“Life comes at you pretty fast”, according to Ferris Bueller, now undersecretary of state in the Trump administration, charged with planning the 2018 invasion of Canada. The same could be said of the administration itself, which is attacking on all fronts, even as it comes under remarkable resistance, at home and around the world. Trump’s executive order enforcing ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority Middle East countries hit a setback, with acting Attorney-General Sally Yates announcing that the Department of Justice would not defend it against legal challenges, because she was not convinced that the order is lawful.

Trump responded by sacking her just a few hours after her order was given. 

Yates was an Obama-era appointee, and her dismissal leaves the country without an attorney-general, as Trump’s pick, Jeff Sessions, faces a tough, and now tougher, confirmation fight in the Senate. 

Yates’s decision came amid conflict at airports, after half-a-dozen separate court rulings put a hold on the deportation of detainees, held because they were in transit to the US, with a lawful visa, when the executive order was made. Senators and congresspeople have been turning up to airports, demanding access to the detainees, but they have been refused by Customs and Border Protection staff. Lawyers have also been denied access. Some have been calling this a “constitutional crisis”, given the court rulings, but this is an exaggeration, since the rulings vary, and most do nothing more than put a ban on deportation. But tougher rulings will be on the way, making ambiguous provisions — such as releasing lists of detainees — explicit, and if they are defied then a showdown between the executive and judicial branch will be occurring (the Trump White House last week removed the phrase “judicial branch” from a website page listing the parts of the government).

[Rundle: liberal howls of outrage over Muslim ban play into Trump’s tiny hands]

The whole confrontation has the air of a staged crisis. The executive order was written and enacted without departmental oversight; chaos appears to have been invited. Amidst this, Trump has announced that he will be announcing his Supreme Court nominee in about 24 hours (8pm Tuesday in DC), while the Senate Democrats have announced they will filibuster the nomination to a “stolen” seat.

All of these moves confirm the worst fears of many — certainly of many Republicans — that they have been subject to a coup of sorts, enacted by a hard-right clique, led by former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon. Bannon, whose politics stretch beyond nativism to a white ethnonationalism, had previous careers as a naval officer and a Goldman Sachs trader, before becoming a producer of schlock documentaries for the right-wing market. His hold on Trump would appear to be substantial — especially as, now that he’s actually President, Trump seems a shambling and uncertain figure, much of his campaigning brio vanished.

[What is ‘habeas corpus’ and how can it be used to fight Trump’s Muslim ban?]

The most audacious move in this coup has been a restructuring of the National Security Council, the 20 or so person body that co-ordinates military and intelligence action. The NSC has an inner cabinet called the “principals committee”. Bannon has been added to the principals committee; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence have been removed from it (the intelligence director appears to have been reinstated almost immediately).

This is a bizarre situation, in which the two heads of the actual wings of national security — military and intelligence — no longer sit on the body charged with co-ordinating it. It’s a narrow political takeover of the body. What does it portend? Were this to be happening in a small and faraway country — downgrading of the judiciary, staged confrontation between wings of government, takeover of the security apparatuses — you’d have no trouble naming it as a coup d’etat. While we are unlikely to see that in the US, what is possible is that the Trump/Bannon administration is testing to see if flagrant disregard of judicial orders can be got away with, and how far they can push it. That would represent a coup of sorts — the best sort, in that the apparatus of government keeps on going. All happening in real time, now. Life comes at you pretty fast.

Postscript: My article yesterday might have given the impression that I think that the anti-executive order anti-Trump protests are a waste of time or a mistake. I don’t. It’s always right to protest in these circumstances. But it’s also worth being aware of how much approval such hated measures may be gaining elsewhere, and to think of additional strategies accordingly.

Peter Fray

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