New Delhi: The “high point” of US President Donald Trump’s presidency was his meltdown over increasing American troops in Afghanistan at a meeting where he threatened to fire all his generals, former White House senior counsellor Stephen Bannon told the author of a new book on the first year of the administration.
Already a bestseller, journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – based on his access to the Trump campaign and the White House – has created unusual excitement in Washington. Trump issued a statement accusing Bannon of “losing his mind” after he left the White House, while his lawyers attempted to block the publication, which led the publisher to advance the release date.
The 336-page book has no mention about the two largest countries in South Asia, India or Pakistan. There is a two-line exchange about H1B visas between Trump and Rupert Murdoch, but the context was to illustrate the media baron’s relationship with the US president, and their differing perception of Silicon Valley
The only country in the South Asian region which gets substantial treatment is, not surprisingly, Afghanistan. This was also one issue where Bannon, who was earlier executive chair of the right-wing website, Breitbart News, and Trump, were on the same side – and therefore, apparently showed Trump in the best light.
On July 19 last year, the White House schedule listed a briefing for Trump from the National Security Council in the Situation Room at 10 a.m. “To Bannon, the meeting was a high point of the Trump presidency to date,” wrote Wolff.
The reason for Bannon’s exultation was Trump exploding in anger and threatening to fire all US generals after they couldn’t give him any alternative to the troop increase proposal.
The generals were punting and waffling and desperately trying to save face – they were, according to Bannon, talking pure “gobbledygook” in the situation room. “Trump was standing up to them,” said a happy Bannon. “Hammering them. He left a bowel movement in the middle of their Afghan plans. Again and again, he came back to the same point: we’re stuck and losing and nobody here has a plan to do much better than that.”
Before this meeting, the US military had expected to give a green signal to their proposal after weeks of negotiation – and therefore, the apparent meltdown came out of the blue.
According to Wolff, Trump “angrily railed” for two hours “against the mess he had been handed in Afghanistan”.
He threatened to fire almost every general in the chain of command. He couldn’t fathom, he said, how it had taken so many months of study to come up with this nothing-much-different plan. He disparaged the advice that came from generals and praised the advice from enlisted men.
Mines for troops
The incident was written by Wolff as narrated by Bannon – however, versions of the July 19 meeting were reported about two weeks later in early August. NBC News had also reported that Trump had used the ’21 Club’ analogy – also mentioned in the book – to illustrate that high-level professionals usually give the more banal advice.
This is just like the 21 Club, he said, suddenly confusing everyone with this reference to a New York restaurant, one of his favorites. In the 1980s, 21 closed for a year and hired a large number of consultants to analyze how to make the restaurant more profitable. In the end, their advice was: Get a bigger kitchen. Exactly what any waiter would have said, Trump shouted.
Incidentally, the New York Post contacted the chief executive of 21 Club during the period of renovation, who claimed that there had been “no consultant and the renovation in 1987 took less than six months”.
Trump’s mercenary demand for Afghan mineral resources in return for keeping troops in the country was also made at this July 19 meeting to his NSC team.
If we have to be in Afghanistan, he demanded, why can’t we make money off it? China, he complained, has mining rights, but not the United States. (He was referring to a 10-year-old U.S.-backed deal.)
Six days later, The New York Times carried a report that Trump had “latched” on to Afghanistan’s mineral resources as a reason to stay in Afghanistan, with the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani even encouraging him.
It reported that policy meetings on the new South Asia strategy were “increasingly heated”, with Trump and Bannon on one side against National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. However, the Times report did not mention that Trump had talked about mining rights at the July 19 meeting. The reports in August by NBC and Reuters did reveal that Trump had spelt out this condition in the NSC meeting.
Wolff also writes about the swirling tensions in White House in the run-up to the July 19 meeting – with Bannon working to get McMaster ousted, which “both head off the strongest voice for more troops and also avenge Bannon’s ouster by McMaster’s hand from the NSC”.
Bannon was apparently confident that McMaster could be shunted off to Afghanistan as the top military commander, after he was made a four-star general.
Meanwhile, Bannon’s nemesis in White House, Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and husband, Jared Kushner tried to bring in a more moderate response.
Deputy national security advisor Dina Powell suggested that the “moderate, best-case, easiest-to-sell course” was to send around “send four, five, six, or (tops) seven thousand troops”.
Powell even helped design a PowerPoint deck that McMaster began using with the president: pictures of Kabul in the 1970s when it still looked something like a modern city. It could be like this again, the president was told, if we are resolute.
Bannon had also master-minded a mediacampaignagainst McMaster, which had led to a counter campaign by Kushner and Powell. According to Vox, between July 21 and Aug 22, Breitbart News carried 60 mostly negative articles on McMaster.
It was the establishment and never-Trumpers against the America-first Trumpkins. In many respects, Bannon was outgunned and outnumbered, yet he still thought he had it nailed. And when he won, not only would another grievously drafted chapter in the war in Afghanistan be avoided, but ‘Jarvanka’, and Powell, their factotum, would be further consigned to irrelevance and powerlessness.
Withdrawal was apparently taken off the story as it “still left Donald Trump with having lost a war, an insupportable position for the president”.
The second option, which was propped up by Bannon, was opposed by the CIA, wrote Wolff.
The agency had spent 16 years successfully avoiding Afghanistan, and everyone knew that careers were not advanced in Afghanistan, they died in Afghanistan. So please keep us out of it.
This left the only the third option, which was the reason for the confidence among the military brass that Trump would sign off on it.
But on July 19, at a meeting of the national security team in the situation room at the White House, Trump “lost it”.
Retelling a known story?
It took another month to make Trump to agree on the troop increase, which was unveiled as the Afghanistan and South Asia strategy on August 21 – with a side of tough love for Pakistan. Three days earlier, Bannon had officially left the White House. Around 3800 US troops were sent to Afghanistan, with the total number exceeding 15,000.
The July 19 meeting – and the in-fighting in the White House over the troop surge – gives credence to some of the complaints from mainstream US reporters that much of the information in Wolff’s book was already in the public domain.
(To clarify: what's infuriating is the narrative that Wolff saw something the rest of the white house press missed. It's the opposite.) https://t.co/Glf9m2bQr7
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 5, 2018
A Columbia Journalism Review analysis also notes that the “truth that Wolff arrives at in Fire and Fury is pretty much the same one that a regular reader of political reporting for the past year would have gleaned from the work of journalists at mainstream papers”.
At the same time, Wolff painted a “thoroughly readable portrait” of the Trump administration. “He appears to have played a monster hand of access journalism poker, bluffing his way into the good graces of the administration by attacking mainstream reporters for critical reporting in the early months of the Trump presidency only to rake in the pot by producing a devastating account of those who considered him a sympathetic observer,” write CJR’s Nausicaa Renner and Pete Vernon.