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Now Cometh the Bunker Mentality, Trump Style

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If it was not already clear, the combination of recent events surrounding the Trump presidency leaves little doubt this is an administration hunkering down.

The “Bunker Mentality” is nothing new in the White House. Almost every president of the modern era has been accused of it at various points. The late departed George HW Bush brought the phrase to the mind during the final part of his one term, after cutting a deal that broke his “read my lips” pledge. George W Bush’s final years dealt with the ongoing Iraq War, sudden economic crisis, and falling approval numbers, all coupled with an endless media assault. Barack Obama had his moments too; in the rollout of the ACA, when website crashes and confusion reigned, even a normally friendly press grew agitated at the lack of response. The starkest example would be Bill Clinton, who weathered the first impeachment and Senate trial for a president since reconstruction, and the various scandals that went along with it.

President Trump could be said to have been in such posture from day one.

Merriam-Webster defines bunker mentality as “a state of mind especially among members of a group that is characterized by chauvinistic defensiveness and self-righteous intolerance of criticism.” If you were to define the media strategy of the president using the same definition, it would pass scrutiny. The most ardent MAGA supporters count such characteristics as chief reasons to support him. The Resist! folks count the same as proof of his unfitness. Neither can ignore the president-or his statements, tweets, and actions-that stoke the fires of conflict between the two. That constant conflict has always been a feature, not a bug, of Trump since descending the escalator at Trump Tower and beginning his journey to the White House. It is the secret sauce that keeps engagement up and allows the president to drive the daily narrative with a tweet or comment. Now two years into his presidency, this feels different. With the announced departure of Chief of Staff John Kelly, long rumored to be on his way out, the administration seeks once again someone to helm the West Wing with the highest turnover rate of any administration ever.

Kelly himself contributed to that turnover, his initial appointment as Chief of Staff having been seen as an effort to bring discipline and order to the chaos surrounding the Oval Office. In short order, he restricted access to the president in the traditional manner of gatekeeper the CoS has always been, and was reported to have a hand in the removal of such Trump notables as Anthony Scaramucci, Sebastian Gorka, and Omarosa Manigault. The Mooch at least filled a traditional White House function, serving either 10 or 11 (He insists on the latter number) entertaining days as White House Communications Director. A memorable press conference where Scaramucci mostly talked about himself, coupled with a “crude verbal tirade” at White House staff was all the old Marine needed to show him the door.

Gorka and Omarosa both worked at the White House, but few officials seem to be able to actually describe their roles and what they did. The former was dismissed among a bizarre episode where he was first “on vacation” for two weeks, then leaked a resignation letter, then the White House issuing a “he doesn’t work here” message. The latter not only was dismissed but secretly recorded and released Kelly dismissing her, audio most found to be flattering to the professional demeanor of Kelly. During her media blitz to promote her book, Omarosa promised it was only the first of many recordings, which oddly enough never surfaced after attention to her plight waned. The Trump hangers-on were no match for the retired general, and briefly it looked as though Kelly, with the Presidents support, might bring a sense of order.

The one thing on which Kelly could not force discipline, exert influence, or change was the president himself. In recent months it was widely reported that Kelly and the president were on the outs personally. Kelly and his replacement at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, increasingly found themselves allied together but alone in the room when decisions where made. That was due in no small part to Kelly’s long-rumored dislike of the official roles of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The president’s son-in-law and daughter hold nebulous roles, but their influence is mighty. At the end of the day they are family to the president, and no matter of rank or protocol will ever trump that. With her ally and old boss gone in Kelly, Neilsen is likely next in line for the cabinet carousel, and the ripple effect will cascade from there..

 

The first such ripple was when Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, reportedly Trump’s preferred replacement for Kelly, announced Sunday by a very Trump-like Tweet that he would not be accepting the position. This was in sticking to his insistence that he would leave the White House at the end of the year, and is probably a smart move for the ambitious Ayers who is thought to be eyeing his own elected office in his home state of Georgia. The search will now proceed with such names as Rep. Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in the mix.

