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Trump’s Game of Thrones: Here’s what you might’ve missed in the Bannon vs. Kushner battle

Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner
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Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner

Washington is abuzz with the latest reports of palace intrigue within President Donald Trump's inner circle but there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is actually transpiring. Rather than Trump pivoting between two diametrically opposed groups of advisors — the "America First" camp of economic nationalism led by White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and the "Family First" camp of economic pragmatism helmed by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner — he is, in fact, oscillating among no less than four distinct clans. This is not Mr. Trump Goes to Washington; it is Game of Thrones.

The faction currently ascending is Kushner's. After a series of stream-of-consciousness remarks from Trump last week that belied reversals on a broad range of policies from NATO to China to the Fed, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who was brought into the administration by Kushner over the objections of Bannon and others, supposedly has supplanted Bannon as Trump's new "hand of the king." However, just like in the television show "Game of Thrones," the lifespan of a hand is not much longer than that of a fruit fly.

Cohn's top two priorities are tax reform and infrastructure investment, both with the aim of promoting economic growth. Besides internal discord between Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over who gets to lead the White House tax reform effort, Cohn's biggest risk is his noble, but naive, bipartisan approach. While tax reform remains doable — unlike a massive infrastructure initiative — a bipartisan tax deal is a bridge too far. Tax reform's success will be wholly dependent on achieving a level of GOP cohesion that Capitol Hill leaders failed to attain during last month's health-care debacle.

Kushner himself has had few material accomplishments to date, but a noteworthy one was orchestrating the easing of U.S.-China tensions by arranging the successful summit between his father-in-law and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese, however, also deserve some of the credit in this instance. Out of concern for the aggressive and confrontational America First policies, Xi shrewdly moved quickly to outflank Bannon by developing direct relationships with Kushner and Ivanka Trump, countering the America First agenda with his own Family First strategy.

"In a world where the man who sits in this realm's version of the iron throne is reportedly always looking for his 'shiny new toy,' Mulvaney could be next in line after Cohn to be Trump's flavor of the week."

Despite the self-described "great chemistry" Trump had with Xi and his decision last week to not follow through on his campaign promise to designate China as a currency manipulator, it is too early to declare the full America First nationalist agenda dead and buried. Other advisors are ready to step up to take the role of flag-bearer from Bannon, they just won't go out of their way to flagrantly wave the flag in the rest of the faces in the West Wing. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his acolyte, White House Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller, along with other aides like National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro, will continue to push the populist agenda that Trump used to win the GOP primary before Bannon even joined his campaign. This includes strident immigration enforcement and a protectionist tilt to trade and foreign investment, two policies that run counter to promoting economic growth.

The hardline America First agenda and the more moderate positions preferred by Kushner's camp are both targets at times for the traditional, GOP establishment camp headed by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. After the disastrous rollout of the travel ban executive order that triggered protests and resulted in judicial intervention, Priebus fought to establish some semblance of policymaking procedures which have allowed all the competing West Wing factions to learn two cardinal rules of Washington. First, process trumps substance. And second, it is far easier to block someone else's agenda than advance your own.

Priebus sits in the futile position, though, of seeking to arbitrate the White House's internal conflicts without the commensurate authority to do so — nobody can serve as an effective chief of staff for a president that doesn't want a gatekeeper. Priebus is left trying to play referee when his boss is always going to have the bigger whistle and no compunction about stepping in to use it. Preibus's saving grace has been his tight relationship with fellow Wisconsinite House Speaker Paul Ryan. However, after the Obamacare reform implosion, this asset proved it could also be a liability.

Yet another group with a hand in the policy mix is that of ardent GOP conservatives championed by Vice President Mike Pence, with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney serving as Pence's answer to Cohn. Both Pence and Mulvaney are aligned with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and they collectively have more governing experience than all the other factions combined. However, they have also failed to translate their conservative bona fides into results. Trump wavers between courting the Freedom Caucus one moment and threatening to primary its recalcitrant members the next.

Mulvaney's ace up his sleeve though is that he is a scratch golfer, something this president likely admires almost as much as immense wealth. In a world where the man who sits in this realm's version of the iron throne is reportedly always looking for his "shiny new toy," Mulvaney could be next in line after Cohn to be Trump's flavor of the week, potentially denting Wall Street's exuberance given how the conservatives look askance at the Kushner's camp's close ties to the financial community. For example, Mulvaney remarked on CNBC last week about Cohn's infrastructure plan, "You've got to give these Goldman Sachs guys credit. They know how to lever up."

The punditry and the financial markets prefer a linear narrative whereby Trump's policies have fully evolved, quenching their thirst for certainty. However, the next four (and possibly eight) years will be a never-ending journey among an ever-changing coterie of advisors. The president's penchant is to be at the center of a non-hierarchical free-for-all that, above all, maintains his sense of primacy, meaning that the West Wing's power structure — and his policies — will never fully evolve. Instead, they will be in a perpetual state of oscillation.

Commentary by Stephen A. Myrow, the managing partner of Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC. He previously served as a senior U.S. Treasury Department official from 2008 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter @smyrow.

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