The Source of Chaos Emanating From the White House

According to the formulation of eight power centers in the Trump White House that I have been referring to, white nationalists were dealt a blow with the ejection of both Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. But three members of that group still remain: Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro.

Sessions continues to do his thing at the Justice Department, most recently rolling back programs that hold police departments accountable, while Miller advocates for more restrictions on legal immigration and tries to talk the president out of supporting the Dream Act.

We haven’t heard as much about Peter Navarro, who serves as the Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy, and the Director of the White House National Trade Council. I had previously noted that there was a trade war brewing in the White House between the Wall Streeters—particularly Gary Cohn—and the white nationalists.

According to Tara Palmeri and Andrew Restuccia, the dynamics of that battle have changed a bit since then. With Bannon gone, it seems that Navarro is somewhat isolated in promoting the protectionist policies of the white nationalists, and apparently John Kelly, the new chief of staff, is siding with the Wall Streeters.

From the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Navarro leads the White House Trade Council, but he’s largely a one-man band, with only two staffers. Prior to Kelly’s entry, Navarro enjoyed a private 15-minute conversation with Trump at least once a week, where he would “rile him up” on trade, according to a senior administration official.

As a deputy assistant to the president, he’s lost access to some key policy meetings in the White House that under Kelly are now reserved for principals or key senior staffers…

Some White House aides saw two recent leaks — one over Trump’s plans to pull out of the South Korea trade deal and another over Trump’s private rant in favor of tariffs — as the work of administration advisers who want a tougher approach to trade.

A different administration official decried both stories as “strategic leaks” aimed at forcing Trump’s hand, arguing it undermines the careful policymaking process Kelly is trying to put in place.

As is probably the case on several issues, when we see conflicting statements and chaos emanating from the White House, this is likely what is going on behind the scenes. Over the weekend, we witnessed the same kind of confusion with the Wall Street Journal reporting that the administration was looking for ways to avoid withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, only to have Cohn reiterate that Trump still plans to withdraw.

Rather than assume that the president’s oscillations mean that he is moving left or right, what this indicates is that he has no allegiance to particular policies and tends to go wherever is most expedient for himself at any given moment. But Trump has a White House that is packed with ideologues who often clash and engage in “strategic leaks” in their battle over positioning for power. While it is often noted that the president has failed to pass any major legislation in Congress, this kind of chaos and confusion often stymies this administration as well.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.