Hold UNICEF Accountable for Falsehoods on Iraq – Commentary Magazine
The operative phrase there is “so far,” and even that’s a generous verdict.
For all the talk of the discipline forced upon the president and his more impetuous staffers by Kelly, Washington has not been liberated from all-consuming White House feuds spilling out into the public square. The latest and undoubtedly not the last of those squabbles is the ongoing turf war between the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.
The dings and dents in those “guardrails” of democracy, whose structural integrity Krauthammer and others found reassuring, are evident if only because of the terrain on which this battle is being fought. The conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, a blogger American political observers are compelled to follow by virtue of his inexplicably high-level sources, is leading the charge against McMaster. The primary line of attack on the general has been to question his commitment to the integrity and independence of the state of Israel. Though the criticism is not invalid, it is all too precious coming from someone who chose to illustrate his critique with inarguably anti-Semitic propaganda.
A slightly more sophisticated assault on McMaster along these lines is being pursued by the bloggers at Breitbart, an organization Bannon led until last year. Among its “most popular” headlines from within the last 48 hours: “McMaster Worked at Think Tank Backed by Soros-Funded Group that Helped Obama Sell Iran Nuclear Deal,” “Liberal Anti-Trump Media Matters Goes All In for Embattled Gen. McMaster,” and “Top McMaster Ally Bill Kristol Plotting to Primary, Oust Trump: Must ‘Take One Shot’ at Removing POTUS.”
Honest policy disagreements partially motivate the consternation of the Bannon wing, in particular, the Bannon wing’s desire to see the U.S. extricate itself from Afghanistan immediately. It is also rooted, however, in antipathy toward McMaster for purging their like-minded compatriots from the National Security Council. The Daily Beast reported that former NSC members Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Col. Derek Harvey were Bannon loyalists first, and their ouster is a terrible sign for the nationalist wing of the GOP’s influence. “[I]f one crossed Cohen-Watnick in a staff meeting,” the report read, “a punishing leak to Cernovich would often quickly follow.”
Cohen-Watnick’s role in the humiliation of Rep. Devin Nunes and his alleged ties to a conspiracy theorist who deserves none of the legitimacy the political press bestows upon him should have resulted in his ouster a long time ago. The fact that the Bannon wing is mounting a counterattack against the forces sanity within this White House—an attack so effective that the president felt compelled to respond to them over the weekend—speaks to the parlous nature of this moment.
The real test of America’s civic “guardrails” will not come for many months, presuming Donald Trump is persuaded by his advisors and Republicans in Congress not to seek the dissolution of the special counsel probe into his campaign. If Trump makes a run at Robert Mueller and, by necessity, his Justice Department, all bets will be off. Even if he doesn’t, there could be a substantial crisis brewing.
Mueller’s probe has impaneled a grand jury to investigate the Trump campaign, and it is almost guaranteed to turn into a fishing expedition. That’s what grand juries do; it’s their prerogative, as determined by the Supreme Court. The investigation into alleged criminal wrongdoing by former Trump NSA Gen. Mike Flynn has expanded to include investigations into Trump’s personal finances and decades-old business practices. This is a president with skeletons in his closet. For goodness sake, Trump tapped a convicted felon with Mafia ties to serve as his senior advisor on a real estate venture. This grand jury is unlikely to emerge from a deep-dive into the Trump vault empty handed.
How President Trump responds when the Mueller probe does release its findings will test the tensile strength of America’s civic tapestry, but that is many months away. That’s plenty of time for repeated assaults on those “guardrails” to take their toll.
Just 200 days into the Trump presidency, a variety of previously underappreciated norms may be gone for good. The president has surrounded himself with family, testing to the brink anti-nepotism guidelines. He (or his campaign) have established an online “news network” for the benefit of more credulous supporters. The Trump presidency and the Trump Organization’s business interests overlap in discomfiting ways. Trump has made war on his intelligence services and his justice department, set military policy, and attacked media outlets and individual personalities and reporters; and all from behind a Twitter account.
Trump’s defenders will say, with reason, that some of these precedents are not entirely his own. In fact, when it comes to Trump’s provocative communications strategy, he is merely following in Barack Obama’s footsteps. That’s correct; precedents beget precedents. A bad one yields a worse one. There is no American Cincinnatus on the horizon who seeks to assume the presidency with the chief aim of curbing its influence. The next president will assume a presidency armed with these new standards of conduct and ready to make new ones. And there are many precedents Trump has yet to set.
Those who laud the Trump administration for its newfound stability are damning with faint praise. Everything is relative, and the volatility that has typified this White House so far renders that assessment suspect. It’s a testament to our collective exhaustion that so many seem eager to declare that our deliverance from the uncertainty wrought by an unorthodox president and his unconventional administration has finally arrived.