As President Donald Trump’s second week in office draws to a close, his political strategy is becoming more defined and so is his commitment to playing by his own rules.
“Trump is really pushing the limits in terms of constitutional propriety,” says Professor Robert Bothwell, of the department of history in the Faculty of Arts & Science, and an expert in international relations at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs.
“The question will be at what point is he actually explicitly going to overrule the law and just pass on into rule by decree.”
Trump tested those limits last weekend with his travel ban for citizens of seven-Muslim majority countries.
But even as he issued that executive order and created “disruption” in its wake, Trump quietly promoted his chief strategist – and some have called his alter-ego – Steve Bannon, to the National Security Council and its exclusive Principals Committee.
Bannon is the former head of the ultra-conservative Breitbart News. His presence in the Trump inner circle has raised red flags with human-rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which called him “the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.”
His appointment to the National Security Council has many on edge, including Time Magazine, which asked this question yesterday: “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?”
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed those concerns: “What’s making America less safe is to have a white supremacist named to the National Security Council as a permanent member, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence are told, ‘Don’t call us we’ll call you. You’re no longer permanent members.' It's a stunning thing that a white supremacist would be a permanent member of the National Security Council.”
Kent Roach, professor and Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at U of T’s Faculty of Law, says the Principals Committee is like an inner cabinet on national security matters.
“It is supposed to be operational, but the line between operations and policy is often blurred,” Roach said.
“[Bannon] would have influence over Trump regardless of whether he was on the National Security Council. Nevertheless, Bannon's appointment, like so much else in Trump's early days, is at best deeply troubling, and at worst just plain scary.”
Bannon largely drafted the immigration and refugee announcement, just as he largely drafted Trump's inauguration speech, says Bothwell. His political philosophy boils down to three things for America: Capitalism, nationalism, and “Judeo-Christian values.”
“With the collection of ideas that he has, this is extremely dangerous,” Bothwell said of Bannon's appointment.
Roach says Bannon and Trump are alike in many ways.
“He seems to have some of the same impulsive and aggressive temper as Trump, raising concerns that the new President has formed a kind of echo chamber where he is unlikely to hear contradictory views,” he says.
“Bannon could be in the room and by some accounts screaming when decisions are made to engage in targeted killings, send more people to Guantanamo, invade other countries or to pull the U.S. out of NATO or other international alliances.”
Bannon’s influence could be detrimental to the U.S. government, says Bothwell, but so far, Republicans appear to remain loyal to Trump.
“I think there's a kind of tacit bargain that he will meet the agenda of the Republicans in Congress and in return, it looks as though they've given him unconditional support,” he says. “Some of them might talk a lot but you look at the votes and they're voting with their colleagues so I don't think there's anything they won't swallow.”
That loyalty will be tested if Trump does eventually overrule the law, Bothwell says.
“You'd like to think that the people in Congress have the guts or the perception to be able to oppose it but I haven't seen much evidence of that so far.”
As Trump builds allies in government, he’ll have to do the same internationally. But as he enacts more protectionist policies, it’s unclear who those allies will be, Bothwell says.
“There has to be a fantastic overestimation of American strength – and by antagonizing everybody at the same time, you're creating a world in which the United States will be quite isolated.”
Whether or not Canada will prove to be a friend of the U.S. will depend on Trump’s demands, he says.
“There is no such thing as a cooperative negotiation,” says Bothwell. “Are we going to overtly repudiate the Mexicans in order to curry favour with the United States? Is he going to demand that we limit the flow of refugees in Canada or he will retaliate with border restrictions? These things are possible. Any set of negotiations that Trump undertakes will be a zero-sum game.”