Steve Bannon in limbo as Trump faces growing calls for his ouster
WASHINGTON — Rupert Murdoch has repeatedly urged President Donald Trump to fire him. Anthony Scaramucci, the president’s former communications director, thrashed him on television as a white nationalist. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, refused to even say he could work with him.
For months, Trump has considered ousting Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist and relentless nationalist who ran the Breitbart website and called it a “platform for the alt-right.” Trump has now relegated Bannon to a kind of internal exile, and has not met face-to-face for more than a week with a man who was once a fixture in the Oval Office, according to aides and friends of the president.
So far, Trump has not been able to follow through — a product of his dislike of confrontation, the bonds of foxhole friendship forged during the 2016 presidential campaign and concerns about what mischief Bannon might do once he leaves the protective custody of the West Wing.
Not least, Bannon still embodies the defiant populism at the core of the president’s agenda. Despite his marginalization, Bannon consulted the president repeatedly over the weekend as Trump struggled to respond to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In general, Bannon has cautioned the president not to criticize far-right activists too severely for fear of antagonizing a small but energetic part of his base.
But what once endeared him to the president has now become a major liability. After the president waited two days to blame white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville, there is new pressure from Trump’s critics to dismiss Bannon.
“I don’t think that White House has a chance of functioning properly as long as there’s a resident lunatic fringe,” said Mark Salter, a longtime adviser to Sen. John McCain. At best, he said, Bannon seems willing to “tolerate something that’s intolerable” in Trump’s base.
Bannon also has several admirers, including Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. and the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who said that without Bannon, “there is a concern among conservatives that Washington, D.C., will influence the president in way that moves him away from those voters that put him in the White House.”
And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa and an immigration hard-liner, said that shoving out Bannon would leave conservatives “crushed.”
Bannon, who adamantly rejects claims that he is a racist or a sympathizer of white supremacists, is in trouble with John Kelly, a retired Marine general and the new White House chief of staff. Kelly has told Trump’s top staff that he will not tolerate Bannon’s shadowland machinations, according to a dozen current and former Trump aides and associates with knowledge of the situation.
Bannon’s alleged crimes: Leaking nasty stories about McMaster and other colleagues he deems insufficiently populist, feuding bitterly with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner and creating his own cadre within the West Wing that operates outside the chain of command.
One of his main sins in the eyes of the president is appearing to revel in the perception that he is the mastermind behind the rise of a pliable Trump. The president was deeply annoyed at a Time magazine cover article that described Bannon as the real power and brains behind the Trump throne. Trump was equally put off by a recent book, “Devil’s Bargain,” by the Bloomberg Businessweek writer Joshua Green, which lavished credit for Trump’s election on Bannon.
Others say Bannon’s continued presence in the White House is not serving the president’s interests.
“He’s got to move more into the mainstream, he’s got to be more into where the moderates are and the independents are,” said Scaramucci, referring to the president, in an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “And so if he does that, he’ll have a very successful legislative agenda that he’ll be able to execute. And if he doesn’t do that, you’re going to see inertia and you’re going to see this resistance from more of the establishment senators that he needs to curry favor with.” Scaramucci is on friendly terms with Kushner.
Others say the problem is not Bannon’s closeness to the far right, it is that he has not done enough for them.
“I do think he’s in trouble, but it’s trouble of his own making,” said Roger J. Stone Jr., Trump’s sometimes adviser, who has publicly criticized Bannon as ineffective. “I don’t know why conservatives would be upset about him being fired. He has not delivered for them.”
Top administration officials like to joke that working for Trump is like toiling in the court of Henry VIII. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, recently handed out copies of the play “A Man for all Seasons,” about the last years of Sir Thomas More, Henry’s religiously zealous chancellor, who was executed for failing to fulfill his monarch’s directive to get him a divorce from Anne Boleyn. Bannon read it, according to a person familiar with the situation, and was amused when an associate compared him to More.
From the start, Bannon, 63, has told people in his orbit that he never expected to last in his current position longer than eight months to a year, and hoped to ram through as much of his agenda as he could while he stood in the president’s favor. More recently he has told friends that he is working in the White House one day at a time, and constantly asks himself whether he could better pursue his to-do list — including cracking down on legal and illegal immigration — on the outside. But the choice might not be his. At a recent dinner at the White House, before Trump decamped for a working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, the president listened while one of the guests, Murdoch, a founder of Fox News, said Bannon had to go.
Trump offered little pushback, according to a person familiar with the conversation, and vented his frustrations about Bannon. Murdoch is close to Kushner, who has been in open warfare with Bannon since the spring.
But Trump has expressed similar sentiments in the past, then backed off. Just a week earlier, as Trump ruminated on whether to dismiss his chief of staff at the time, Reince Priebus he was pushed by Kushner and others to dismiss Bannon as well. Trump signaled to allies that he was pretty much there.
Someone — people close to the situation are still unsure whether it was initiated by Bannon or his cadre of administration allies — mustered a counteroffensive. Meadows reached out to the president and told him that he would lose his base without Bannon.
Bannon’s ability to hang on as Trump’s in-house populist is, in part, because of his connections to a handful of ultrarich political patrons, including Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel, Las Vegas-based casino magnate.
He is especially close to the reclusive conservative billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, who is a frequent sounding board for Bannon. In April, Mercer received assurances from Trump that he was not about to fire Bannon over his war with Kushner and moderates like Gary Cohn, the chairman of the National Economic Council and a top Trump adviser.
But Trump still publicly flayed Bannon, insulting him as a guy “who works for me.” It was a far cry from the lofty status Bannon enjoyed when he joined Trump’s faltering campaign in August 2016, when as a rich former investment banker he enjoyed the status of a near-peer and hell-raiser who shared his candidate’s daredevil approach to politics.
Bannon has not fared well in West Wing politics. His bonds with the president seem to be fraying daily, and Bannon has told friends his status as “staff” — compared with Kushner’s familial relationship with the president — will ultimately dictate his departure. But he has been adamant in maintaining that his loyalty to Trump will survive, and has suggested that he might direct his energies at creating a movement to challenge mainstream Republicans too timid to pursue the president’s agenda, like Speaker Paul Ryan.
Bannon’s cause is being damaged, people close to the president say, by a war he is waging against McMaster. It has taken on a life of its own, with several alt-right websites faithful to Bannon tearing into the national security adviser.
Bannon, through a spokeswoman, denied he has had anything to do with the campaign against McMaster, and said he has tried unsuccessfully to stem the tide of negative news stories about thee national security adviser, whom he believes to be prodding the president toward possible war with North Korea and Venezuela. But other White House aides have noted that Bannon has not publicly rebuked the websites over the stories.
At the least, he is also no longer Trump’s indispensable man. Bannon’s protégé, chief speechwriter and policy director, Stephen Miller, shares his populist agenda — centered around a controversial immigration crackdown — and has become one of the president’s favorite aides. Despite his image in the news media as a confrontational ideologue, Miller has proved to be a deft operator who has ingratiated himself to Kushner.
Still, Bannon is a survivor. He has been left for dead before. Trump is mercurial, and can easily change his mind.
This spring, as Kushner pressured Trump to fire Bannon, the president shot back at his son-in-law. He was not going to get rid of him, he said, just because Kushner wanted him to go.