The Trump family is what makes this version of White House bunkering so different. With the incoming House of Representatives Democrat majority promising to investigate almost everything Trump related, not to mention the ever-looming Mueller probe, expect the ranks to continue to close to those most loyal to the president personally. No doubt the factions inside the White House complicate the role of whoever gets the nod, and the inevitability of the Trump-Kushner side being victorious whenever a decision is to be made means the next Chief of Staff will be less powerful than Kelly was at the time of his initial placement and subsequent house cleaning. Any one accepting the role has enough book on how the president conducts business to know that they are likely to be severely curtailed in power from previous CoS. This time loyalty will be at even more of a premium to a president who sees himself increasingly under attack. The bunker mentality being one of essential personnel only, President Trump will no doubt lean on those he trusts most, his family members, more as troubles mount.

Perhaps he should have checked with a military person like Kelly, or the also rumored-to-be-out-of-favor James Mattis on how bunkers work. Tactically, they do offer protection from the issues at hand, but strategically they also trap you into one place, with fighting a defensive battle against your enemy all you have left. The bunker mentality in a White House, once implemented, has historically meant a presidency that self-limits it’s effectiveness, as long as it perceives danger enough to bar the doors and windows of the executive from the slings and arrows of the outside world. With the House in the hands of the opposing party, it is doubtful any meaningful legislation is getting passed anytime soon. The investigations by that same body will be ongoing for as long as the president is in power opposite a split congress. The MAGA agenda, such as it is, will be wholly about defending the president for the foreseeable future.

Normally such a scenario would play to the president’s strengths. Having shown little interest in the legislative process other than demanding bills and deals from congressional leaders, President Trump can now play victim to an opposition party that is out to get him. Having built his political persona on fighting, there will be plenty of conflicts come January. The self-professed master deal maker having little to show for having both houses of congress, POTUS will now be free from such particulars as having to shepherd laws through congress. The president and his surrogates have spent the entirety of the special counsel’s investigation trying to flood the zone with doubt. Surely they will continue to do so, hoping if nothing else the public might just be numb to it all by the time 2020 rolls around.

And then there are the president’s opponents who have a habit of taking genuine items of concern and overplaying their hand with them. With many of the Resistence! folks having spent the last two years convinced that impeachment, if not imprisonment, was a matter of when, not if, there are high expectations for any coming investigations. Those folks might do well to remember that the reason for a bunker mentality from the White House isn’t just out of necessity, but because it can and has worked. Clinton survived being impeached and left office with relatively high approval. Bush, despite not fighting back against attacks to a fault (and how quaint that seems these days,) filled two full terms. But there is real cause for concern if you are in the Trump administration, not only in investigations but the 2020 election cycle that went into effect the moment the mid-terms concluded.

Whether President Trump makes it through re-election is not known, but how he handles the imminent siege will have a large role in determining the fate of his presidency. For a president that loves to fight, his supporters that love him for it, and his opponents who happily give him plenty of reasons both real and imagined to do so, the bunker mentality might be just the place President Trump wants to be. How it affects the country, however, remains to be seen.


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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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68 thoughts on “Now Cometh the Bunker Mentality, Trump Style

  1. If I were the incoming Democratic House, I would avoid ever saying the word Trump.

    I would spend half my time passing the bills that Trump hinted at during his campaign (infrastructure, a better ACA Replacement, shoring up Medicare, Medicaid and SS, Dreamers and immigration reform, etc.) and watch all those initiatives die up in the GOP Senate, and the other half investigating cabinet level officials for failing to do the things Trump hinted at.

    But I would never, ever, mention Trump by name. Let there be a Trump shaped hole in the air.

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  2. We are now at the phase where the special prosecutor is winding up, and Congress and the courts will be forced to make a decision one way or the other.

    It isn’t settled whether a sitting President can be indicted, so the courts will have to rule;
    Failing that, Congress will have to settle things through impeachment proceedings.

    This is going to be a test for the American people, of whether we actually take our duties as citizens seriously.

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  3. Kelly and his replacement at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, increasingly found themselves allied together but alone in the room when decisions where made. That was due in no small part to Kelly’s long-rumored dislike of the official roles of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump

    What’s confusing is that some of these decisions *are* aligned with Kelly’s and Nielsen’s ideological preferences – much more than Javanka’s reported ones. But the Trump admin can’t help but tripping over their own [feet] – and that’s likely because Stephen Miller still throws an outsized amount of weight around.

