Stephen Bannon’s job looks in peril after Trump undercuts him
President’s reference to strategist’s role in interviews appears to show influence on wane
Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s grenade-lobbing pugilist of a chief strategist, has a fitting nickname for his West Wing office: “The war room.” But more and more, war is being waged on Bannon himself. And it is unclear how much longer he can survive in his job.
His isolation inside the White House, after weeks of battle with senior aides aligned with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, appeared to grow even starker this week after Trump undercut Bannon in two interviews and played down his role in the Trump presidential campaign.
“I am my own strategist,” Trump told the New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin in an interview on Tuesday, a pointed reference to what aides described as his growing irritation that Bannon’s allies are calling him the mastermind behind Trump’s victory and the torch bearer for the nationalist, conservative brand of populism that has defined his presidency.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump made clear Bannon’s subordinate role, calling him “a guy who works for me”. Amid the clashing egos, news media leaks and insinuations of disloyalty, the president was once again faced with having to defuse a personnel crisis that was, in part, the result of assembling a band of Washington outsiders to run his administration.
And this time the crisis erupted, perhaps predictably, around the senior aide who most embodies that renegade, anti-establishment ethos – Bannon, the self-proclaimed deconstructor of the “administrative state” and field general in the war against the “opposition party” media.
Bannon’s reversal of fortunes is also a reflection of a White House with an unconventional management structure, opaque lines of responsibility and rafts of aides left to implement complex and contested campaign promises: tighten immigration, roll back regulations, repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) and take a more protectionist approach to trade.
Bannon, who has those campaign promises scrawled on white boards in his office, has described himself as being responsible for their implementation. But the execution has been botched. Courts have blocked the president’s immigration ban. The repeal effort failed after the White House and congressional leaders could not win enough support in their own party.
And that is leaving some conservatives, who have never fully trusted the president’s convictions, afraid that Bannon’s possible removal could be a precursor to shelving the most complicated and contentious priorities.
One person with first-hand knowledge of internal White House dynamics, who asked not to be identified given how tense the situation had become, insisted that no immediate changes were likely. Trump is notoriously fickle in his decision-making process, and he dislikes confrontation. But by openly criticising Bannon, Trump has created an environment that makes it hard for the swaggering and self-assured chief strategist to remain in place without appearing undermined.
Listen to World View
Allies of Trump say that he has become increasingly impatient with the infighting – and the overwhelming attention it is receiving. In a lengthy conversation with Bannon this week, the president repeated his admonition that the chief strategist and his adversaries needed to “knock off” their back-and-forth sniping.
Trump insisted as much in the Post interview, saying, “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.” His comments in private, say people who have spoken with him, have been more pointed. Bannon, he has told one person, is “not a team player”.
Bannon appears to now recognise the danger and has kept a low profile inside the White House while Kushner has been away with his family. He has told friends and associates, using his trademark military vernacular, that he understands he cannot throw bombs every day and needs to pick his battles carefully.
Bannon told several associates over the weekend that he believed that things had cooled off with Kushner. But the president’s comments suggest the truce is uneasy and may not last. Bannon’s allies have already begun discussing a post-White House future for him.
On Friday, Bannon’s main political patron, Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of Robert Mercer, a major Trump donor, holed up in her office at Cambridge Analytica in New York, discussing possibilities for Bannon should he leave, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Bannon served on the data-mining firm’s board until last summer.
And while the president has grown weary of directives from donors like the Mercers, he is mindful that they are among his major financial backers, and he is said to be mindful of the need to keep it that way.
The split between the hard-nosed Bannon and the far more reserved and soft-spoken Kushner reflects much more than a personality clash between two senior aides. For starters, Kushner is not the only one who has told the president he has misgivings about Bannon’s style. The president’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and a long-time Democrat, has also aligned himself against Bannon, whose strongest ally in the White House is Reince Priebus, the chief of staff and former Republican Party chairman.
Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Cohn and Dina Powell, also a former Goldman Sachs executive, who is now a deputy national security adviser, have come to represent to many on the right a slow and dangerous creep of liberalism into the administration. “No one elected the president so Gary Cohn could go to Washington,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, “not even Gary Cohn”.
Steve Deace, a conservative commentator from Iowa who has always been sceptical about Trump’s conservative core, said that cutting Bannon loose would send the wrong signal to conservatives – and could be dangerous given the delight Bannon takes in disruption.
“I think firing Bannon would be a huge mistake for Trump,” Deace said. “Hell hath no fury like a Bannon scorned.”
But Trump places his trust first and foremost in his family, in his private company and now in his White House. Opening the door to Bannon’s dismissal is an unusual move for someone who, despite the reality-television-boardroom-tyrant caricature, normally reserves his scolding of subordinates for private.
To Trump, there is only one person on his team worthy of attention – himself. He has long recoiled at descriptions of this or that adviser as the brains behind his operation. And he was said to be especially bothered by Bannon’s appearance in February on the cover of Time magazine.
Because of all the setbacks his administration has suffered even before it reaches its symbolic 100-day mark, Trump is rediscovering the need to return to his deal-making roots to navigate the presidency instead of responding to the drain-the-swamp instincts that Bannon feeds, according to people who have spoken with the president and did not want to violate his confidence.
For Bannon, the transition from mutineer outsider to chief strategist to the president has been fraught with tension. He only became involved in politics around the start of the Obama administration, when the Tea Party emerged as a force. And he was running the hard-right Breitbart News website until he joined Trump’s campaign 2 ½ months before election day.
The possibility of a Breitbart unleashed against the White House in a broader conservative media backlash is not lost on many Republicans. “It’s not as if Bannon is a hero to grass-roots Trump voters,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “I talk to these people, and they’re not going to turn on Trump because of some guy named Steve Bannon.”
But, Weber added, “the grass roots do listen to talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere. The question becomes do they turn on Trump because of this?”
New York Times