Week of October 13th, 2017

Trump Versus Washington – Again

Another week and another set of conflicts between Trump and the Washington establishment. Yet, it appears that the GOP voter base, which is upset with the Washington GOP establishment, is ready to revolt under the leadership of former White House advisor Steve Bannon.

The most visible kerfuffle was with Republican Tennessee Senator Corker.   In a tweet earlier this week, Trump dismissed him as “liddle’” (little) Corker. Trump tweeted: “The Failing @nytimes set Liddle’ Bob Corker up by recording his conversation. Was made to sound a fool, and that’s what I am dealing with!”

Corker responded by tweeting that, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” He also said Trump could lead the U.S. on the path to World War III.

The media and GOP base latched onto this disagreement. Bannon called on Sen. Bob Corker to “resign immediately” on Monday evening after Corker revealed on Sunday that Bannon was right when Bannon said the Republican establishment wants to “nullify the 2016 election” in which Donald Trump won the White House by aggressively running on an economic nationalist agenda.

Corker told the New York Times that “except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders criticized Sen. Bob Corker during the White House press briefing on Tuesday, accusing him of helping the Obama administration pass the Iran deal.

“Senator Corker worked with Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration to pave the way for that legislation and basically rolled out the red carpet for the Iran deal,” Sanders said in response to questions about Corker. “Those are pretty factual.”

But, Corker isn’t the only Republican who appears to be at odds with Trump. Another apparent conflict was a report by NBC News that Secretary of State had called Trump a “moron” for recommending a boost in America’s nuclear weapons arsenal at a meeting a few weeks ago.

When the report came out, Trump offered to compare IQ tests with Tillerson. “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests,” Trump told Forbes in an interview published Tuesday. “And I can tell you who is going to win.”

The supposed insult by Tillerson came when Trump reportedly demanded a tenfold increase in the size of the American nuclear arsenal.

During a meeting with several high-ranking national security advisers in July, the president responded to the reduction in the overall size of the nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s by demanding a dramatic increase in America’s nuclear weapons stockpile, reported NBC Wednesday, citing three officials present at the time.

Officials explained to Trump that the U.S. military posture is stronger today than it was when the U.S. was building up its nuclear arsenal, but Trump was said to be adamant that the U.S. should obtain more nuclear weapons, as well as troops and military equipment.

After the meeting, during which the president was briefed on global force operations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron.”

However, NBC has come under heavy fire as both Trump and Tillerson denied the report.

Some officials at the meeting reportedly did not take Trump’s interest in more nuclear weapons as a direct order to the military to actually increase the numbers. However, Trump has repeatedly signaled that he wants to enhance America’s nuclear capabilities. He emphasized the need for a modernized nuclear arsenal on Twitter in August, arguing the need to make it “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

“Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!” he explained in a follow-up tweet.

But, Trump isn’t just facing a political threat from the more moderate Republican establishment. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is threatening to challenge nearly every Republican senator standing for reelection in 2018.

Bannon told Sean Hannity on Fox News that he is declaring war against the “establishment, globalist clique” on Capitol Hill that opposes Trump’s agenda. He added that “nobody’s safe” in 2018.

Bannon’s first battle outside of the White House against the establishment was in the Alabama GOP Senate runoff last month. Voters in Alabama voted for conservative grassroots candidate Roy Moore over establishment Senator Luther Strange even though Trump had endorsed Strange. According to the Washington Post, Senator Corker begged Trump “to visit Alabama and campaign alongside Strange in the closing days of the runoff campaign,” which may partially explain why Trump has little use for Corker.

Although Trump campaigned for Strange, other pro-Trump conservatives like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said that a vote for Moore would be a vote for the agenda that got Trump elected. This appeal apparently resonated across the state.

“A vote for Judge Moore isn’t a vote against the president,” Palin said while campaigning for Moore. “It’s a vote for the people’s agenda that elected the president.”

Trump Versus Washington – the Future

There is little likelihood that these fights between Trump and the GOP establishment will end soon. In fact, they will probably ramp up.

Although Corker has taken a stand against Trump, he is a lame duck as he has announced that he will not seek reelection in 2018. It is likely that he will be replaced on the Republican ticket by a conservative, pro-Trump candidate. And, since Tennessee is a generally reliable Republican state, the GOP candidate is likely to win the general election.

But, Senators Corker and Strange aren’t the only Republican senators on Bannon’s hit list. He is now seeking to find more candidates who will support Trump’s agenda instead of the GOP establishment’s.