    It’s possibly a credit to Miller that he wasn’t mentioned in this post? *That’s* how you become a dark lord – act like one. Low profile, behind the scenes. Not like Gorka or Mooch, not even like Steve Bannon.

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    • You know I didn’t even think about Miller writing this. Possibly also the fact that I have written about what a cretin Miller is at length before so I just might have blocked it mentally. Also something to watch, now that Kelly is gone, Mattis loses his last ally so he will be increasingly isolated across the river at the Pentagon till whatever last straw either Himself or the president uses as an excuse to move on.

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      • Mattis has been more or less useless. He’s gotten the DoD more money, which is what the DoD wanted, but not what it needs. The DoD needs smarter spending, not more spending because there’s not enough money to grab long term (either politically or objectively)

        He let Da Troops be used as pawns in Trump’s border show of force. The increase in SOF optempo, in a force already stretched, on questionable missions has resulted in increased casualties with little to gain from it. He’s let a bunch of 3 and 4 stars go around and almost literally publically crowdsource an Afghanistan policy.

        So yeah, if Mattis goes, I’m pretty much ‘so what’ at this point. There’s more potential for ‘adults in the room’ to be provided by the 116th Congress than the DoD secretary.

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  4. It’s going to become a three-way stalemate.

    McConnell & Co. in the Senate have let their disdain for Trump be known from time to time, and they’ll have more opportunities to do so in the future. It’s clear enough that they consider him a useful idiot and are willing to disregard his grandstanding on things that don’t really matter to them, and slow-walk the things they disagree with him about, so long as he keeps the spotlight on himself so they can do the important work of making rich people richer.

    Pelosi & Co. have signaled that they aren’t going to actually impeach until and unless they are quite certain they can obtain a conviction in the Senate. If Michael Cohen took to the airwaves and said “After he was in office, President Trump personally offered me a pardon if I perjured myself to conceal the fact that the President took a bribe and was acting under pressure of blackmail from Putin,” at this point that might not be enough to get 23 Republican Senators to vote to convict upon articles of impeachment.

    And, as the OP illustrates, the White House is really a brand apart from the Republicans in the Senate, with its own… agenda? “Set of priorities,” let’s say, which are likely to basically all be defensive from here until the campaign.

    Which means we’re in for two years of frustration all around. Two years of MAGA types frustrated at both sides in Congress; two years of progressive types frustrated at Pelosi and the Democratic Establishment; two years of Federal policy basically locked in place where it is right now.

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    • And I’m still not sure that he wouldn’t win re-election, given the right Democratic opponent.

      And I’m pretty sure that the DNC and the double-secret Superdelegates would be unable to do anything but nominate the right Democratic opponent.

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    • I keep going back to this quote by Gingrich the day after the ’98 midterms, when impeaching Clinton was looming and the Democrats won back seats, a first for a party of the president in a midterm since the 30’s. “I mean I totally underestimated the degree to which people would just get sick of 24-hour-a-day talk television and talk radio and then the degree to which this whole scandal became just sort of disgusting by sheer repetition.” He was talking about the Clinton scandals, and the then-nearly 4 year old Starr investigation (8 if you roll the original Whitewater affair into it) that morphed in the Lewinsky mess. We still have two more years till 2020, and at least another year, at minimum, of Mueller/Trump/Impeachment. I really wonder if fatigue and numbness doesn’t set in to general public at some point on the constant drumbeat of it all.

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      • Like I said this is a test of the American people.
        It is a test of how seriously we talk all this talk about us being citizens.

        Or are we just helpless serfs, watching the aristocrats squabble over the throne?
        The detached, Politico style of horserace commentary assumes the posture of a palace courtier delivering gossip to a serf.

        Although I’m not opposed to an indictment, I prefer impeachment, since it is the precise Constitutional mechanism for this. The President committed crimes and misdemeanors, and what are the People and their elected representatives going to do about it?

        As Ms. Pelosi herself said- “We were sent here to do a job, not keep one.”

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        • I suspect if you caught her in a private and honest moment, Pelosi would prefer to not deal with impeachment at all. No matter what happens, at her age and stage of career you have to assume this is her last go round with the gavel and she’d probably like to end it with some policy achievements, or at least fighting for them, not the speaker at war with Trump constantly.

