A little less than a week ago, I wrote that the knives were out for White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was said to be clashing with other top administration officials, losing the president’s favor, and potentially on his way out of the administration.
On Tuesday, those reports were confirmed by the highest-level source possible — President Donald Trump himself.
In an interview, the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin asked Trump if he still had confidence in Bannon, and, Goodwin writes, “I did not get a definitive yes.”
Far from it. Instead, in just four remarkable and revealing sentences, Trump managed to 1) minimize Bannon’s role in his campaign and eventual victory, 2) seemingly betray some sensitivity about the “President Bannon” narrative, 3) confirm the reports of administration infighting, and 4) issue a public ultimatum.
1) Downplaying Bannon’s role: “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump told Goodwin. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve.” (The statement about when Bannon joined the campaign is factually accurate; the statement that Trump “didn’t know” him beforehand is not.)
2) Betraying some sensitivity about the “President Bannon” narrative: “I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary,” Trump continued. (This language is very similar to a tweet Trump sent in February, at the height of the media’s portrayal of Bannon as the person really calling the shots in the administration. “I call my own shots,” the president tweeted one morning. “Some FAKE NEWS media, in order to marginalize, lies!”)
3) Confirming the reports of administration infighting: A set of dishy recent reports have described a burgeoning feud between Bannon and White House senior adviser (and presidential son-in-law) Jared Kushner, leading to an instruction from Trump that they had to work things out. Earlier on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer called these reports “overblown” — which, while perhaps less than honest, is the normal thing for an administration to do in situations like this. Unfortunately, the president himself contradicted Spicer’s denial and revealed the tensions were serious enough that he had to step in. “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will,” Trump told Goodwin.
4) Issuing Bannon a public ultimatum: Managers generally deal with tense staffing problems in private — and again, in politics, it’s common to publicly proclaim full confidence in a beleaguered adviser right up until the moment he or she is fired — but here Trump is telling the whole world that Bannon is on thin ice. Appropriately, Bannon’s allies are responding by panicking — Axios’s Mike Allen calls them “distraught.”
So things look grim for Bannon. Even if he hangs on, his authority has been dramatically undercut — a White House staffer is only powerful if others in the administration and outside it believe he is speaking for the president. Now it’s clear that he doesn’t.
What’s really going on here: Trump’s administration is flailing, and Bannon is naturally getting a good deal of the blame
But this isn’t really about petty personal feuds. The bigger picture is that Trump’s first two and a half months in office have been disastrous, with his popularity sinking and his agenda mired in Congress and the courts. Naturally, his chief strategist is getting lots of blame for that. It turns out the former Breitbart News chief, a guy whose political experience is entirely based on outraging and provoking people, is not exactly great at governing.
Bannon came in as an outsider who wanted to blow things up, and tried to put that agenda into practice — most prominently with Trump’s immigration and travel order. This turned out to be a disastrous failure on every level — it was incompetently crafted, substantively indefensible, and eventually blocked in court. Its only real success was in terrifying and mobilizing liberals against what they saw as a presidential abuse of power.
Then when the administration ran into trouble, Bannon’s big idea for how to right the ship was to attack the media. So the president of the United States increasingly denounced “fake news,” even when the reports he was complaining about were clearly accurate. (“The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake,” he once bizarrely said.) This violation of norms around freedom of the press only further alarmed his critics. It did not turn around his dismal approval ratings.
More broadly, there seems to be a sense among some Trump advisers that the advice Bannon gives is often not so great. Kushner “has said privately that he fears that Mr. Bannon plays to the president’s worst impulses,” the New York Times’s Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush recently reported. Indeed, one way Trump can help improve his popularity is to stop picking so many petty, pointless fights — and one strategy for that is to get rid of Steve Bannon.