Authors: Michael Wolff
By the time he arrived in the White House, Bannon had his back-of-the-envelope executive order on immigration and his travel ban, a sweeping, Trumpian exclusion of most Muslims from the United States, only begrudgingly whittled down, in part at Priebus’s urging, to what would shortly be perceived as merely draconian.
In the mania to seize the day, with an almost total lack of knowing how, the nutty inaugural crowd numbers and the wacky CIA speech were followed, without almost anybody in the federal government having seen it or even being aware of it, by an executive order overhauling U.S. immigration policy. Bypassing lawyers, regulators, and the agencies and personnel responsible for enforcing it, President Trump—with Bannon’s low, intense voice behind him, offering a rush of complex information—signed what was put in front of him.
On Friday, January 27, the travel ban was signed and took immediate effect. The result was an emotional outpouring of horror and indignation from liberal media, terror in immigrant communities, tumultuous protests at major airports, confusion throughout the government, and, in the White House, an inundation of lectures, warnings, and opprobrium from friends and family.
What have you done? Do you know what you’re doing? You have to undo this! You’re finished before you even start! Who is in charge there?
But Steve Bannon was satisfied. He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between the two Americas—Trump’s and liberals’—and between his White House and the White House inhabited by those not yet ready to burn the place down.
Why did we do this on a Friday when it would hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protesters? almost the entire White House staff demanded to know.
“Errr . . . that’s why,” said Bannon. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” That was the way to crush the liberals: make them crazy and drag them to the left.
n the Sunday after the immigration order was issued, Joe Scarborough and his cohost on the MSNBC show
, Mika Brzezinski, came for lunch at the White House.
Scarborough is a former Republican congressman from Pensacola, Florida, and Brzezinski is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a high-ranking aide in the Johnson White House and Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor.
had gone on the air in 2007 and developed a following among New York political and media types. Trump was a longtime devotee.
Early in the 2016 campaign, with a change of leadership at NBC News, it seemed likely that the show, its ratings falling, would be canceled. But Scarborough and Brzezinski embraced their relationship with Trump and became one of the few media outlets not only with a positive outlook on him, but that seemed to know his thinking. Trump became a frequent call-in guest and the show a way to speak more or less directly to him.
It was the kind of relationship Trump dreamed of: media people who took him seriously, talked about him often, solicited his views, provided him with gossip, and retailed the gossip he offered them. The effect was to make them all insiders together, which was exactly where Trump
wanted to be. Though he branded himself as a political outsider, actually finding himself on the outside wounded him.
Trump believed that the media, which he propelled (in the case of Scarborough and Brzezinski, helping them keep their jobs), owed him something, and the media, giving him vast amounts of free coverage, believed he owed them, with Scarborough and Brzezinski seeing themselves as something like semiofficial advisers, if not the political fixers who had put him in his job.
In August, they had had a public spat, resulting in Trump’s tweet: “Some day, when things calm down, I’ll tell the real story of @JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!” But Trump’s spats often ended in a tacit admission, however grudging, of mutual advantage, and in short order they were back on cordial terms again.
On their arrival at the White House, the ninth day of his presidency, Trump proudly showed them into the Oval Office and was momentarily deflated when Brzezinski said she had been there many times before with her father, beginning at age nine. Trump showed them some of the memorabilia and, eagerly, his new portrait of Andrew Jackson—the president whom Steve Bannon had made the totem figure of the new administration.
“So how do you think the first week has gone?” Trump asked the couple, in a buoyant mood, seeking flattery.
Scarborough, puzzled by Trump’s jauntiness in the face of the protests spreading across the nation, demurred and then said, “Well, I love what you did with U.S. Steel and that you had the union guys come into the Oval Office.” Trump had pledged to use U.S.-made steel in U.S. pipelines and, in a Trump touch, met at the White House with union representatives from building and sheet metal unions and then invited them back to the Oval Office—something Trump insisted Obama never did.
But Trump pressed his question, leaving Scarborough with the feeling that nobody had actually told Trump that he had had a very bad week. Bannon and Priebus, wandering in and out of the office, might actually
have convinced him that the week had been a success, Scarborough thought.
Scarborough then ventured his opinion that the immigration order might have been handled better and that, all in all, it seemed like a rough period.
Trump, surprised, plunged into a long monologue about how well things had gone, telling Bannon and Priebus, with a gale of laughter, “Joe doesn’t think we had a good week.” And turning to Scarborough: “I could have invited Hannity!”
At lunch—fish, which Brzezinski doesn’t eat—Jared and Ivanka joined the president and Scarborough and Brzezinski. Jared had become quite a Scarborough confidant and would continue to supply Scarborough with an inside view of the White House—that is, leaking to him. Scarborough subsequently became a defender of Kushner’s White House position and view. But, for now, both son-in-law and daughter were subdued and deferential as Scarborough and Brzezinski chatted with the president, and the president—taking more of the air time as usual—held forth.
Trump continued to cast for positive impressions of his first week and Scarborough again reverted to his praise of Trump’s handling of the steel union leadership. At which point, Jared interjected that reaching out to unions, a traditional Democratic constituency, was Bannon’s doing, that this was “the Bannon way.”
“Bannon?” said the president, jumping on his son-in-law. “That wasn’t Bannon’s idea. That was my idea. It’s the Trump way, not the Bannon way.”
Kushner, going concave, retreated from the discussion.
Trump, changing the topic, said to Scarborough and Brzezinski, “So what about you guys? What’s going on?” He was referencing their not-so-secret secret relationship.
Scarborough and Brzezinski said it was all still complicated, and not public, officially, but it was good and everything was getting resolved.
