Steve Bannon Declares War On Susan Thornton

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses a news conference during a meeting of OSCE Foreign Ministers in Vienna, Austria, December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The former White House chief strategist alleges the newly-nominated State Department point person on East Asia bows to Beijing.

After Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama last week, Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s sometime consigliere and Breitbart News chief, is showing no signs of going quietly into that good night, despite the torrent of Schadenfreude evinced by his political opponents.

His latest effort—or act of political vandalism, for his opponents—will be to oppose the nomination of Susan Thornton, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian Affairs who was formally nominated on Tuesday.

“The Breitbart crowd intend to highly contest Susan Thornton's nomination, as it stands in complete opposition to everything POTUS laid out” in the National Security Strategy, a source close to Bannon emailed me Tuesday night.

As I reported on Monday, the president’s National Security Strategy unveiled this week was seen as something of a coup for Bannon and many other China hawks (including President Trump’s uber-hawkish National Trade Council director). The document “reads like a Peter Navarro ‘Powerpoint’!!!”

This is not the first time Bannon has declared war on Thornton, telling The American Prospect’s Bob Kuttner in August: “I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton out at State. . . . That’s a fight I fight every day here. . . . We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying.”

But her nomination to take on the position officially is important on two counts.

Can’t Hex the Rex?

First, isn’t Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supposed to be getting fired soon? What’s he doing appointing full time staff?

CIA Director Mike Pompeo has emerged as the leading candidate to succeed Tillerson, and the White House has been limp in denying it. Speculation raged last month that Tillerson would forced be out by January or even New Year’s.

But in recent weeks, Tillerson has quietly pressed on, begging the question: is Tillerson, at this point, just daring Trump to fire him? The president appears wary of making outright enemies of the former ExxonMobil chief, a man with the entire Fortune 500 in his rolodex. The president needs large corporations to be helpful as he rolls out his tax plan, and martyring someone like Tillerson, less than a year into the job at Foggy Bottom, could even cut down on his family’s opportunities post-presidency.

I posed that question to a source close to Bannon, along with a text message that read “Has the president gotten cold feet or changed his mind on getting rid of him?” This person replied, incredulous: “I do—Thornton @ State!!!!!!”

Bannon and the president, of course, don’t always see eye to eye.

Bannon wanted a more nationalist-populist tax reform package—including higher rates for top earners, and cuts that more specifically helped Trump’s core supporters. As Kuttner put it in an email to me Wednesday: “Bannon is often speaking for just Bannon, not for Trump.”

But additionally, Tillerson’s potential staying power hurts Bannon’s ability to slide in other allies in the administration. Bannon sees Pompeo as a “full Jacksonian,” in his mold. And Bannon is also very fond of Sen. Tom Cotton (with a small caveat).

Cotton was slated to take over for Pompeo at Langley, in the original Tillerson ouster plan. “Cotton the best,” a source close to Bannon texts. “Although, still trying to wring out the neo-con in him.” Pompeo and Cotton are areas of overlap for ostensible enemies, Bannon and prominent neocons like William Kristol. Kristol’s history with Cotton is extensive, and The Weekly Standard founder told me last month Pompeo should consider running for president.

With regards to the State Department, Pompeo has been quietly recruiting candidates to join him, making this situation with Tillerson doubly strange.

One source in this orbit gives me a name; Juan Zarate, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is primed to come aboard as Pompeo’s deputy (should Tillerson leave). FDD has become something of the go-to think tank for the administration, especially on Iran. “There’s no secret here: I’m not an unbiased journalist. I’m a fan of this director. I worked on his transition,” said Zarate, at an October FDD event with Pompeo. “Frankly, I love the man.” Zarate was the inaugural assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes and later deputy national security advisor, during the George W. Bush administration.

Thornton and Miles Kwok

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