The Memo: Nationalists gain upper hand in Trump’s White House

The Memo: Nationalists gain upper hand in Trump’s White House
© Greg Nash

The America Firsters are on the rise.

That’s the lesson some people in President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE’s world are drawing from recent personnel moves.

In this telling, the populists and nationalists who powered Trump’s election are regaining a foothold as more establishment-friendly figures are marginalized. 


But even as those developments please some of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers, they unnerve critics who fear what the president might do in the absence of more measured advice.


High-profile names have exited in recent months, including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonBiden's State Department picks are a diplomatic slam dunk President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts MORE.

And now, two less-famous names are causing a major stir among those within Trump’s orbit.

It emerged late last week that McMaster’s replacement, John Bolton, would bring in Mira Ricardel as his deputy. 

Separately, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was ousted from the National Security Council staff by McMaster in August, has returned to the administration, this time at the Department of Justice.

Two sources told The Hill that Ricardel had clashed with Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisProgressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper Talk grows of Trump firings at Pentagon, CIA MORE during her tenure in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. 

“Ricardel was controversial for one reason — she was insistent on putting Trump people into the Pentagon,” said one Republican operative with knowledge of these dynamics.

Cohen-Watnick was a player in the controversy over Trump’s evidence-free allegation that his predecessor, President Obama, had wiretapped him at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. 

Cohen-Watnick was named by The New York Times as one of the officials who had worked with Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (R-Calif.) to try to buttress the allegation.

But to some Trump loyalists, his return, announced earlier this month, is cause for celebration.

“Ezra coming back was a sign that people who are true believers in ‘America First’ are now welcome once again in the administration,” said one former White House official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “It is a signal that there is a home for Trump supporters within the Trump administration.”

Those remarks are a sign of the degree to which internal tensions linger around the White House. 

Some of the friction dates back to the campaign, when Trump ran as an insurgent candidate within the GOP and was often mocked by the party’s elite.

Early Trump backers complain that there are plenty of onetime Trump-haters who now feign enthusiasm for career reasons.

“There are lots of lobbyists who I run into every day who had nothing but outrageous things to say — and they are now meeting in their executive branch office buildings touting their close connections to the president,” said Barry Bennett, a senior adviser on the 2016 campaign.

An additional source of tension came once Trump took office. 

In a White House that was riven with factionalism, especially in its early months, the influence of a more moderate faction was especially contentious. 

To their supporters, these more center-right figures — often associated with the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Trump’s first chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusFauci says he has not talked to Biden: He doesn't want to 'put me in a compromised position' Trump adviser says president will give Biden 'a little bit more room to explain himself' at next debate Priebus expecting Trump win in election that will go 'down to the wire' MORE — were acting to keep an inexperienced administration and unpredictable president within the lines of conventional conservative orthodoxy.

To their detractors, they risked extinguishing the Trump flame by failing to appreciate the unconventional qualities that got him elected. 

In some cases, their loyalty was also questioned.

“On the record — with bold, underline and italics — I believe there was a cadre of anti-Trump Republicans who made it their mission to get into the White House in order to subvert his agenda,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime friend of the president.

But Caputo saw the factional battle in less grandiose ideological terms than some.

“Yes, part of it is because the president is ‘America First’ and so many of the RNC people put in by Reince Priebus were globalists. But the president doesn’t see things like that,” Caputo said. “If you believe the president can be pigeonholed according to ideology, you don’t know Donald Trump.”

Other Trump allies argued that, contrary to some media narratives, the president does not like to be surrounded by ideological uniformity. 

Several sources noted, independent of each other, that Bolton is much more hawkish in his instincts on foreign policy than Trump. Larry Kudlow, the new director of the National Economic Council, is much more supportive of free trade.

“This isn’t about everyone just agreeing with the president on every issue,” said the former White House official. “It’s about finding people willing to follow through on the president’s agenda versus people who see themselves as trying to … ‘save the country from the president’s agenda.’ ”

Still, some Trump administration veterans have little sympathy with the suggestion that personnel changes — at any level — have any major effect on the president.

“I’m not saying it’s irrelevant, but it’s too easy to draw the wrong, facile conclusion,” said Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaConservatives spread false claim Biden invented 'office' of the president-elect Thousands rally in DC to protest election results, show support for Trump Sunday shows preview: Trump, lawmakers weigh in on COVID-19, masks and school reopenings amid virus surge MORE, a contributor to The Hill and former strategist and deputy assistant to the president, citing the likely confirmation of Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Israeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report MORE as secretary of State. 

“Does it change what [Trump] is doing? When Pompeo is approved and takes over from Tillerson, are you going to see massive change? No, you aren’t. It’s going to be the same president.”

Others see it differently. The Republican operative contended that the Cohen-Watnick and Ricardel hires showed “that you are going to have a reboot of the America Firsters in this second year of the administration.”

Bennett, the former 2016 campaign adviser, argued that there had finally been a realization that Trump could not easily be shifted from his preferred course.

“At this point, no rational, sane person thinks that they are going to convince Donald Trump to do something other than what he had promised to do. That’s a good thing,” he said. “And I think those who thought that somehow he didn’t mean what he said are headed for the exits — and that’s a good thing, too.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.