Whether President Donald Trump is honoring his Defense secretary, addressing reporters with the British prime minister or talking to a foreign leader in the Oval Office, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is never far away.
Bannon’s casual blazers and tousled salt-and-pepper hair give him an everyman appearance, but lawmakers and experts are concerned the former Breitbart News executive and a few other top Trump aides are orchestrating an aggressive effort to consolidate power in the Oval Office.
Even some Republican lawmakers say they are surprised and concerned by the first 11 days of the Trump administration. Like their Democratic colleagues — and even, reportedly, some Cabinet secretaries the president has effusively praised in public — they are not pleased with being frozen out of several sweeping actions.
Lawmakers and experts say the new White House team does not have much interest in playing by the traditional rules — even though its insular approach has already caused itself some political damage.
Bannon, senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, and national security adviser Michael Flynn found themselves under intense scrutiny after they led internal White House efforts to craft an executive order that “temporarily” banned individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees from entering the United States, and a memorandum adding Bannon to the National Security Council while possibly downgrading the roles of the national intelligence director and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
“Congress is beginning to wonder what is going on,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Roll Call. “When you look at Bannon’s history, I think people are concerned. And that’s just one example.
“I think we should all be concerned when you have your head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff basically being demoted,” the Maryland Democrat added. “Bannon being the substitute [on the NSC], I think, sows some morale issues as far as the workforce.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said Congress and even national security agencies, so far, have largely been frozen out of the Trump White House’s decision-making. “Anytime you freeze out people like Gen. Kelly and Gen. Mattis, people who know how to fight ISIS, that’s a bad thing,” Nelson said, referring to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both retired Marine generals.
For their part, senior Trump aides are deflecting reports that Kelly and Mattis were not part of the White House’s decision-making on the immigration and NSC actions. Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday told reporters “all appropriate agencies and individuals that needed to be part of the process were,” adding that “everybody was kept in the loop at the level necessary to make sure that we rolled it out properly.”
House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff said in a television interview that “Bannon is driving this train — and this train is headed off the cliff.” Asked if he believes the chief strategist was behind a White House Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that did not mention the Jewish people, the California Democrat replied: “This is exactly the kind of approach that Breitbart and Steve Bannon take, and it caters to those bigots that they speak to through Breitbart.”
Democrats are not alone in describing the West Wing as the sole hub of the new administration’s deliberations, so far.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker was not informed late last week before Trump signed the immigration order, telling Roll Call he was “certainly, you know, somewhat surprised when it came out.”
The Tennessee Republican, who has contacts in the Trump inner circle after receiving consideration to be secretary of State, described himself as “very surprised with the lack of clarity relative to how it impacted people.”
And Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Tuesday that House GOP leaders were not a part of crafting the refugee directive.
“As you know, we weren’t involved in this,” Ryan said. “We were briefed on it, the contents of it, as it was being rolled out” — but not before, he added.
Monday night’s firing of the acting attorney general, Obama holdover Sally Yates, prompted Democrats to ramp up their rhetoric about the new administration’s decision-making approach.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer essentially accused Trump and his inner circle of wanting to turn the Justice Department into an arm of the White House. And the Democratic National Committee released a statement that warned of a “tyrannical presidency.”
Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution said, “This emerging glimpse of how the Trump White House is operating does not strike me as a sustainable model.”
“Granted, we’ve seen decades of centralization of resources and expertise within the White House. But allowing presidential staff to make decisions without consultation or buy-in from the agencies and departments that execute policy leads to the sorts of chaos, confusion and pushback from important party allies on the Hill,” Binder said. “It’s hard to replenish political capital over the course of a presidency. Engaging in firefights — and drawing in the federal courts — is hardly a recipe for preserving capital with Congress.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday he will urge Kelly to use independent judgement to uphold the law, in the same manner as Yates, the former acting attorney general.
“In the days ahead, we’re going to separate the patriots from the politicians,” Hoyer said. “This president is going to test his, from an authoritarian standpoint, whether or not we are committed to the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
Rema Rahman and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.