draw the line between believers and sell-outs, being and nothingness. For him to succeed, he needed to isolate the Ryan, Cohn, and Kushner factions.
The Bannon faction held tight on forcing a vote on the health care bill—even knowing defeat was inevitable. “I want it as a report on Ryan’s job as Speaker,” said Bannon. That is, a devastating report, an epic fail.
The day of the vote, Pence was sent to the Hill to make one last pitch to Meadows’s Freedom Caucus. (Ryan’s people believed that Bannon was secretly urging Meadows to hold out, though earlier in the week Bannon had harshly ordered the Freedom Caucus to vote for the bill—“a silly Bannon show,” according to Walsh.) At three-thirty, Ryan called the president to say he was short fifteen to twenty votes and needed to pull the vote. Bannon, backed by Mulvaney, who had become the White House’s Hill operative, continued to urge an immediate vote. A defeat here would be a major defeat for the Republican leadership. That suited Bannon just fine: let them fail.
But the president backed down. Faced with this singular opportunity to make the Republican leadership the issue, and to name them as the problem, Trump wobbled, provoking in Bannon a not-so-silent rage. Ryan then leaked that it was the president who had asked him to cancel the vote.
Over the weekend, Bannon called a long list of reporters and told them—off the record, but hardly—“I don’t see Ryan hanging around a long time.”
After the bill had been pulled that Friday, Katie Walsh, feeling both angry and disgusted, told Kushner she wanted out. Outlining what she saw as the grim debacle of the Trump White House, she spoke with harsh candor about bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission. Kushner, understanding that she needed to be discredited immediately, leaked that she had been leaking and hence had to be pushed out.
On Sunday evening, Walsh had dinner with Bannon in his Capitol Hill redoubt, the Breitbart Embassy, during which, to no avail, he implored her to stay. On Monday she sorted out the details with Priebus—she would leave to work part time for the RNC and part time for the Trump (c)(4), the outside campaign group. By Thursday she was gone.
Ten weeks into the new administration, the Trump White House had lost, after Michael Flynn, its second senior staff member—and the one whose job it was to actually get things done.
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