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Wrecking ball: With Steve Bannon, the power behind Donald Trump, it’s ‘always noon at the OK Corral’

Steve Bannon: “The most malevolent voice in the US President’s head.” Photo: Ron SachsWashington: Malcolm Turnbull can’t complain too much. Donald Trump did lash out at the n prime minister, but at least Turnbull was spared the muscle-flexing invasion threat that the new commander-in-chief was dishing out to others – in the case of Mexico, to stomp out drug barons; and in the case of Iraq, to steal the country’s vast oil reserves.
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And Turnbull was never a target for the US President. Instead, the n prime minister was collateral damage in a shootout between factions in the new administration – in which Trump’s angry dressing-down of Turnbull was leaked as proof of what is being dubbed Trump’s shock-and-awe first days in the Oval Office; and with it, the swift and extraordinary consolidation of power by his anarchic strategy chief, Stephen Bannon.

Canberra reeled in the wake of The Washington Post’s unprecedented, chapter-and-verse account of anger and condescension spilling down a phone line from the White House, as Trump made serial “pleased to meet you” calls to world leaders last weekend. And when Trump breasted the microphone at a national prayer breakfast in Washington on Thursday, he wasn’t quite ready to drop the shock-and-awe bit.

“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it.” Trump said: “We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

In anyone’s language the deal, by which Canberra talked the Obama administration into taking 1250 refugees who still languish in Nauru and on Manus Island, was a cunning stunt that was sure to get up Trump’s nose – hence this tweet on Wednesday evening, in which Trump exaggerated the numbers: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from . Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Amidst an outpouring of social media affection for , former senior US diplomats rushed in to douse the flames, with most refusing to speak publicly about the damage they feared Trump might have inflicted, lest their critique goad the new President to direct even greater heat at Canberra. “It’s serious – I don’t want to enflame things,” a former Bush-appointed ambassador told Fairfax Media.

Later, Trump seemed to have got the message, declaring: “I love as a country.” But as much as he grudgingly accepted that he was obliged to honour Obama’s resettlement deal, the President remained angry: “I just said ‘why?'”

And his spokesman, Sean Spicer, who at various points in his daily press briefing referred to the prime minister as “Trunbull” and “Trumbull”, warned that all the detainees would be subjected to Trump’s “extreme vetting”, leaving moot how many, if any, of the 1250 refugees would end up in the US.

Ironically, the Post’s report on Trump dissing Turnbull came during what had the appearance of a respite from the wall-to-wall protests and executive-order madness of the new President’s first days in office – Trump didn’t care, but Turnbull could reasonably have expected that with no leaks in the intervening days, the ugly detail of his unpleasant exchange with ‘s most important ally would stay under wraps; and in naming his pick to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, Trump’s choice of the youthful originalist Neil Gorsuch was well within the bounds of Republican expectations.

But when Trump anointed Gorsuch at a live-televised ceremony under grand chandeliers in the East Room at the White House, as much as all eyes were on the nominee, many also wondered about the rumpled figure standing off to the left, an enigmatic grin creasing his ruddy complexion.

This was Bannon, well known to Americans since his appointment as Trump’s campaign chief last year and, since winning the election, his appointment as Trump’s chief strategist. But it was not until this week that they understood the enormity of the power amassed by this brash, bumptious newcomer to public service. In some quarters, he’s already referred to as President Bannon.

As Team Trump trooped into the White House, different power bases were ticked off by analysts – Bannon and his policy adviser sidekick Stephen Miller were the outsiders, some would say the bomb throwers; and Vice-President Mike Pence and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus were the GOP establishment guys, who many in the party believed had used the transition process to outmanoeuvre Bannon by stacking the White House with their hand-picked establishment loyalists.

Between those two was the Trump family beachhead – the President’s son-in-law, trusted confidant and counsellor Jared Kushner; and floating between these three powerbases on an issue-by-issue basis, was Kellyanne Conway, a key campaign figure who Trump has also appointed as a White House counsellor.

None expected the shakedown to be as quick as it was. But amidst the chaos generated by the executive order by which Trump shuttered the global US refugee program for four months, and indefinitely in the case of those from Syria, and put a bar on arrivals from seven majority-Muslim countries, Trump slipped another executive order into the mix – he was appointing Bannon to the National Security Council … on which, more in a minute.

All this – the messages from Trump, the rate at which he threw them out and the extent to which Americans were seeing the unvarnished, unrestrained Trump – is attributed to Bannon’s brilliance. In declaring Bannon responsible for making “Trump the disrupter” the accent for these vivid first days in office, Time magazine quoted a veteran Republican who said: “It’s already over, and Bannon won.”

And this from BuzzFeed, in the crazy first days of Trump’s migration crackdown: “A weekend of chaos and conflict has produced one piece of clarity: Steve Bannon is the central force shaping Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Bannon seemed to concur with Time’s assessments that he was the one who kept the doctrine pure, he was the true believer who was in it not for money or position, but to change history.

“What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order,” Bannon said in an email to The Washington Post.

And that’s the thing. For much of the campaign and even into the transition period, a lot of what Trump had promised was dismissed as campaign theatrics – more hot air from the New York blowhard. The underlying belief was that Trump didn’t have the bottle – but Bannon is Trump’s bottle.

