On the afternoon that President Donald Trump promised “fire and fury” if North Korea launched an act of aggression, chief strategist Steve Bannon sat in his office and schemed about China, fuming about the country’s trade practices and looking for retaliation.
He seemed unconcerned with the North Korea situation, one person who spoke to him said, dismissing concerns around the nuclear weapon-wielding state as “just a lot of talk.”
It showed the deep divide between many of Trump’s advisers and Bannon, who stayed laser-focused on promises scrawled onto his office wall, which he deemed the “War Room,” and often took pride in clashing with many others around the president.
The departures from Trump’s White House have come at a dizzying pace in recent weeks: multiple communications directors, the chief of staff and the press secretary have all left, along with top aides on the national security council and a number of CEOs from influential business councils.
But none of the departures are likely to change the dynamics as much as that of the polarizing Bannon, whose ouster on Friday could alienate conservatives, hearten some who feared his brand of populism-nationalism, and dial down the fights inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Bannon is the intellectual heart and soul of the Trump movement,” said Mark Corallo, a prominent GOP operative who served briefly as the spokesperson for Trump’s private legal team. “He was the think tank. He’s the idea generator. … He was the guy who was the most thoughtful about how to enact the agenda, how to build a coalition.”
To be sure, Bannon was not the puppeteer that late night television has painted him as. Many of his policy victories were due as much to Trump’s own desires as to Bannon’s adroitness in presenting his side to the president. And some of Bannon’s pet policy proposals — higher taxes on the wealthy and a reduced military footprint abroad, for example — seem to be as dead in this White House as single-payer health care. It was difficult to explain Bannon, sometimes, because he was shrouded in mystery and enigma.
He would engage in caustic knock-down, drag-out fights over policies and mock others in ways that were seen as unprofessional. By the end, he had few friends inside the building.
“For better or worse, Steve would try to take people out,” one White House official said. “No one else was quite as aggressive about it.”
Yet he was different than many others in Trump’s West Wing — often fighting for the hardline position and embracing culture wars, working throughout the weekends, reading ancient historic texts while deriding other aides as the type to spend time in Davos or Southampton and having little of a social life. He often reminded the president that his base was strong and that moderates and Democrats would never support him.
“Trump and Bannon shared a lot of the worldview and opinions, but Trump is a negotiator who sees everything as a starting point. Bannon doesn’t see the world that way. He often wanted a blanket and ideological approach,” said Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend and the CEO of Newsmax. “Bannon was the chief ideological officer.”
Bannon echoed that sentiment Friday, in comments made after he was relieved by new chief of staff John Kelly.
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the Weekly Standard. “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else. And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.”
Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Just who will be ascendant in Bannon’s absence — the more traditional conservatives, like Vice President Mike Pence and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, or the moderates, like National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and top adviser Jared Kushner — remains unclear. Trump, after all, is a newcomer to the Republican Party and a man without an ideology who, with Bannon’s aid, knitted together a new coalition to capture the presidency.
He often changes his mind on aides, warming to one while cooling on another — only to do it all again.
While some Hill Republicans voiced concern about losing a like-minded ally in the White House, conservatives in the administration were quick to push back on the narrative that the administration is now in the hands of Cohn and Kushner, who Bannon gleefully derided as “New York Democrats.” Bannon had particular scorn for Cohn, mocking him repeatedly behind his back, and is expected to continue the campaign outside as executive chairman of Breitbart News.
“The notion that the conservative wing has been damaged, I think the media is too quickly jumping to that conclusion,” one senior administration official said. “There are plenty of conservatives that remain in the White House. Steve was more of a populist-nationalist.”
The White House said there remained a strong conservative presence in the West Wing.
“The conservative ideology held by a lot of the president’s base is still very strongly represented at the White house including several senior staff,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Ultimately though it’s the president’s ideology that matters most and it is very much the same as what he campaigned on and has held for many years. The President hasn’t changed and his priorities haven’t changed either. He will continue to fight for a strong economy, to create jobs, secure our borders, improve education, and to protect all Americans.”
That the personalities of populist-nationalist wing, with its nativist and anti-globalization bent, has been largely eviscerated is without doubt. That camp “lost its leader, in a way,” the administration official said. Stephen Miller, a top policy adviser, is the last bastion for that worldview in the West Wing, and he has increasingly allied himself with Kushner and Ivanka Trump as Bannon fell out of favor, even as he continues to push for a harder line on issues such as immigration.
Yet Trump often shares those positions, particularly on trade and immigration, and doesn’t need Bannon or anyone else to convince him.
Then there are the generals — Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and Defense Secretary James Mattis — who have steered Trump’s disparate foreign policy views in a more traditional, if hawkish, direction.
Those moves were hated by Bannon, who said they went against Trump’s campaign promises. Trump and Kushner, his self-appointed foreign policy guru, have few guiding principles on foreign policy.
Officials like Cohn and Tom Barrack have frequently warned Trump against governing merely to please his base, as Bannon favored (Bannon would also argue to Trump that the polls were wrong and his support is in fact higher than surveys indicate). Kushner, too, has sought a more non-partisan approach and hope to champion a non-ideological and practical approach to issues through his Office of American Innovation.
Yet many of the current officials could have worked in a Clinton administration, and the cabal of Goldman Sachs and New York types is likely to face fire from Republicans and Bannon’s supporters alike, West Wing officials said.
And they have other shortcomings, Ruddy said. “The weakness with a lot of the people he has around him now is they don’t have deep ties to the administration and they haven’t been around him a long time, so I don’t know that they have that loyalty to him,” Ruddy said.
Bannon’s twin obsessions seemed to be keeping campaign promises and, particularly in recent weeks, the rise of China. China, in Bannon’s thinking, represents a far more significant and long-term threat to the United States.
Trump railed against China on the campaign trail, but has shown an increased willingness to work with the country since taking office.
But Bannon was unable to ever convince Trump to go as hard at China as the strategist would have liked, as moderates pulled Trump away.
For Bannon, whose “War Room” promises became something of a caricature in the administration, the end came without fulfilling many of them. The white boards were in storage, an administration official said, as the West Wing underwent summer renovations.
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