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          • she’d probably like to end it with some policy achievements

            I’m confused by this statement. The House can write and pass bills, and I’m sure they will, but do you really think any of them will make it through McConnell’s Senate?

            Re: impeachment, I think you’re projecting your own preferences onto Pelosi, since impeachment seems like a wildly open possibility, depending, as it should, on the continuing emergence of evidence indicating Trump committed crimes. If that trend continues there comes a point where Dems look weak by *not* impeaching the President.

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            • Yes, there are pathways for legislation, and a “I’ll sign anything” president awaiting them if the democrats pick their lanes carefully.

              It has been widely reported by multiple people that privately Pelosi doesn’t want anything to do with impeachment and has worked to keep her caucus from even discussing it as much as she can until they have something concrete to go off of. That isn’t projection. Pelosi is very savvy, and she was around the last time we did this. She knows what it would mean if they swing and miss on impeachment, and I doubt she will proceed with it till she is either forced too by her party or thinks it will result in impeachment. She certainly isn’t going to go after the president just on news reports and tweets.

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              • Which is different than saying “Pelosi would prefer to not deal with impeachment at all.” Instead, she would prefer not to deal with impeachment unless she has to or the evidence compels doing so. Ie., Pelosi’s calculus is political based on facts on the ground.

                Re: passing legislation which she can count as achievements, if recent history is a guide (and it is!) McConnell will.not.allow a Dem victory to pass thru his Senate. Pelosi can talk about *wanting* to pass legislation, but she knows, absolutely knows, it will be eviscerated by the GOP Senate.

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          • My beef is with the citizens who aren’t demanding impeachment, the whole, “hey, we’re just passive spectators to this reality show”.

            Because all the “savvy” analysis invokes The People being implacably opposed, that this is a wildly unpopular idea.

            So either the palace courtiers are wrong, or the people have surrendered themselves to living in a banana republic.

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      • One of the things to consider here is that Whitewater and Starr got boring for the same reason Benghazi got boring: there was no real new news to report in a frequency that kept people interested, unless they were already going to be consumed by the process out of sheer Clinton hatred.

        That’s… not looking to be the case here. Juicy new details and folks and indictments and sentencing memos all of which add more corners to be explored, not the same inside baseball real estate shenanigans.

        I see this as different in kind and degree.

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  5. and the double-secret Superdelegates would be unable to do anything but nominate the right Democratic opponent

    I’m sure you are not referring at Hillary because you are only just sayin’, but in 2016 Hillary won millions more votes, and more regular delegates, than Bernie, and it was Bernie and his supporters who were asking the superdelegates to throw the nomination his way. Again, just sayin’

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      • Here’s a thought on the pickle Dems are in right now: the national electorate dislikes a Dem candidate who advocates Medicare for All or free college or the rest of the social democratic kaboodle *less than* it dislikes a national Democratic Party institutionalist. And The Party will work tirelessly to nominate an insider.

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        • The main person that I thought might be able to straddle that particular Rhodian harbor was Elizabeth Warren.

          Well, until October.

          They’re going to need someone with a foot in each camp. I don’t know who can pull that off.

          Gillibrand is the only name that might do it and she’d need someone like Booker to balance as VP.

          And then you’d have yet another freaking pair of Northeastern Liberals for the Republicans to go up against and those are the only politicians that Republicans know how to beat reliably.

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          • Klobuchar2020!!

            More seriously, I think the problem the Dems have is the (potential) Gillibrandization of the national party: that insiders choose someone who’s an insider down to his or her political bones but *presents* to the base as a progressive, and therefore passes the insiders’ national-electorate smell test. It won’t work, IMO.

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      • Considering that in 2008 she also won more votes and more regular delegates than Barack Obama, I’m not sure this is as awesome of an argument as you think

        Are you sure?

        Wikipedia agrees she got (slightly) more votes -albeit barely a rounding error- but less regular delegates, given the vagaries of how delegates are calculated in the different states

        If I recall correctly, her argument was exactly that the superdelegates should give her the nomination because she had had more votes, even though she had less delegates

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