Stealth caucus gains ground in Trump White House

In President TrumpDonald John TrumpPentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia: reports Dozens of British lawmakers stand behind 'Squad' amid Trump attacks #IStandWithIlhan trends after crowd at Trump rally chants 'Send her back' MORE’s White House, it’s better to not be seen or heard — at least in public.

A cadre of Trump’s top aides from New York City — economic adviser Gary Cohn, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Trump family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — appear to be gaining influence even as they’ve kept low profiles in the media.

Meanwhile, Trump’s longtime loyalists and some of the best known names in the media — chief strategist Stephen Bannon, senior adviser Stephen Miller, counselor Kellyanne Conway and chief of staff Reince Priebus — have been sidelined, chastised or seen their policy influence diminish as they became fixtures in the press.

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Trump’s allies say there are two rules the president has for those who work for him. Unless you’re a paid spokesperson, you should only engage with the press to promote Trump’s agenda. And don’t ever forget that Trump is the main attraction.

“The only media strategy that exists is one aimed at making the president look better,” said one former transition official. “You don’t ever want to become bigger than the star.”

Conservatives are panicked that Cohn, Powell, Kushner and Ivanka Trump — derided by their GOP critics as “the Democrats” or “the globalists” in the White House — are gaining power amid growing speculation that Bannon’s job, and subsequently those of his allies, like Priebus, are in jeopardy.

The members of the rising Cohn-Kushner wing rarely give public interviews and have so far avoided creating the kind of significant controversy that Bannon and his allies regularly run into.

Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, has kept his public appearances geared toward economic policy discussions on lower-profile networks, like Fox Business or Bloomberg TV.

Powell has kept a similarly low profile since joining the White House.

Kushner, meanwhile, continues to eschew the spotlight in his role as Trump’s senior adviser, as he did during the campaign. Wife Ivanka Trump, who recently accepted an unpaid position as assistant to the president, largely avoids politics in public appearances in controlled environments.

Republicans say the New York gang — perhaps having learned from watching Trump use his hometown papers to cut down fast-rising business partners and allies — have been shrewd to lay low and play the behind-the-scenes game.

“Some of these folks are learning first hand about how Trump operated in the private sector,” said one GOP operative with close ties to the White House. “He wouldn’t hesitate to take not-so-subtle shots at those he sees as rising too fast around him, which is something you’d know if you’ve been reading the New York tabloids for the last 20 or 25 years.”

Bannon does not do many public-facing interviews. But his allies say a February cover story in Time magazine damaged his standing with Trump. 

Trump takes pride in his multiple appearances on Time's cover, so Bannon’s appearance on the cover under the headline “The Great Manipulator” was sure to get Trump’s attention.

“That was the kiss of death,” said Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer. 

Bannon also has a reputation for talking to reporters on background. Together with his allies, those connections to the media have helped him build mystique and gravity for his White House role. 

But all that press appears to have spun out of control.

The idea that Bannon was acting as a shadow president became engrained in public consciousness with the help of "Saturday Night Live," which has depicted the president as a clueless buffoon being manipulated by Bannon, who’s portrayed in a Grim Reaper costume.

Trump finally addressed Bannon’s influence Tuesday with a sharp rebuke of his chief strategist in the New York Post.

“He was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary [Clinton].”

Bannon’s raised profile marked a change from election season, when he was able to maintain a low profile as Trump’s campaign chairman.

Bannon’s allies say he is not to blame for becoming a media fixation, noting that he rarely gives interviews and shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame for editorial decisions at Breitbart News, which he once ran.

Two allies blamed Bannon’s West Wing foes Cohn and Kushner for planting stories meant to play up his influence, knowing that the image-conscious Trump would resent Bannon for it.

“Steve is not a guy who plants stories in the press to toot his own horn,” one Bannon ally said.

Conway, meanwhile, has almost disappeared from television after emerging as one of Trump’s leading representatives earlier this year. 

Early in the Trump administration, Conway endured several tough interviews that overtook the news cycle and created controversy for the White House. Conway’s memorable flubs included her claim that White House spokesman Sean Spicer was using “alternative facts” in briefings and her citation of the nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre.”

And, like Bannon, Conway has received her own high-profile magazine treatment, appearing on the cover of New York Magazine above a headline describing her as “the true first lady of Trump’s America.”

Miller, Trump’s policy adviser, had to defend the controversial executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries in multiple TV interviews after it became a public relations disaster for the administration.

Conservatives are now fearful that Cohn — a former Democrat — and his allies in the White House are behind Trump’s rapid move away from the national populism of Bannon and Miller on issues like NATO, intervention in the Middle East, Chinese trade policy and the Export-Import Bank.

Still, there is plenty of time for the power dynamics to shift in a White House that seems in perpetual flux.

“If Cohn and Powell get a magazine cover declaring that they’re the deciders and the forces behind Trump, they’ll be in just as much trouble,” O’Brien said. “You absolutely do not want to be seen as the occupier or the force behind the throne.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s top advisers are waging a secondary media battle behind the scenes.

Senior administration officials routinely talk in private to reporters, creating more of the palace intrigue stories that have bedeviled the White House and frustrated Trump.

"I have noticed if you’re someone who says they never talk to the media, you’re really free to talk to the media as much as you want, because no one would suspect you’re talking to the media, which is fascinating,” Conway said Wednesday at a forum in Washington.

The feud between Bannon and Cohn or Kushner played out through leaks and counter-leaks in the press last week before Trump reportedly brokered a cease-fire and rebuked Bannon publicly.

“Reporters were the first to start telling me 3 weeks ago that Bannon was starting to regularly trash Jared to anyone who would listen,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a frequent critic of Bannon and Miller, tweeted Wednesday. “So I did my job, talked to a lot of people on the inside and got the complete story early. Today's headlines suggest those multiple sources were right.”

Bannon’s allies have fired back, pointing fingers at Powell, the deputy national security adviser, as the source of leaks meant to diminish Bannon. Via Twitter, Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam asked Scarborough how often he and co-host Mika Brzezinski exchange text messages with Powell.  

“The reality is Powell is their guiding operative,” Kassam tweeted.

That behind-the-scenes drama has been a feature of the White House from the start and has largely shaped the idea of competing spheres of influence around Trump — the populists, led by Bannon; the establishment and party loyalists, led by Priebus; and the “New York Democrats,” led by Cohn and Kushner.

Those close to the White House say the feuding is beginning to weigh on the president.
 
“Donald Trump does not like to see infighting and more importantly does not like to see his aides thrown under the bus by other staffers,” said one former administration adviser. “It has the effect of backfiring. If you’re trying to sideline rising figures in the White House with leaks to the press, you might find it creates the opposite effect.”