WASHINGTON — For the first 10 weeks of President Trump’s administration, no adviser loomed larger in the public imagination than Stephen K. Bannon, the raw and rumpled former chairman of Breitbart News who considers himself a “virulently anti-establishment” revolutionary out to destroy the “administrative state.”
But behind the scenes, White House officials said, the ideologist who enjoyed the president’s confidence has become increasingly embattled as other advisers, including Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, complained about setbacks on health care and immigration. Lately, Bannon has been conspicuously absent from some meetings. And now he has lost his seat at the national security table.
In a move widely seen as a sign of changing fortunes, Trump on Wednesday removed Bannon, his chief strategist, from the Cabinet-level National Security Council’s “principals committee.” The shift was orchestrated by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, who insisted on purging a political adviser from the Situation Room, where decisions about war and peace are made.
Bannon resisted the move, even at one point threatening to quit, said one White House official, who like others insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Bannon’s camp denied he had threatened to resign and spent the day spreading the word that the shift was a natural evolution, not a signal of any diminution of his outsize influence.
His allies said privately that Bannon was put on the principals committee to keep an eye on Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star general who lasted just 24 days before being forced out for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about what he had discussed with Russia’s ambassador. With Flynn gone, these allies said, there was no need for Bannon to remain, but they noted that he had kept his security clearance.
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon said in a statement, referring to Barack Obama’s last national security adviser. “I was put on the NSC with Gen. Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized. Gen. McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
Bannon didn’t explain what he meant by operationalize or how his presence on the committee ensured it would not be.
Either way, it was one more drama in a White House consumed with palace intrigue, where competing figures jockey for the ear of the president, angle for authority, and seek to place blame for a series of political defeats. Even as Bannon lost a national security credential, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, seems act as a shadow secretary of state, visiting Iraq and taking on China, Mexico, and Middle East portfolios.
Bannon’s myriad enemies celebrated what they saw as a defeat for his brand of firebrand politics.
“He didn’t belong on the principals committee to begin with — doesn’t really belong in the White House at all,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I hope that this is a sign that McMaster is taking control of the National Security Council.”
Karl Rove, who as senior adviser to former president George W. Bush was not allowed to join national security meetings, said Bannon’s removal was a move back to a better process: “It was wrong for him to be added in the first place, and it was right to take him off.”
Even if Bannon really were removed because there was no longer a need for someone to mind Flynn, Rove said, the result was a victory for McMaster. “It’s either a sign of McMaster’s strength, or the result is it strengthens McMaster,” he said.
Still, Bannon, under attack from outside the administration since the early days of the transition, is a crafty survivor, and insiders warned it would be a mistake to underestimate him. When McMaster wanted to fire a staff member, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Bannon intervened to save his job.
Cohen-Watnick had alerted colleagues that Trump’s associates had been caught up in the surveillance of foreigners, information that was then shown by another White House official to Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election.
James Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser to Bush, said it appeared McMaster “’scored one on the presumably more powerful Bannon,” but cautioned against reading too much into what it meant for Bannon. “He seems to be very close to the president and by most accounts still wins many of his battles,” Jeffrey said.
From the start, McMaster intended to revamp the National Security Council organization that he inherited from Flynn. The principals committee, led by the national security adviser and including the vice president, secretary of state, defense secretary, and others, is the primary policy-making body, deciding questions that do not rise to the level of the president and framing those that do.
The original organization approved by Trump not only gave Bannon formal membership but downgraded the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence to occasional participants, as issues demanded.
The new order by Trump also restored the Joint Chiefs chairman and intelligence director while adding the energy secretary, CIA director, and United Nations ambassador. It also put the Homeland Security Council under McMaster.