The White House is downplaying the importance of an internal policy shop that was once believed to be the brainchild and power center of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, saying the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) never even existed.
That appears to contradict media reports and the claims of at least one White House staffer who previously said that he was a member of the SIG.
The group — described in scores of media reports as an internal think tank launched by Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner — would be irrelevant now even if it had formed, a White House aide said.
Any need there may have been for the internal policy shop, which critics have described as an attempt by Bannon to promote his own agenda, is moot now that President Trump has tapped Kushner to run the Office of American Innovation (OAI), which is charged with government modernization, according to multiple White House officials.
"I've never known [SIG] to exist,” said a White House aide. “There was a lot of speculation about this early, but it was never officially rolled out and if anything, the OAI is an evolution and realization of some of these initial ideas.”
A second White House official said the SIG was “always informal” and has since “morphed to the new group,” the OAI.
A third White House official echoed that sentiment but said it’s possible that Bannon could still use the SIG for his own projects.
Members of the SIG once talked openly about their involvement and the group’s initiatives.
In early February, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president who is a member of the group, hit the airwaves to dispute reports that the SIG was an effort by Bannon to launch his own sphere of influence to rival the National Security Council, which at the time was helmed by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Gorka said that, as a member of SIG, he was working on a cyber-security task force with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. There were also projects aimed at tackling veterans affairs issues, U.S. manufacturing and government technology and infrastructure.
“We are charged with doing long-range initiatives that are really important to the president,” Gorka told CNN at the time.
“We have a Strategic Initiatives Group to do things with the private industry and bring in outside experts on key issues such as government IT, and that is very different from what the National Security Council is doing every day under the sterling leadership of General Flynn.”
Kushner will now spearhead government modernization efforts — and the various other projects in his ever-expanding portfolio — as the head of OAI.
When the initial reports surfaced about the SIG, critics believed that Bannon would use the platform to push his own long-term foreign policy goals separate from the NSC, which handles day-to-day national security developments.
Reports about the SIG’s creation came as, in a controversial move after the election, Trump elevated Bannon to the NSC principals committee, a spot typically reserved for military officials.
At the time of the first reports about the SIG’s formation in late January, critics worried that it was a further example of Bannon’s outsized influence inside the White House.
“The news that Trump’s political guru Stephen Bannon secured a place on the NSC’s Principals Committee was troubling enough, but the creation of a Bannon-led ‘Strategic Initiatives Group’ within the NSC further erodes its stature, independence, and influence,” former Obama advisers Derek Chollet and Julie Smith wrote at the time.
“This kind of ‘disruption’ may feel good right now and may send Washington’s Twitterverse into apoplectic frenzy — but Trump will soon learn that it will only bring dysfunction, and likely worse.”