“You guys should just get married,” prodded Trump.
“I can marry you! I’m an Internet Unitarian minister,” Kushner, otherwise an Orthodox Jew, said suddenly.
“What?” said the president. “What are you talking about? Why would they want
to marry them when
could marry them? When they could be married by the president! At Mar-a-Lago!”
* * *
Almost everybody advised Jared not to take the inside job. As a family member, he would command extraordinary influence from a position that no one could challenge. As an insider, a staffer, not only could his experience be challenged, but while the president himself might not yet be exposed, a family member on staff would be where enemies and critics might quite effectively start chipping from. Besides, inside Trump’s West Wing, if you had a title—that is, other than son-in-law—people would surely want to take it from you.
Both Jared and Ivanka listened to this advice—from among others it came from Jared’s brother, Josh, doubly making this case not only to protect his brother but also because of his antipathy to Trump—but both, balancing risk against reward, ignored it. Trump himself variously encouraged his son-in-law and his daughter in their new ambitions and, as their excitement mounted, tried to express his skepticism—while at the same time telling others that he was helpless to stop them.
For Jared and Ivanka, as really for everybody else in the new administration, quite including the president, this was a random and crazy turn of history such that how could you not seize it? It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Jared and Ivanka had made an earnest deal between themselves: if sometime in the future the time came, she’d be the one to run for president (or the first one of them to take the shot). The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton, it would be Ivanka Trump.
Bannon, who had coined the Jarvanka conflation now in ever greater use, was horrified when the couple’s deal was reported to him. “They didn’t say that? Stop. Oh come on. They didn’t actually say that? Please don’t tell me that. Oh my god.”
And the truth was that at least by then Ivanka would have more experience than almost anybody else now serving in the White House. She and Jared, or Jared, but by inference she, too, were in effect the real chief
of staff—or certainly as much a chief of staff as Priebus or Bannon, all of them reporting directly to the president. Or, even more to the organizational point, Jared and Ivanka had a wholly independent standing inside the West Wing. A super status. Even as Priebus and Bannon tried, however diplomatically, to remind the couple of staff procedures and propriety, they would in turn remind the West Wing leadership of their overriding First Family prerogatives. In addition, the president had immediately handed Jared the Middle East portfolio, making him one of the significant international players in the administration—indeed, in the world. In the first weeks, this brief extended out to virtually every other international issue, about which nothing in Kushner’s previous background would have prepared him for.
Kushner’s most cogent reason for entering the White House was “leverage,” by which he meant proximity. Quite beyond the status of being inside the family circle, anyone who had proximity to the president had leverage, the more proximity the more leverage. Trump himself you could see as a sort of Delphic oracle, sitting in place and throwing out pronouncements which had to be interpreted. Or as an energetic child, and whomever could placate or distract him became his favorite. Or as the Sun God (which is effectively how he saw himself), the absolute center of attention, dispensing favor and delegating power, which could, at any moment, be withdrawn. The added dimension was that this Sun God had little calculation. His inspiration existed in the moment, hence all the more reason to be there with him in the moment. Bannon, for one, joined Trump for dinner every night, or at least made himself available—one bachelor there for the effective other bachelor. (Priebus would observe that in the beginning everyone would try to be part of these dinners, but within a few months, they had become a torturous duty to be avoided.)
Part of Jared and Ivanka’s calculation about the relative power and influence of a formal job in the West Wing versus an outside advisory role was the knowledge that influencing Trump required you to be all in. From phone call to phone call—and his day, beyond organized meetings, was almost entirely phone calls—you could lose him. The subtleties here
were immense, because while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone’s presence, the connection of what was going through his mind—and although he was a person of many obsessions, much of what was on his mind had no fixed view—to whomever he was with and their views.
Ultimately Trump may not be that different in his fundamental solipsism from anyone of great wealth who has lived most of his life in a highly controlled environment. But one clear difference was that he had acquired almost no formal sort of social discipline—he could not even attempt to imitate decorum. He could not really converse, for instance, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation. He neither particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response (one reason he was so repetitive). Nor did he treat anyone with any sort of basic or reliable courtesy. If he wanted something, his focus might be sharp and attention lavish, but if someone wanted something from him, he tended to become irritable and quickly lost interest. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his attention and performance—and to do this without making him angry or petulant.
The payoff was his enthusiasm, quickness, spontaneity, and—if he departed for a moment from the nonstop focus on himself—an often incisive sense of the weaknesses of his opponents and a sense of their deepest desires. Politics was handicapped by incrementalism, of people knowing too much who were defeated by all the complexities and conflicting interests before they began. Trump, knowing little, might, Trumpers tried to believe, give a kooky new hope to the system.
Jared Kushner in quite a short period of time—rather less than a year—had crossed over from the standard Democratic view in which he was raised, to an acolyte of Trumpism, bewildering many friends and, as
well, his own brother, whose insurance company, Oscar, funded with Kushner-family money, was destined to be dealt a blow by a repeal of Obamacare.
This seeming conversion was partly the result of Bannon’s insistent and charismatic tutoring—a kind of real-life engagement with world-bending ideas that had escaped Kushner even at Harvard. And it was helped by his own resentments toward the liberal elites whom he had tried to court with his purchase of the
New York Observer
, an effort that had backfired terribly. And it was, once he ventured onto the campaign trail, about having to convince himself that close up to the absurd everything made sense—that Trumpism was a kind of unsentimental realpolitik that would show everybody in the end. But most of all, it was that they had won. And he was determined not to look a gift horse in the mouth. And, everything that was bad about Trumpism, he had convinced himself, he could help fix.