Over the past few weeks, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has pushed out a handful of National Security Council officials who were holdovers from his predecessor, Michael Flynn, and seen as allied with White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his nationalist wing of the Trump administration. The house cleaning started with Rich Higgins, the NSC director of strategic planning and the author of a seven-page memo titled "POTUS & Political Warfare" that was being passed around among likeminded members of President Trump's campaign and transition. When the memo, written in May, was found on Higgins' computer in mid-July, he was told by McMaster's deputy that he could resign or be fired, sources tell Foreign Policy, which published the memo on Thursday.
The memo lays out what Higgins views as the concerted effort to thwart and topple Trump. "While opposition to President Trump manifests itself through political warfare memes centered on cultural Marxist narratives, this hardly means that opposition is limited to Marxists as conventionally understood," he wrote. "Having become the dominant cultural meme, some benefit from it while others are captured by it; including 'deep state' actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans."
Foreign Policy's Trump administration and NSC sources say McMaster discovered the memo during a hunt for internal leakers to right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich, who has been agitating to get McMaster fired for months — a campaign that has picked up since McMaster fired the four Flynn holdovers. Foreign Policy explains what happened next:
In the meantime, however, the memo had been working its way through the Trump White House. Among those who received the memo, according to two sources, was Donald Trump Jr. Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources. In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo's author had been fired. Trump was "furious," the senior administration official said. "He is still furious." [Foreign Policy]
Stephen Bannon's exit from the National Security Council, in an NSC reorganization signed by President Trump on Tuesday and made public Wednesday, is being almost universally described as part of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster's efforts to depoliticize the NSC, which he took the helm of after the firing of Michael Flynn. But there are conflicting assessments of what the move says about Bannon's status in the mercurial Trump White House.
Senior White House officials allied with Bannon, Trump's chief political strategist, tell The New York Times and The Washington Post that Bannon was not demoted, and had only been placed on the NSC to keep an eye on Flynn, rarely attending NSC meetings. But other Trump insiders describe Bannon's NSC ouster as a clear demotion, with one White House official telling The New York Times that Bannon had threatened to quit if he were removed from the council. He was convinced to stay on by GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, a close Bannon ally and business partner and prominent Trump supporter, several sources tell Politico. (Bannon called the reports that he threatened to quit "total nonsense.")
Trump had immediately regretted placing Bannon on the NSC in the first place, "feeling that he had not been properly warned about its implications," report Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush at The Times. "He briefly considered reversing it the same weekend it was announced, according to a person with direct knowledge, but decided against it for fear of creating more of a public storm." More broadly, Bannon is reportedly losing power to Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, and Kushner ally Gary Cohn, Trump's national economics adviser. Bannon's failures on Trump's two immigration orders and health care further undermined his clout.
The Times also notes this bit of gossipy detail:
Bannon's Svengali-style reputation has chafed on a president who sees himself as the West Wing's only leading man. Several associates said the president had quietly expressed annoyance over the credit Mr. Bannon had received for setting the agenda — and Mr. Trump was not pleased by the "President Bannon" puppet-master theme promoted by magazines, late-night talk shows, and Twitter. [The New York Times]
Still, it would be premature to count Bannon out, says James Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. McMaster "scored one on the presumably more powerful Bannon," he said, but Bannon "seems to be very close to the president and, by most accounts, still wins many of his battles." Peter Weber