Trump’s courtiers bring chaotic and capricious style to White House

Two weeks in, the new administration resembles the court of a Renaissance king, with favorites infighting and Steve Bannon a Cardinal Richelieu in cargo pants

After 15 days of chaotic activity when he made heads spin around the world, President Donald Trump flew from Washington on Friday for the Florida mansion he calls the Winter White House, leaving behind a faintly traumatised US capital.

The exhausting first two weeks of the Trump presidency were bookended by an obsessive fixation with his inaugural crowd size and his use of a usually solemn speech at the national prayer breakfast to continue a feud with Arnold Schwarzenegger over ratings for The Apprentice.

The turbulent character of the early days has looked little different from the insurgent campaign that propelled him to the Oval Office as he has escalated tensions with Mexico, flouted diplomatic norms with Australia, picked fights with members of his own party and signed a flurry of executive orders that have already reshaped perceptions of America on the global stage.

At the center of it all has been a cast of characters jockeying for Trumps ear, creating a struggle for power that has manifested in a mix of chaos, leaks and uncertainty.

The Trump White House already bears more resemblance to the court of a Renaissance king than to most prior administrations as favorites come and go, counselors quarrel over favor and policy decisions are often made by whim or without consultation.

Steve Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs rightwing ideologue, now chief strategist and counselor to the president has been virtually ever present in the Oval Office since inauguration day, bringing to the center of American politics the apocalyptic worldview that turned his Breitbart website into a magnet for conservatives who thrilled to its sensationalist headlines and vented their anger in its comments section.

Steve Bannon (right) and the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, sit in on Donald Trumps testy phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A Cardinal Richelieu in cargo pants, he guides many key ideological decisions, giving Trumps early policy moves the look of a Breitbart daily news list. His loyal ally Stephen Miller, a 31-year-oldformer Capitol Hill staffer, has proved to be a lightning rod for criticism as Trumps ban on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries swiftly unravelled.

Miller, the policy director and speechwriter, was a staffer for Jeff Sessions the Alabama senator who was a relatively obscure immigration hawk until Trump and Bannon adopted him as the intellectual force at the back of their rightwing radicalism.

Sessions, who has been nominated to be Trumps attorney general, has a reactionary record on race, voting rights and immigration. He opposes same-sex marriage, and when Trump was caught on tape talking of grabbing women by the pussy, Sessions called it a stretch to characterize that as sexual assault.

Miller often served as Trumps warm-up man on the campaign trail, whipping up rallies as crowds chanted build the wall, and wrote Trumps speeches, attempting to mold the candidates stream of consciousness into complete sentences. Miller, with Bannon, was responsible for the American carnage inauguration speech which delivered Trumps dark vision of the country he was inheriting from Barack Obama.

On the other side is Reince Priebus, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, who could hardly be further removed in personality and style: mild where those around him are brash. As chief of staff, he should be the gatekeeper, but has struggled to assert himself. He has already been briefed against, including a memorable quote this week in the Washington Post, in which an anonymous official said of him: A little bit of under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity can breed some paranoia and backstabbing, adding: We have to get Reince to relax into the job and become more competent, because hes seeing shadows where there are no shadows.

Another who is visibly struggling is Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary who also came on board from the RNC. The daily face of the administration behind the lectern in the Brady press briefing room, his side parting, and pocket square precision have not been matched when he opens his mouth the typically hour-long sessions slide from attempts at false bonhomie to bitter personal attacks on individual journalists. Often shouting, this week he got into another Alice in Wonderland battle with the facts when he denied that Trumps immigration ban was really a ban, even though it was pointed out to him by reporters that, both he and the president himself had repeatedly used the word to describe one of the first signature policies of the new administration.

But the president himself called it a ban, a reporter said. So is he confused, or are you confused?

Im not confused. The words that are being used to describe it are derived from what the media is calling it. He has been very clear that it is extreme vetting.

Perhaps the most high-profile person from Trumps orbit, Kellyanne Conway, remains precisely that: a public face of the administration whose primary role appears to be hopscotching between the news networks almost as performance art.

The pollster had worked on the conservative right with the National Rifle Association, Newt Gingrich and Trumps own vice-president, Mike Pence, before bringing a steely professionalism to Trumps campaign. Her forceful, combative style with television inquisitors has been mostly impressive although her use of the phrase alternative facts to justify the Trump White House view of the world will probably hang around her neck for years to come.

All the while in the background lurk Trumps daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka walk to board Marine One at the White House on Thursday. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

As Trumps wife Melania has disappeared from public view, opting to remain in New York City where their 10-year-old son Barron attends school, Ivanka has served as a de facto first lady. She visited Dover air force base with her father on Wednesday to honor the first US service member killed under Trumps watch.

Kushner, who ran much of the Trump campaign, is one of his father-in-laws closest advisers, somehow elevated from Manhattan property deals to security clearance at the heart of government and a seat in the situation room.

So far he has been scarcely visible popping up to fill out the chorus line behind Trump in Oval Office photocalls as the president flourishes another executive order. Yet when a special forces raid in Yemen that led to the death of an American soldier was approved, Kushner sat with Bannon and Priebus while Trump made the decision.

The growing influence of Bannon has sounded alarm bells across Washington, even among Republicans. While most lawmakers from Trumps own party are reticent to insert their opinion into his staffing decisions, his decision to elevate the former Breitbart CEO to the National Security Council was met with concern for potentially insulating the president from experienced professionals in favor of his political allies.