Historically, an army of advisers swarms around a new president, telling him what he can’t do; but Bannon marches into the Oval Office each day, telling Trump what he can do. And he does it – sometimes secretly, like much of the groundwork on the migration crackdown.

Increasingly his decisions are seen to be in line with Bannon’s instinctive gut feeling – which insiders say is much like Trump’s.

It’s not surprising that Bannon could elbow Priebus aside. But amid speculation that Washington politics is proving to be more of a challenge than they had expected, some wide-eyed reporters are asking what happened to Kushner and his wife – Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

Kushner is rated as a steadying, mollifying influence on Trump. An explanation being offered for some of the wilder rides by the administration – usually on Fridays – is that Kushner absents himself from the White House to observe the Sabbath rituals of his Jewish faith. But some suspect that he is being undermined and is less able to haul Trump back from Bannon’s pyrotechnic sphere of influence.

Kushner’s predictions in meetings with the business community that Trump would be “rational” when it came to his dealing with Muslims and building a border wall didn’t hold up – and usually mild-mannered, the son-in-law reportedly was enraged by the collapse of a deal on which he had laboured to ensure that a meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto would proceed.

“Kushner was f—ing furious,” according to a source quoted by Vanity Fair magazine. “I’d never once heard him say he was angry throughout the entire campaign, but he was furious.”

In the main, Trump’s commitments have been to those who he calls “the forgotten people”. Uniting the political tribes of the US is not at the top of his list and he doesn’t dwell on healing divisions – quite the contrary, in fact.

Miller, the policy chief, shares Bannon’s penchant for disruption, explaining to CBS News: “Anytime you do anything hugely successful that challenges a failed orthodoxy, you’re going to see protests. In fact, if nobody is disagreeing with what you’re doing, then you’re probably not doing anything that really matters in the scheme of things.”

Bannon and Miller reportedly were the authors of Trump’s “American carnage” inauguration speech, and the duo are presumed to be the authors of most of Trump’s executive orders. Similarly Bannon is said to have influenced Trump’s decision to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the so-called angry president, near his desk.

For Bannon, the NSC appointment was pure political gold – Americans and the world can only guess at what it might mean for them.

Already, even before Trump’s nominated secretary of state, former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, had been approved by the Senate, the President has, with the aid of Bannon and Michael Flynn, their worrisome national security adviser, signalled what The Washington Post describes as the abandonment of traditional diplomacy in favour of concentrated decision-making by these few aides, infusing a combative, iconoclastic foreign policy with their “America First” ethos.

Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, used her first visit to UN headquarters in New York to announce that Washington would be on the watch for those who “don’t have our back” and she paused, before adding: “We’re taking names.”

As Trump hectors China and Iran, the worry for some observers is that even as Tillerson settles behind his desk at the State Department, Trump and his gang will have so articulated a world view and a belief in how it should be managed that Tillerson will have to fight to be heard.

Trump’s reorganisation of the Security Council to accommodate Bannon is staggering – not only has he elevated a political adviser to a seat on the NSC principals committee, a Cabinet-level forum that tries to deal in fact; he has made Bannon’s rise all the more powerful by downgrading the NSC standing of the heads of the military and intelligence.

Bannon, a former US Navy officer and admiral’s aide, Goldman Sachs investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart flame-thrower, is now on par with the secretaries of defence and state.

“The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they’re talking about national security,” Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defence secretary and CIA director in two Democratic administrations told The New York Times.

“I’ve never seen that happen, and it shouldn’t happen. It’s not like he has broad experience in foreign policy and national security issues. He doesn’t. His primary role is to control or guide the President’s conscience based on his campaign promises. That’s not what the National Security Council is supposed to be about.”

And if, as a Democratic appointee, Panetta sounds partisan, George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Josh Bolten, seemingly agreed. Having barred Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser, from NSC meetings, he argued at a conference last year that a president’s decisions made with his NSC advisers “involve life and death for the people in uniform” and should “not be tainted by any political decisions”.

Trump reportedly respects Bannon because being independently wealthy, he doesn’t need the job, and for his pleasure in blowing things up – he is said to have told a fellow guest at a party that he was like Lenin, sharing the Russian revolutionary’s eagerness to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment”.

More troubling, given Bannon’s NSC appointment, is information shared by his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, who describes his obsessive interest in wars and warfare.

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war – it’s almost poetry to him,” she told The Daily Beast last year. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome … every battle, every war … Never back down, never apologise, never show weakness … He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the OK Corral.”

But public opinion moves fast when you are having fun. A Public Policy Polling survey released on Thursday shows that 40 per cent of Americans already want to impeach Trump – up from 35 per cent just a week ago.

In the meantime, American commentators are running out of words to describe Trump’s excesses. This is what The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker is reduced to as she attempts to describe the unfolding early days of Trump: “Every day is a jack-in-the-box – or a dozen – a fresh page from Hieronymus Bosch’s sketchpad.”

Malcolm Turnbull gets the picture. Trump sketched it at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast: “The world is in trouble, but we’re gonna straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do – I fix things. We’re gonna straighten it out. Believe me.”

Amen.

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