Axios national political reporter Jonathan Swan reported that “Bannon and his allies are planning a hostile takeover of the Republican Party” and only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) will get a free pass.

According to Bloomberg News, Bannon will “support only candidates who agree to two conditions: They will vote against McConnell as majority leader and they will vote to end senators’ ability to block legislation by filibustering.”

The Bloomberg report noted that “Bannon plans to support as many as 15 Republican Senate candidates in 2018, including several challengers” to incumbents who are “some of McConnell’s most reliable supporters in the Senate” like Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV), John Barrasso (R-WY), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Deb Fischer (R-NE).

“I think Mitch McConnell, and to a degree, Paul Ryan. They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented,” Bannon told NBC News. “It’s very obvious.”

Bannon also said that Ryan and McConnell will not help Trump implement the agenda that got him elected “unless they’re put on notice. They’re gonna be held accountable if they do not support the President of the United States. Right now there’s no accountability. They do not support the president’s program. It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill. Everybody in this city knows it.”

Not all Republican conservatives are onboard with this. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Sean Hannity, “Creating a civil war inside the Republican Party may feel good, but I think as a strategy it is stunningly stupid.”

Gingrich also noted that 2018 was an opportunity for the GOP to pick up more Senate seats if they avoid an internecine war – the result being that legislation might be easier to pass.

Of course, Bannon’s idea of Trump-McConnell conflict is exaggerated. McConnell is contemplating the elimination the “blue slip” procedure that allowed Democratic senators to stop Trump’s judicial nominations. It’s also important to remember that all the Republican senators have stood with Trump to pass his judicial nominations. They have also voted with Trump to cut back on Obama era regulations.

But, that will not stop Bannon. “McConnell himself won’t be up for re-election until 2020, but by targeting his supporters, Bannon might be able to force him from leadership in the Senate,” Bloomberg News pointed out.

At this time, it appears that McConnell isn’t afraid of the Bannon challenge. According to the Huffington Post, “A Republican super PAC backed by McConnell has no plans thus far to support Roy Moore in Alabama’s special Senate election. “First of all, we hope those who helped Moore in the primary will stay focused on keeping this seat in Republican hands,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack told HuffPost. “In terms of spending, we’re monitoring the race closely to see if Democrats demonstrate this is a competitive race.”

Breitbart’s Matt Boyle wrote that “movement leaders view establishment Republicans and Democrats alike as a force blocking, slow-walking, or stonewalling the agenda that President Donald J. Trump campaigned on, and aim to elect new voices by riding a new economic nationalist electoral wave in 2018 meant to mirror and surpass what happened in previous wave elections like 2010—which saw the rise of the Tea Party.” He noted that some are referring to this “distinct slate of U.S. Senate and House candidates” as the “The League of Extraordinary Candidates”

“We’re planning on building a broad anti-establishment coalition to replace the Republican Party of old with fresh new blood and fresh new ideas,” Andy Surabian, a senior adviser to the Great America Alliance organization and ex-White House aide, told Boyle.

While this Bannon revolt may give Trump more amenable senators in 2018, he must still deal with the establishment.   And, the establishment still controls much of the Washington power structure.

This is one of the problems facing Trump’s relationship with Secretary of State Tillerson. Tillerson has experience in dealing with foreign governments, but as a corporate head, not as a foreign policy maker. Unlike previous Secretaries of State who either had solid academic credentials (Kissinger) or a long term relationship with Washington (and the foreign policy establishment (Kerry and Clinton), Tillerson is a novice with no one in the establishment to provide him with support.

Another failing is that he has no clear foreign policy of his own, that he can advocate to Trump as Kissinger did for Nixon and Ford.

That means he neither represents the foreign policy establishment or a cognitive foreign policy strategy. He is a cabinet head that is politically adrift in Washington. This partially explains the frequent leaks highlighting his disagreements with Trump.

This leaves Trump in a quandary. If he dumps Tillerson, he will merely create more headlines about his inability to build and keep a solid cabinet team. However, if he leaves Tillerson in, he is left with no overriding foreign policy strategy and will be forced to rely upon others in the White House – probably his generals, McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis.

Since Trump will soon be heading to Asia, we don’t expect Tillerson to be ousted in the near future. However, if the Asia trip is a failure – especially as it concerns China or the Korean Peninsula – Tillerson may be quickly heading towards retirement.