Every good huckster is a master at distracting the attention of the suckers they are about to fleece away from any pesky details they do not want to talk about. The stage magician, for example, convinces you to watch his left hand as he flutters a meaningless handkerchief so you will not notice as his right hand palms the card, or pockets the coin, or slips the rabbit back into the hat.
Trump is a master at this. His tangle with the media in a pointless kerfuffle over the size of the inaugural crowd is a prime example, as is his insistence that there were over three million fraudulent votes in the last election to be investigated. These are both irrelevant discussions that have soaked up all the headline space above the fold, and all the time in the A blocks on cable television, for weeks now, and are both still running. Meanwhile, while we were all diverted by these meaningless bits of left handed fluff, his right hand has been into mischief.
For example, on Friday, which everyone know knows is “put out the trash day” for the White House press, and while all our attention was diverted elsewhere, Trump quietly swept out the top level career administrators of the State Department – every one of the deputy undersecretaries, assistant undersecretaries, bureau chiefs and directors who had anything to do with the top level administration of the department are gone. Usually, the transition team pays little attention to these career positions; they have plenty to do filling the 4,000 plus political appointments opening up without taking on the task of recruiting new hires for the administrative career positions.
Not so, for some reason, this time around. Even the mid-level political appointments are sometimes put off for a month or so, so there can be some continuity in the transition. All of those who were swept out indicated that they were willing and expected to stay on at least through the transition. Not to be, for some as yet unexplained reason.
Then on Saturday – Saturday, mind you, when even more of us were looking elsewhere and nobody was paying attention – Trump unceremoniously dumped the Chairman of Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence out of their permanent seats on the National Security Council, and replaced them with – wait for it – Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.
The career officers at State were not “fired.” Trump can’t fire civil service career employees, but they were all advised that they were no longer needed in their present positions. This Trump can do; he can direct that anybody be reassigned to a different job, as long as it is within the same GS level, meaning the same pay, and approximately same level of stature. What he did here was shift them into jobs with not as much status or responsibility – demotions in fact, even though the money would have remained the same – but which prompted the entire list, seven in all, to either quit or retire. How the new Secretary will fare without this huge reservoir of institutional memory available to smooth out his early days remains to be seen. But as anybody who has ever worked for the government in any capacity can tell you, it would have been a lot easier if they had been kept around.
The National Security Council was organized in 1947 to advise Truman on matters Congress was convinced he knew nothing about – security and foreign policy. This body is not expected to be political. Traditional members are the Vice President and the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy plus high level representatives from the military and the intelligence community. The council has been organized in this fashion since its origination. High level military and intelligence advisers have always been included as full members.
The White House Chief of Staff was elevated from a sometime invitee to a full member of the NSC. In addition, in the place of the high level military and intelligence community advisors, Trump has delegated the White House Strategist to sit as a full member in their stead.
There are those who thought that Reince Priebus, who has never held an original thought, had reached his apex under Peter’s Principle in his prior position as the doormat and chief sycophant for the RNC. We did not expect him to survive the crushing responsibilities of the White House. That he is still around makes one suspect that his tasks may have been redefined.
Steve Bannon, on the other hand, is considered by most to be a true confidant of the President – but whether as Oz, Machiavelli or Rasputin yet remains to be seen. Some expected him to be as Karl Rove was to George Bush – a political connection to the far-right base, with the assignment to keep Trump well placed there for the election in 2020. One did not expect the Brietbart alumnus, who is sometimes reported to avoid mirrors and is rarely seen in daylight, to move toward a true seat of power. Or at least not this early.
We are still not sure what to make of any of this. On the one hand, because of the amateurish ways that Trump and his cabal have been blundering about so far, this new stuff may merely be more indicia of incompetence and a failure to think it through. On the other hand, the peculiar selection of State and the NSC for these unexplained sweeps, and the elevation of Bannon to a seat on the NSC, may portend a more complicated objective.
Close attention is invited.