There’s a new center of influence that’s quietly being built in the White House—and answers to two of President Donald J. Trump’s most influential, most controversial advisers. Counselor to the president Steve Bannon, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—arguably the top two aides to Trump—have set up a brand-new body called the Strategic Initiatives Group, an internal White House think tank that answers to them, as well as to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a senior administration official tells The Daily Beast.
The idea is not to make but to inform policy, helping guide a new president unfamiliar with the levers of power in Washington, D.C., and bridge the gap between the White House and industry, said the official, who spoke anonymously as a condition of describing White House deliberations.
Less-charitable observers say the SIG is intended to be an alternative lodestar of power and influence to just possibly supersede the advice coming out of the traditional centers of influence like the National Security Council and the wider agencies of government.
“This is how Bannon will watch Flynn,” said one person briefed on Bannon’s thinking, referring to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security adviser. “That’s why he’s made sure he’ll be in every NSC meeting,” the source said, referring to a controversial presidential memo Trump signed over the weekend, slightly tweaking the NSC to give Bannon a permanent seat at the table.
The source said Bannon has been frustrated with Flynn’s immediate focus on counterterrorism and the campaign against the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda to the detriment of wider issues like Brexit and the U.S. relationship with NATO.
“They’re all getting along just fine,” countered another close observer, chalking up tension between the teams to the standard bedding-in process as they all learn how to translate the no-holds-barred tempo of a campaign into the strictures of policymaking and the confines of the White House.
“Bannon, Kushner, and Flynn have been working closely together for two years,” added another source who was part of the Trump transition, again speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive policy discussions.
It may get crowded. Roughly 20 subject-matter experts will report to the SIG, said a person familiar with the matter, who had been briefed on Bannon’s goals for the body.
The senior administration official would not confirm that number, but said that 75-80 percent of the SIG’s manpower will be devoted to domestic issues like infrastructure, manufacturing, and cyber, and only a portion to foreign policy and national security.
There are roughly 20 politically appointed positions in the NSC, working alongside the newly re-established Homeland Security Council. (The NSC and HSC had been merged under Obama. The total staff of the two bodies has been capped at 150, with most staffers on temporary assignment from other agencies.)
The creation of the new body presents the possibility of three-way intramural wrestling for the president’s ear, between Bannon’s campaign-derived inner circle, Flynn’s fiercely loyal and mostly military NSC, and Vice President Mike Pence’s dyed-in-the-wool traditional GOP contingent.
Former Republican administration members—every one of them vying for a spot in the new administration—tell The Daily Beast that this alternative node of power is one possible reason for the weekend of disarray over the executive order temporarily barring refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In past administrations, such orders are discussed at the National Security Council’s Principals and Deputies Committee meetings, with the principals responsible for helping turn presidential orders into policy, and the deputies largely responsible for day-to-day crisis management.
“You can’t have a principals and deputies process and then have this other cabinet,” said a former Bush White House staffer. “Your White House staff will craft an [executive order] and then the agencies involved put in place implementing instructions. They loop back around and get final blessing by the White House. There’s a process. So if this SIG starts spewing policy with no way to implement it, you’re going to have more and more incidents like this,” the former official said.
A one-time member of the Obama administration goes a step—actually, several steps—further.
“To put it bluntly, this is truly crazy... Being a racist and misogynistic political adviser is one thing, but when that person controls domestic and national-security policy, it’s time to break glass because of emergency,” this former senior administration official said of Bannon. “I shudder to think what is next, once Bannon’s operation is fully staffed up.”
Longtime watchers and participants in the White House policymaking process from the Bush and Obama administrations say they’ve never heard of such a body, but that every president has certain people close to him or her that they run everything past, as former President Barack Obama had his David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.
The Strategic Initiatives Group is run by assistant to the president Christopher Liddell, and includes deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka, who has worked closely with Bannon while writing for Breitbart, the website he used to run.
Gorka is a controversial character himself, author of a book, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War, that argues the enemy is not, as the Obama administration saw it, “violent extremism,” but instead “the global jihadi movement, a modern totalitarian ideology rooted in the doctrines and martial history of Islam,” according to promotional material for the book. Gorka also faced a criminal charge for trying to take a gun through airport security, according to The Wall Street Journal. The White House could not be immediately reached for comment on the status of the case.
Bannon, Gorka, and Flynn share a like-minded view on the perils of Islamic terrorism, with Gorka giving his first interview in his new role on Tuesday to The Counter-Jihad Report, a blog run by controversial activist Leslie Burt.
“We are at war with global jihadism,” he said. “The fact is, we know that ISIS has declared in English, in its publications, in its videos, ‘We will use the refugee streams and mass migrations to insert our jihadis into your cultures,’” he said, explaining the weekend executive order as a necessary evil to protect Americans from ISIS infiltration.
Gorka lamented that federal authorities vetting one of the San Bernardino attackers were prevented from examining her social media, which might have tipped them off to her views on militancy.
“The federal authorities looking into her visa application couldn’t look at her public Facebook pages! That was deemed an intrusion of privacy. That by itself tells you we have to review the system,” he said.
In recent days, Trump administration officials have begun to discuss the possibility of building on its controversial immigration policies by forcing overseas visitors to open up their social media contacts before they’re allowed to enter the United States. If Gorka’s comments are any indication, that’s a plan that may have originated from this new Strategic Initiatives Group.