Week In Politics: Steve Bannon's Removal From The White House And Trump's Reponse To Charlottesville

Aug 18, 2017
Originally published on August 18, 2017 6:03 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Bannon resignation marks the end of a volatile week in the Trump White House - the president's contradictory statements about who is to blame for Charlottesville, resignations by CEOs on White House advisory bodies, statements by military service chiefs denouncing racism and extremism in the absence of a presidential denunciation and cancellations of charity fundraisers at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach - more than enough for us to talk about this Friday with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of National Review and columnist for Bloomberg View. Gentlemen, good to see you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We're going to get to the Bannon story in a moment. But first, I want to start by playing what Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said yesterday about Donald Trump prompted by Trump's comments on Charlottesville. Corker faulted Trump for some very basic shortcomings.

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BOB CORKER: The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.

SIEGEL: And beyond the lack of stability and competence...

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CORKER: He also recently has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation.

SIEGEL: First, E.J. Dionne, has Donald Trump reached a tipping point with Republicans, at least Republicans like Corker?

DIONNE: Well, I think we've identified at least 150 tipping points in the last few months, so I never know which is which. But this Corker statement I thought was significant. He's not been a leading anti-Trump conservative. He was under consideration as Trump's secretary of state. He's from a very red and conservative state, and he tends to choose his words very carefully.

And so I think this was a real signal that what happened in Charlottesville, Trump's moral equivalency between Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists and their opponents, really has been a problem for him. I think we're going to see what will other Republicans do. It is still striking that there aren't that many Republicans who have been willing to join Bob Corker. Yes, they've attacked white supremacy and Klansmen, but they haven't gone after Trump by name the way Corker did. And then of course we're going to see if the departure of Bannon changes the equation with Capitol Hill.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, what do you think? Republicans in many states can look at the polls and see that Donald Trump is as popular with his voters now as he was a few months ago. Would you expect Corker to remain an outlier or to hear similar statements from more Republicans?

PONNURU: I think there's been a gradual erosion of President Trump's support among Republicans, more among officeholders than among voters but in both groups. I think a lot of Republican officeholders over the last year have been telling themselves that the president was - that Trump was going to change, that the responsibilities of office would change and that his advisers would change, that there would be a pivot and a change in his entire direction and strategy.

And I think it has finally dawned on a lot of those officeholders that he is who he is, that he is not changing and that he is somebody that they are going to have a very hard time working with. And I don't think it's just Charlottesville, although I think that's important. I think also the attacks by the president on McConnell, the attacks by him on Senator Jeff Flake are also souring Republican officeholders on him.

SIEGEL: Well, today's White House drama is that Steve Bannon is out, which means that in just over half a year in office, the president has dumped or lost his national security adviser, his chief of staff, his communications director and press secretary and now a senior strategist. Is Bannon's departure likely to change much about the Trump White House since everything else has changed? What do you say, Ramesh?

PONNURU: I don't think so, actually. I think that the tone is set from the top. It's interesting that none of these major staff departures have been because of a political weakness, because the administration wanted to change its image. That's not why Sean Spicer left. That's not why Bannon's left. It's because he's displeased the boss in some way. Even Scaramucci - it wasn't so much that he gave an interview that reflected badly on the president. It appears to have been he gave an interview which made him the topic of discussion rather than the president.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: Well, you could argue that there's been more turnover at the Trump White House than with a failing baseball team at the trading deadline. It's extraordinary how many people have gone out. Now, if they could dismiss the guy at the top, they might get some real change.

But there is I think one respect in which this could be very important in terms of policy. Bannon really did believe in right-wing populism. He talked about corporatists. He attacked corporations. And yet when you look at the output - the policy output of the Trump administration, most of what they've been successful at, particularly with deregulation, has been very pro-corporate, which now is Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser, unchecked by Bannon.

And you have a much more establishment cast to this White House today. You still have some of Bannon's former supporters in there, and I think you'll still see a very hard line on immigration. But I think the president may be letting go of some of this populism which of course I always thought was phony anyway.

PONNURU: The White House is now a coalition of generals, bankers and New York Democrats who belong to Trump's family. It is a very unusual coalition for administration, particularly a Republican one.

SIEGEL: E.J. just actually mentioned policy a moment ago, so let me remind people. First of all, this was infrastructure week (laughter) at the White House. Infrastructure didn't get...

DIONNE: They blew up the infrastructure of the White House. They did do something on that.

SIEGEL: And it wasn't because of much Russia news, either - totally different distractions from policy. Just what's going on out there with issues of substance - infrastructure, taxes, raising the debt ceiling? Is - Ramesh, is Washington moving ahead? Is it - are things happening?

PONNURU: Well, for many years now, really for decades, Congress has gotten used to a president who sets the agenda and, particularly when his own party's in control, drives legislation. And they're having to get used to the fact that this president doesn't play that traditional function. That's one of the - that's one of several traditional presidential functions he doesn't fill. They're having to do this on their own. And I think that's one of the reasons they've been sputtering - is because they are out of practice in doing that.

SIEGEL: E.J...

DIONNE: You had unified - you have unified Republican government. Things were supposed to happen. But the character of the Trump campaign was not a traditional conservative campaign. Trump did run against entitlement cuts. He ran for a health care plan that was going to be more generous, better for people in Obamacare. And I think what you see playing out in policy are the contradictions between the way Trump ran and traditional conservatism that Republicans hope to enact.

They couldn't get the health care bill through because it really - partly because it contradicted Trump's promises. And a lot of Republicans in Congress aren't crazy about spending a lot of money on infrastructure. We may be down to - the only thing they can agree on is tax cuts. And we'll see what happens with that.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, I guess I have time for one yes-or-no question to you. Can you imagine any of the new faces coming into the White House to replace some of the old people being old-line, established, experienced Republicans?

PONNURU: You know, ever since Priebus especially has gone, the Republican Party's institutional hold in this White House has really declined.

SIEGEL: Ramesh Ponnuru, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Great to be with you.

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