January 30, 2017
More than 100 State Department employees
have indicated they will sign a memorandum in coming days registering their
opposition to President Trump’s travel ban through the department’s “dissent
cable” system, an official mechanism created to voice dissent to policies.
A draft of the memo, written by a midlevel
officer in the State Department’s consular bureau, predicted that the ban on
citizens of seven nations, and the indefinite suspension of the resettlement of
Syrian refugees, would be “counterproductive” to its stated goal of enhancing
“This ban stands in opposition to the core
American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath
to uphold,” the memo said, warning that the ban has the potential to increase
anti-American sentiment among Muslims worldwide. The acting attorney general,
Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, backed that view in a letter
Monday to Justice Department lawyers, instructing them not to defend the order
in court. Hours later, Mr. Trump fired Ms. Yates.
“We have a special obligation,” the draft
memo said, “to maintain an immigration system that is as free as possible from
discrimination, that does not have implied or actual religious tests, and that
views individuals as individuals, not as part of stereotyped groups.”
The memo warned that the ban would also
alienate key allies in the Middle East, which could result in the United States
losing access to “the intelligence and resources need[ed] to fight the root
causes of terror abroad, before an attack occurs within our borders.” The
writer noted that there were alternative ways to make traveller screening more
comprehensive by strengthening existing protocols and information-sharing
The administration would be reckless to
dismiss this warning from public servants who have spent their careers
safeguarding American interests abroad. Their concerns are shared by lawmakers
from both parties, several European leaders and top United Nations officials.
In just a few days, the misguided order has
disrupted the lives of hundreds of refugees, scholars and professionals, while
providing jihadist groups with a propaganda bonanza. The members of the
administration who set this initiative in motion may have thought it would make
the country safer. By now, it has to have become apparent even to them that it
is having the opposite effect.
Plenty of presidents have had prominent
political advisers, and some of those advisers have been suspected of quietly
setting policy behind the scenes (recall Karl Rove or, if your memory stretches
back far enough, Dick Morris). But we’ve never witnessed a political aide move
as brazenly to consolidate power as Stephen Bannon — nor have we seen one do
quite so much damage so quickly to his putative boss’s popular standing or
pretences of competence.
Mr. Bannon supercharged Breitbart News as a
platform for inciting the alt-right, did the same with the Trump campaign and
is now repeating the act with the Trump White House itself. That was perhaps to
be expected, though the speed with which President Trump has moved to alienate
Mexicans (by declaring they would pay for a border wall), Jews (by disregarding
their unique experience of the Holocaust) and Muslims (the ban) has been
impressive. Mr. Trump never showed much inclination to reach beyond the
minority base of voters that delivered his Electoral College victory, and Mr.
Bannon, whose fingerprints were on each of those initiatives, is helping make
sure he doesn’t.
But a new executive order, politicizing the
process for national security decisions, suggests Mr. Bannon is positioning
himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.
In that new order, issued on Saturday, Mr.
Trump took the unprecedented step of naming Mr. Bannon to the National Security
Council, along with the secretaries of state and defense and certain other top
officials. President George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, was
so concerned about separating politics from national security that he barred
Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush’s political adviser, from N.S.C. meetings. To the annoyance
of experienced foreign policy aides, David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s
political adviser, sat in on some N.S.C. meetings, but he was not a permanent
member of the council.
More telling still, Mr. Trump appointed Mr.
Bannon to the N.S.C. “principals’ committee,” which includes most of those same
top officials and meets far more frequently. At the same time, President Trump
downgraded two senior national security officials — the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, a role now held by Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., and the director
of national intelligence, the job that Dan Coats, a former member of the Senate
Intelligence Committee and former ambassador to Germany, has been nominated to
All this may seem like boring bureaucratic
chart-making, but who sits at the National Security Council table when the
administration debates issues of war and peace can make a real difference in
decisions. In giving Mr. Bannon an official role in national security policy
making, Mr. Trump has not simply broken with tradition but has embraced the
risk of politicizing national security, or giving the impression of doing so.
Mr. Trump’s order says that the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence will attend the
principals’ committee meetings only “where issues pertaining to their
responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Could there be any
national security discussions when input from the intelligence agencies and the
military will not be required? People in those jobs are often the ones to tell
presidents hard truths, even when they are unwelcome.
As his first week in office amply
demonstrated, Mr. Trump has no grounding in national security decision making,
no sophistication in governance and little apparent grasp of what it takes to
lead a great diverse nation. He needs to hear from experienced officials, like
General Dunford. But Mr. Bannon has positioned himself, along with Mr. Trump’s
son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the president’s most trusted aide, shutting out
other voices that might offer alternative views. He is now reportedly eclipsing
the national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
While Mr. Trump long ago embraced Mr.
Bannon’s politics, he would be wise to reconsider allowing him to run his White
House, particularly after the fiasco over the weekend of the risible Muslim
ban. Mr. Bannon helped push that order through without consulting Mr. Trump’s
own experts at the Department of Homeland Security or even seeking deliberation
by the N.S.C. itself. The administration’s subsequent modifications, the
courtroom reversals and the international furor have made the president look
not bold and decisive but simply incompetent.
As a candidate, Mr. Trump was immensely
gratified by the applause at his rallies for Mr. Bannon’s jingoism. Yet now
casually weaponized in executive orders, those same ideas are alienating
American allies and damaging the presidency.
Presidents are entitled to pick their
advisers. But Mr. Trump’s first spasms of policy making have supplied ample
evidence that he needs advisers who can think strategically and weigh second-
and third-order consequences beyond the immediate domestic political effects.
Imagine tomorrow if Mr. Trump is faced with a crisis involving China in the
South China Sea or Russia in Ukraine. Will he look to his chief political
provocateur, Mr. Bannon, with his penchant for blowing things up, or will he
turn at last for counsel to the few more thoughtful experienced hands in his
administration, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and General Dunford?