After departing his post as White House chief strategist last week, Steve Bannon told the Weekly Standard that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” The clear suggestion is that Mr. Trump’s chance at success had followed Mr. Bannon out the door. Trying to recast his ouster as a personal choice, Mr. Bannon bragged “I can fight better on the outside.” He promised “to crush the opposition,” saying “I built a f— machine at Breitbart.” The former adviser also told a Bloomberg reporter he would be “going to war for Trump against his opponents—on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”
Success might not come so easily. Just as before, one of Mr. Bannon’s principal aims will be replacing the GOP congressional leadership by supporting populist primary challengers. But last year his attempted political hit on House Speaker Paul Ryan —for which he recruited a primary challenger and pummeled the speaker daily through Breitbart news stories—ended with Mr. Ryan winning with 84% of the primary vote. Some “f— machine.”
Mr. Bannon also promised that Breitbart would attack Mr. Trump when he deviates from what Mr. Bannon believes should be the president’s agenda. The website proceeded to do just that after the president’s speech Monday on Afghanistan. A “high-level” Breitbart staffer went so far as to tell Vanity Fair that if Trump deviates from the positions he ran on, Breitbart would help “rally votes for impeachment.”
Mr. Bannon is not the first staffer to believe the White House agenda must mirror his own. But no other aide in memory has had such grandiose or destructive plans for trying to remain in charge after being shown the door.
Mr. Trump is also engaged in the threat-fest against his own party. At an Arizona rally on Tuesday, he excoriated Senate Republicans for failing to replace ObamaCare—rather than expressing confidence that a health-reform bill would pass eventually. The president also dismissed Sen. Jeff Flake —a critic of Mr. Trump who faces re-election in 2018—by saying “no one knows who the hell he is.” Most pointedly, he failed to wish Sen. John McCain a speedy recovery from brain cancer. All superb ways to encourage support from a thin GOP Senate majority.
Memo to the White House: The worst way to strengthen a president is publicly to blame his difficulties on allies. The least effective way to pass an agenda is to threaten the president’s party in Congress.
Team Trump must grasp the basics of governing. A better approach would be systematically to make the case that the president’s proposals are good for the country. To do this, the White House must display interest and fluency in its policies, and avoid surprising Congressional allies. When Republicans go out on a limb to defend the president and he cuts it off with an unexpected tweet or unnecessary controversy, they become hesitant to drive the White House agenda.
Public rollouts of Mr. Trump’s policies have been hobbled in this White House by the absence of a communications director. Executing these policies has also been hampered by internal disorder, which the new chief of staff, John Kelly, is now shaping up.
Demanding that Republicans back a bill simply because it is the president’s is also not enough. Calls for party unity are not a magic elixir—members have their own convictions and constituencies. Take Vice President Mike Pence during his tenure as an Indiana congressman. He voted “no” on President George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D reform, which passed by a single vote, and also voted against the broadly supported No Child Left Behind Act. Yet Mr. Pence was a strong supporter of the rest of Mr. Bush’s agenda on terrorism, tax cuts, social issues and trade. That administration understood that it had to earn support for the president’s agenda rather than expect it as a matter of course, and that today’s “no” vote may be tomorrow’s “yes” on another critical issue.
The departure last week of the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison provides an opportunity to strengthen Mr. Trump’s outreach. A new director could beef up appeals to evangelicals and other outside groups—to rally support for the White House agenda—and to conservative intellectuals to persuade them of its merits.
The White House and the country are better off with Mr. Bannon back at the website he described last year as “the platform for the alt-right.” He will do less damage there than in the West Wing. Still, week after week, the nation finds itself in the same divided and chaotic place. If President Trump hopes to advance his agenda, he must start providing focus, discipline and persuasion. He’s shown little ability to do this thus far, and so his presidency is stumbling badly.