It sounds problematic to me, said Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina who was a vocal critic of Trumps during the presidential campaign.

The National Security Council has been driven by professional folks. Ive never seen a situation where someone whos more from the political realm has a permanent seat. I dont think thats a good precedent.

James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma who sits on the Senate intelligence committee, said Bannons appointment was obviously a political position in the middle of a body that is usually distinctly non-political.

Obviously the president can choose how hes going to have the inner workings of his White House, he said. Itll be of interest to us just how it operates.

But the unveiling of the first major Bannon-driven policy, framed as a matter of urgent national security, was nothing short of tumultuous.

Last Friday, Trump ended the first week of his presidency by temporarily suspending all refugee admissions to the US and placing a moratorium on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, spiraling the US government into days of chaos that played out globally.

The executive order, shaped by Bannon and Miller, made good on Trumps campaign promise to crack down on Muslim immigration to the US. Chaos ensued at airports across the country, as officials acting upon the administrations order hadnt a clue how to implement it. Green card holders and interpreters who served alongside the US military in war-torn countries were swept up in its broad implications, and even young children were detained for hours.

It was soon revealed that neither John Kelly nor James Mattis, the new secretaries of homeland security and the defense department, had been fully briefed in advance. Nor had congressional leaders, with even the House speaker, Paul Ryan, telling reporters days later that he only learned of what was in the travel ban as the policy was being issued.

Stephen Miller: Hes really clicked with the president and understands how the president wants to articulate and frame things, one former Trump adviser said. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Miller, the architect of the order, was sent out to defend the ban on national television as a split-screen carried the widespread protests prompted by the dramatic shift in policy.

But despite Millers vigorous justification for what the White House dubbed as extreme vetting, the damage had been done. A number of Republicans, who might have otherwise supported Trumps action had they been involved in the process, sharply criticized the administrations handling of the ordeal and called for swift changes.

The botched rollout of the travel ban, according to a veteran of Capitol Hill and Republican campaigns, was emblematic of the challenges posed by the current power structure surrounding Trump.

There are not enough people of that ilk with the requisite experience to successfully operate the federal government, said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak more freely.

At the same time, the scope of the decisions that have to be made by the executive branch of the US government is so vast that you have to delegate power.

The tension surrounding the travel ban and its immediate aftermath also laid bare the fissures emerging between the various factions within the White House.

As Bannon and Miller called the shots behind the scenes, crafting a policy that played directly to Trumps base, Priebus and Spicer found themselves tasked with cleaning up the mess.

Miller did, however, face the heat when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough launched into a stinging rebuke on his morning talkshow regularly watched by Trump himself.

Youve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip thinking that you can just write executive orders and tell all of your cabinet agencies to go to hell, Scarborough said, before addressing Miller plainly.

By the time youre 35, maybe youll know how Washington and the White House really works.

If youre still around, he added. I hope youre not.

Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon share a lighter moment in the Oval Office. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Some close to Trump defended Miller, framing the outrage over the travel ban as driven by negative media coverage. Jason Miller, a former adviser to Trump, no relation to Stephen Miller, said the young aide had developed a unique understanding of Trump and his appeal on the campaign trail.

Steve really understands the economic populism movement both from his time working in conservative politics and being on the campaign trail, Jason Miller told the Guardian.

Hes really clicked with the president and understands how the president wants to articulate and frame things.

Jason Miller also contested reports of dysfunction inside the West Wing, deeming many of the leaks from within the administration as the work of government officials who never wished for Trump to get elected.

Are some people getting their knickers in a twist because of the changes? Yeah, he said. But these are the things the president said he was going to fight for and advocate.

The core team at Trumps side inside the Oval Office, Miller added, was unlikely to change.

Trumps campaign was nonetheless rocked by repeated shakeups. And the Trump White House is expected to be no different, where staffers of even the most even-keeled presidents are prone to burn out after only a few years.

To some observers, those surrounding Trump are ultimately powerless in the face of a president who obsessively drives his own image.

Referring to Trumps contentious call with the Australian prime minister, Lindsey Graham said the incident was a precise example of where regardless of those standing at his shoulder, the words of the president of the United States really matter.

Eventually hes the president. Hes the guy on the phone, Graham said.

And to the extent that politics is music, hes off key.

The inner circle

Steve Bannon: Trumps dishevelled chief strategist has brought his rightwing Breitbart website agenda to the seat of power and has been a virtual ever-present in the Oval Office.

Steve Miller: an ex-Capitol Hill staffer who has risen from role as Trumps election rally warm-up man to writing the American carnage inauguration speech and botching the chaotic roll-out of the immigration ban.

Reince Priebus: the chief of staff who came from within the Republican party machine to try to professionalise the freewheeling Trump operation. Already facing questions over his ability to control.

Jared Kushner: the son-in-law with security clearance. Property deals in Manhattan swapped for a role in the conversation when the US launched a raid in Yemen.

Ivanka Trump: daughter stepped in on first lady duties, joining her father aboard Marine One when he went to honour the return of a fallen US Navy Seal killed in the Yemen commando raid.

Kellyanne Conway: combative defender of the Trump administration on the airwaves certain to be forever remembered for proposing alternative facts.

Sean Spicer: clean-cut, well-scrubbed but not very polished. The White House spokesman rapidly defaults to rage in the briefing room. Period.

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