White House

Trump will take a victory lap in his first State of the Union. But Steve Bannon deserves at least half the credit

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump is expected to take a victory lap at his State of the Union address Tuesday. But Steve Bannon, his exiled former top strategist, deserves much of the credit.
  • Bannon's West Wing office white boards helped keep Trump focused on his campaign pledges. But they also reflected Bannon's own longtime policy goals.
  • Here's a look at some of what Bannon put up on the boards, and checked off, before he was fired from the White House in August.
The ghost of Steve Bannon will haunt Trump's State of the Union victory lap

When President Donald Trump takes the stage in the Capitol on Tuesday night to deliver his first State of the Union address, America will hear a number of different voices.

When Trump speaks about immigration, he is likely to channel senior White House advisor Stephen Miller, responsible for crafting many of Trump's speeches – and major parts of his immigration policy. When Trump lays out his infrastructure plan, he'll likely be sharing ideas nurtured by National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn.

If Trump hews to tradition, then both Cohn and Miller can expect to be seated in the audience while the president speaks.

The same cannot be said, however, for Steve Bannon. The former White House chief strategist is persona non grata in the White House, following the publication of "Fire and Fury," a damning tell-all about the inner workings of Trump's White House, by Michael Wolff, which relied heavily on Bannon for sourcing. The book, which faces scrutiny over its accuracy, also includes Bannon insulting Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., both adult children of the president.

Here’s how Steve Bannon’s white board became public policy

Yet more than anyone else, Bannon shaped Trump's agenda during the administration's first year, and Trump's victory lap on Tuesday will be Bannon's, too. Even though Bannon is out of favor with the president and has been booted from his job running the right-wing site Breitbart, his nationalist, populist, isolationist policy vision will likely be woven throughout the speech.

So, too, will the goals that Bannon laid out on whiteboards lining the walls of his West Wing office, which Bannon closely guarded. Officially billed as a list of Trump's campaign pledges, in reality the white boards displayed a list of Bannon's longtime policy goals, the same ideas which had animated much of Trump's campaign platform.

The former top executive of Breitbart News would check off by hand what he thought had been accomplished, and move priorities around as events unfolded.

Few people outside the West Wing ever saw Bannon's white boards: The best image of them likely came out in May, when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach visited Bannon in his office and tweeted out photos of their meeting.

NYT tweet

Rabbi tweet

At the time, Bannon was already well on his way to accomplishing many of his goals. Below is a partial list of what Bannon wrote down, based on what was visible, with checks next to the items Bannon believed he had accomplished.

As Trump speaks on Tuesday, the list reads like a cheat sheet for the president's greatest victories, his goals, and how Bannon's view of the world lives on in the West Wing.

Pledges on Immigration

  • Cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities ✔

Trump has attempted this, but been met with numerous court challenges.

  • Suspend immigration from terror-prone regions ✔
  • Implement new extreme immigration vetting techniques ✔
  • Suspend the Syrian Refugee Program ✔

On the three items above, Trump has basically succeeded. After a year of legal battles, the Supreme Court permitted parts of Trump's so-called travel ban to go into effect. Other pieces, like deep cuts to the number of refugees admitted, are still being litigated. In the meantime, the number of refugees admitted to the United States has dropped by more than half.

  • Hire 5,000 more border patrol agents ✔
  • Triple the number of ICE agents ✔

To help it hire more agents, the Trump administration hired a consulting firm late last year. Still, for agencies already facing staff shortages and recruitment problems, it's far from certain that this will be an easy fix.

  • Build the border wall and eventually make Mexico pay for it

This hasn't come to pass, yet, but just a few items down on Bannon's list, he'd written, "Immediately terminate Obama's two illegal executive orders…" One of these orders was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last fall, Trump rescinded the shield it provided to young undocumented people who came to the United States as children. Now, a debate over whether (or how) to fund Trump's border wall in exchange for permanent DACA protections is among the most pressing issues in Congress.

National defense

  • Pay more for joint defense

Presumably, this is a reference to U.S. allies in mutual defense agreements with the United States. Trump has often argued that North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states need to commit a bigger chunk of their gross domestic product to national defense. Indeed, in June, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said U.S. allies plan to boost their defense spending.

  • Submit a plan to defeat ISIS
  • Syrian refugees
  • Move U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

The embassy move is one of Bannon's biggest wins. Two years ago, most members of the foreign policy establishment would have said that moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was unthinkable. But in December, Trump announced his plans to do so. Israel cheered the decision, but the rest of the world condemned the move.

Pledges on Obamacare

  • Repeal and replace Obamacare

After a year of trying, Congress was ultimately unable to "repeal" Obamacare outright. But Trump still managed to significantly weaken key parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Pledges on tax reform

  • Create a 10 percent repatriation tax
  • Lower the corporate tax to 15 percent
  • Eliminate the estate tax
  • Eliminate the carried interest loophole

The new GOP tax law will offer Trump the chance to take a victory lap on Tuesday, and there's a lot for the president, and Bannon, to crow about. All the way back in August, Bannon's whiteboard reflected the growing importance of a tax cuts bill, as evidenced by this photo from author Dinesh D'Souza's visit on Aug. 4. The photo was taken less than two weeks before Bannon was forced out amid a West Wing shakeup that began when Gen. John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff.

Wilkie tweet

"TAXES!!!" was written at the top of the board. The tax bill didn't close the carried interest loophole, as Bannon and Trump both wanted as a way to tax wealthier individuals, but most of their tax policy desires made it to law. Now, fewer wealthy families will have to pay the estate tax, and repatriation taxes have changed. All the way at the bottom, in all capital letters, is "CUT CORP TAX." While Bannon didn't get the corporate rate all the way down to 15 percent from 35 percent, it's now 21 percent.

The bill, passed in December, represents the signature legislative achievement for Trump – and, it's fair to say, for Bannon, too.

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