Writing 2018-09-08

Book Notes – Fire and Fury, Chapter 20

H.R. McMaster

Trump didn’t like making any decisions that involved actually thinking about a problem. This made the issue of Afghanistan a problem. Basically the White House staff was split between maintaining the status quo and complete disruption, and all because Trump himself couldn’t make a decision.

Bannon was the vote for peace. More specifically, as an isolationist he felt the United States shouldn’t be putting more soldiers into a war he didn’t think the USA should be fighting. McMaster and the Jared/Ivanka team were on the other side of the issue. Not that this helped. Both Bannon and Trump enjoyed trash-talking McMaster behind his back.

McMaster’s penchant for getting into the weeds hurt him with Trump. Whenever he wanted to talk about the military in Afghanistan, Trump would get impatient and wave him off. Trump’s only understanding of the war was that it was bad and his base didn’t like it. He had no time for other details. Personally, he liked to blame the war on Bush and Obama whenever possible.

Finding a Solution to Afghanistan

By July, it was becoming clear a position would have to be taken on what to do. Trump had given the military more or less free reign in deciding what it needed, but Defense Secretary Mattis was refusing to move without a specific command from the President. Bannon was beginning to plot a scenario where someone could make the military decisions for the President. First he’d have to get rid of McMaster. Bannon got his media allies going on the idea that McMaster was a globalist, interventionist and soft on Israel. It helped that Trump disliked McMaster, and the combination made Bannon feel like his star was rising again.

Bannon wanted McMaster out by August, preferably by being given a fourth star and “promoted” as top military commander in Afghanistan. Bannon would sponsor Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary group Blackwater. Prince was pushing the idea of replacing the US military in Afghanistan with private contractors (like Blackwater) and a combination of CIA and Special Ops from the US. Trump was open to the idea until the military ridiculed it outright.

On the other side of the Afghanistan issue, Dina Powell had teamed up with Jared and Ivanka to promote a middle-of-the-road approach. Essentially, it was to extend the quagmire. Instead of sending the necessary number of new troops, the Pentagon would send a lower number that would keep the US from losing the war, but would also fly under the radar of the news cycle. It wouldn’t make things better, and it would keep things from getting worse. Basically, wait out the problem until another President comes along.

This better-than-nothing approach began to be adopted by everyone not on Bannon’s side. Kushner boosted support by starting a counter-leak campaign against Bannon, focusing on how he was using leaks to bring down McMaster. McMaster was presented as a figure of stability against the chaos of Bannon himself. Bannon wasn’t worried. He thought he was winning the fight against the Evil Establishment.

The Solution Proposal

The National Security Council presented three options: Withdrawal, Erik Prince and his mercenaries, or a (limited) surge. Withdrawal was a non-starter. Trump wasn’t going to look like a President who lost a war. The CIA was refusing to support an army of mercenaries, especially because the CIA was part of Prince’s plan. Getting ahead in the world meant not being associated with Afghanistan. That left the surge. The military expected a sign-off, largely because neither of the other two options were viable. It was expected to be a cake-walk.

For two hours, Trump went ballistic on the options he had been given. He threatened to fire everyone. He couldn’t understand why he was being asked to do the same thing Obama had done in the prior administration. Bannon thought it was the high point of the Trump Presidency. The idea that Trump was taking it to the military establishment was like candy to Bannon. He was convinced McMaster and Jared and Ivanka were going to be out the door as soon as possible.

The Mooch

Jared and Ivanka were starting to think of Anthony Scaramucci as someone to bring into the fold. Scaramucci wanted in on the action and had spent three months just hanging out around the White House looking for a connection to bring him in. He would do things like interrupt a meeting with Kellyanne Conway to let her know her husband’s law firm was representing him. Then he would grab a seat and act like he was supposed to be in the meeting with everybody. He wasn’t the only job-seeker out there, but he was certainly the most persistent, constantly talking to anyone who would not push him off somehow.

The problem was that nobody liked him. He was initially a vocal doubter of Trump, he was immodest and self-serving and would trash talk this person to that person no matter who the person was. He was shameless self-promoter who was so egotistical, he paid half a million dollars for his name to be on a building in the movie Wall Street as well as a get a cameo. His constant presence in the White House prompted a regular question of what, exactly, should be done with him.

Reince Priebus tried to buy Scaramucci off with an offer of being the Finance Director of the RNC, but Scaramucci blew up on him. Scaramucci knew Gary Cohn had scored a job that gave him certain tax breaks on the sale of his business and Scaramucci wanted the same for his own company, which had recently been sold to a Chinese megaconglomerate. Scaramucci eventually landed the job of Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. Basically, he was Trump’s cheerleader.

The White House ethics office immediately flew up a red flag. The sale of his business would take months and was to the benefit of a Chinese organization to boot. Scaramucci had no support from anyone, so he was blocked from his assignment. Despite this, he decided to appoint himself as Trump’s man on Wall Street, even though he didn’t actually work for the Trump Administration. “What to do with Scaramucci” again became a regular question. This was in part because Kushner himself was warming up to The Mooch.

Priebus had another idea. A job was offered as Senior Vice President  and Chief Strategy Officer for the US Export-Import Bank. It was an out-of-the-way job with no real prospects, not the least because Trump had been vowing to eliminate the Bank itself. Scaramucci had no choice but to accept at this point. Scaramucci was still lobbying for a better position, however, so Bannon amused himself by setting Scaramucci up with the post of Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation  and Development. The job came with a 20-room apartment and a full staff, but with no influence or responsibilities.

Sean Spicer

Sean Spicer was becoming the fall guy for many of the problems in the administration. Logically, the meeting with the Russians and the dictated memo should have been blamed on the Trump family, but since they could not be blamed, Spicer became the target. Spicer and his staff were now considered hostile to Jared and Ivanka, despite the fact that Spicer had been locked out of most of the decision-making. Part of this venom seemed to also stem from the fact that Jared and Ivanka were technically staffers in the White House, not some kind of political royalty. They resented being on the same level as Spicer and expected him to be subordinate to their will. The regular question became “What does Spicer and his team actually do?”

A New Press Secretary

Trump had been looking for Spicer’s replacement from the beginning. One potential replacement declined the offer, but suggested Scaramucci. Scaramucci began working to win over Jared and Ivanka, suggesting that they largely had a PR problem he could fix.

Scaramucci made a call to some reporter asking for a story on Kushner and Russia to be shelved. In return, he offered special access to Scaramucci himself. This got Jared and Ivanka’s attention. At the same time, they were wary of just throwing Spicer out the door; they understood how that would have looked. Instead, they offered up Scaramucci as an additional voice to Spicer’s team. Trump, of course, was immediately taken in by Scaramucci’s flattery. This clinched the deal and also boosted Scaramucci to Communications Chief with direct report to Trump himself.

For his part, Bannon saw this as such an act of desperation that he was convinced that Jared and Ivanka were flailing on their way out the door.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.