In the days leading up to his exit Friday, Steve Bannon told associates that he felt profoundly constrained by the limits of the federal government and was itching to return to the outside world. He would be freer there to engage in the kind of militant political combat that catapulted him to national fame and thrust him into the center of Trump’s orbit.
It was time, he told friends, to get ready for “Bannon da barbarian.”
Bannon’s departure from the White House positions him to become a major player on the outside — where he’s certain to push the administration to the right and wage war against the moderate Trump aides he’s long collided with.
Breitbart announced Friday evening that Bannon was returning to the bomb-throwing conservative website he formerly led. He is almost certain to link up with hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who have long bankrolled Bannon’s political projects, including Breitbart. On Wednesday, two days before he announced his exit, Bannon met for several hours in New York with Robert Mercer, according to two people familiar with the huddle.
Over the months, Bannon and Mercer have stayed in close touch on a number of topics, including Mercer’s decision to invest heavily in the primary campaign to unseat GOP Rep. Jeff Flake, a vocal Trump critic. Some people close to Bannon believe he could oversee the influential Mercer political operation, a perch that would give him access to millions of campaign dollars heading into the 2018 midterms, or launch a Mercer-funded media venture.
His exit comes at a pivotal moment for Trump, as establishment Republicans — the very group that Bannon has long railed against — are distancing themselves from the president. It also comes ahead of a pivotal legislative month, with Congress confronting fights over the debt ceiling and a potential government shutdown.
Bannon has expressed private frustration over how Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are treating Trump. The departed White House strategist has been concerned that Congress will pass a budget that lacks funding for the president’s priorities, including a wall on the southern border.
From a perch on the outside, Bannon reasoned, he could launch attacks on GOP leaders, stir up primary challenges, and rile conservative supporters — “going medieval,” he has said — much as Breitbart did against former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Bannon can also pressure the White House to allowing a government shutdown if Trump doesn’t get what he wants in a funding bill.
Such a barrage, should it materialize, would further exacerbate tensions that are deeply dividing Republicans during the Trump era.
Conservative writer Lee Stranahan, who formerly worked with Bannon at Breitbart, said Bannon wouldn’t be afraid to pressure Trump, reasoning that he was more concerned about pushing for populist priorities than offending the president.
“It’s all about the agenda, he’s a stalwart on the agenda. He’s never been about just Trump,” Stranahan said.
“Steve wants to change the world,” said Sam Nunberg, a longtime former Trump aide and Bannon ally. “From the outside, he has the power to criticize the administration when it’s wrong and give insight into how the process and decisions were made.”
Then there’s the matter of White House personnel. Bannon has long vented about moderate Trump aides who have surrounded the president, a group that includes Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn and Dina Powell. Their “globalist” leanings, he’s argued, go against the populist uprising that propelled Trump to the presidency.
And at a time when conservatives are worried the Trump presidency is adrift, Bannon’s friends say it’s only a matter of time until the globalists come under fire from the ousted chief strategist.
“If you’re his enemies, you don’t want him unleashed,” Stranahan said.
In the days leading up to Bannon’s exit, friends said, he seemed almost wistful, reflecting on the fact that he had joined the Trump campaign almost exactly one year ago.
Bannon has seemed lately to be already settling into his new role, as if freed from a stifling federal bureaucracy. He gave a freewheeling interview to The American Prospect in which he criticized his adversaries within the administration, talked about ousting a State Department official, and said the U.S. lacked a military solution in North Korea.
It was an unfiltered view, perhaps, into Bannon’s coming attractions.
Yet on Friday, as the chief strategist finished his White House tenure, his conservative friends worried that they were losing a link to the administration they might not get back.
“Today is a very sad day for the movement,” said Nunberg, “and the Trump presidency.”
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