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Trump Undercuts Bannon In Internal White House Power Struggle

Donald Trump Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News head who joined the Trump campaign last August and has then became one of President Trump’s closest advisers has found himself undercut after just three months on the job:

WASHINGTON — Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s grenade-lobbing pugilist of a chief strategist, has a fitting nickname for his West Wing office: “the war room.”

But more and more, war is being waged on Mr. Bannon himself. And it is unclear how much longer he can survive in his job.

His isolation inside the White House, after weeks of battle with senior aides aligned with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, appeared to grow even starker this week after Mr. Trump undercut Mr. Bannon in two interviews and played down his role in the Trump presidential campaign.

“I am my own strategist,” Mr. Trump told the New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin in an interview on Tuesday, a pointed reference to what aides described as his growing irritation that Mr. Bannon’s allies are calling him the mastermind behind Mr. Trump’s victory and the torch bearer for the nationalist, conservative brand of populism that has defined his presidency.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Mr. Trump made clear Mr. Bannon’s subordinate role, calling him “a guy who works for me.”

Amid the clashing egos, news media leaks and insinuations of disloyalty, the president was once again faced with having to defuse a personnel crisis that was, in part, a result of assembling a band of Washington outsiders to run his administration. And this time the crisis erupted, perhaps predictably, around the senior aide who most embodies that renegade, anti-establishment ethos: Mr. Bannon, the self-proclaimed deconstructor of the “administrative state” and field general in the war against the “opposition party” news media.

Mr. Bannon’s reversal of fortunes is also a reflection of a White House with an unconventional management structure, opaque lines of responsibility and rafts of aides left to carry out complex and contested campaign promises: tighten immigration, roll back regulations, repeal the Affordable Care Act and take a more protectionist approach to trade.

Mr. Bannon, who has those campaign promises scrawled on white boards in his office, has described himself as being responsible for their implementation. But the execution has been botched. Courts have blocked the president’s immigration ban. The repeal effort failed after the White House and congressional leaders could not win enough support in their own party. And that is leaving some conservatives, who have never fully trusted the president’s convictions, afraid that Mr. Bannon’s possible removal could be a precursor to shelving the most complicated and contentious priorities.

One person with firsthand knowledge of internal White House dynamics, who asked not to be identified given how tense the situation had become, insisted that no immediate changes were likely. Mr. Trump is notoriously fickle in his decision-making process, and he dislikes confrontation. But by openly criticizing Mr. Bannon, he has created an environment that makes it hard for the swaggering and self-assured chief strategist to remain in place without appearing undermined.

Allies of Mr. Trump say that he has become increasingly impatient with the infighting — and the overwhelming attention it is receiving. In a lengthy conversation with Mr. Bannon this week, the president repeated his admonition that the chief strategist and his adversaries needed to “knock off” their back-and-forth sniping.

Mr. Trump said as much in the Post interview, saying, “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.” His comments in private, people who have spoken with him say, have been more pointed. Mr. Bannon, he has told one person, is “not a team player.”

Mr. Bannon appears to now recognize the danger and has kept a low profile inside the White House while Mr. Kushner has been away with his family. He has told friends and associates, using his trademark military vernacular, that he understands he cannot throw bombs every day and needs to pick his battles carefully.

Mr. Bannon told several associates over the weekend that he believed that things had cooled off with Mr. Kushner. But the president’s comments suggest the truce is uneasy and may not last.

These comments from Trump have clearly put Bannon in a difficult position in the White House, and are naturally causing many to openly wonder how long the controversial adviser may have at the President’s side, but it’s not entirely surprising. Virtually from the time Trump took office in January, there have been reports about Bannon clashing with other Presidential advisers over policy agendas, strategy, and just generally clashing to be the person with the most influence over the President. In the beginning, the focus of those reports was reported tension between Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, which would seem to be a natural conflict given the fact that Bannon was reportedly assuming for himself many of the duties normally taken on by a Chief of Staff himself. By early February, the press was openly reporting on information provided by anonymous sources inside the White House who were clearly close to either Bannon or Priebus, who could have possibly been leaking some of that information themselves. By mid-February, though, both Bannon and Priebus made a big public show of saying that they’d resolved whatever differences they had and were committed to working together for the good of the Administration. How true that is, of course, remains an open question and it’s likely that Priebus is taking no small degree of joy out of Trump’s recent undercutting of Bannon.

After the stories about conflict with Priebus began disappearing from the headlines, though, they were quickly replaced with reports about Bannon clashing none other than the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner, of course, is the husband of Ivanka Trump, the putative head of the family that owns the conservative New York Observer newspaper, and, perhaps most importantly, has been a close personal adviser to the President along with his wife since the beginning of the campaign in June 2015. Since Trump took office, Kushner has been on staff as a Senior White House Adviser, a rank that puts him technically below Bannon on the pecking order, but one that puts him close to Trump as he always was during the campaign. At various times since the election has been said to be Trump’s point man on everything ranging from Middle East peace to putting together a tax reform package. Recently, Kushner’s wife Ivanka joined her husband as an official White House employee, although she had frequently been seen by her father’s side during policy-related meetings, including one of his first face-to-face meetings with a foreign leader.

According to several reports over the past month, including a longish report in today’s Washington Post that is well worth the read, Bannon has been seeking to attempt to undercut Kushner’s influence inside the White House, not the least because he saw that influence as a threat to his own and an effort by Trump’s family to steer him away from some of the more extreme agenda items that Bannon is known to favor. This, of course, is an entirely foolish idea on Bannon’s part. Leaving aside the question of the propriety of close family members such as Kushner and Ivanka becoming White House advisers while at the same time maintaining their outside business ties, Jared and Ivanka a family, Bannon is not. In any conflict among the three, it’s already decided who will win and who will lose, and one would think that Bannon is at least smart enough to realize that. In fact, it’s like that this week’s public undercutting by the President is a signal to Bannon that he’d gone way too far and that it was time to step back.

In addition to conflicts with Kushner and Ivanka, Bannon also sees himself under attack from the informal group of corporate CEOs that Trump has gathered as his version of the proverbial “kitchen cabinet”:

Wall Street titan Stephen Schwarzman has recently taken on a new, informal job: counselor to the president.

The CEO of Blackstone Group, who has known Trump for years, has become so close to the president that the two sometimes talk several times a week, covering everything from Chinese trade to tax policy to immigration.

White House and New York business officials say Schwarzman was critical to Trump keeping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as the Dreamers program, with Trump making the decision after a call with the hedge fund billionaire. The two also recently chatted at Mar-a-Lago about a possible reorganization of the White House, two people familiar with the meeting say, though the conversation didn’t include specific names.

Schwarzman’s growing influence in Trump’s circle is welcome news to New York business leaders and moderate Republicans, who want the president to abandon his nationalist positions and embrace a more nonideological White House amid lagging poll ratings and infighting dominating the West Wing.

In private conversations, a number of Trump’s friends have told him he could be more popular — and accomplish more — if he embraced a moderate streak and listened to his business friends. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is trying to orchestrate more power for New York business types, particularly National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, while diminishing the power of chief strategist Steve Bannon, who drives the populist wing of the White House.

“The president is a business person, so he’s very comfortable being around business people and he learns best by talking to people and observing things,” Schwarzman said in an interview after meeting on Tuesday with Trump and other business leaders. “I think he looks forward to these things and he likes being with business people who have run businesses that are bigger than his. It’s just a highly supportive environment, whether it’s Gary Cohn or Jared, certainly Steve Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross and Dina Powell, these are all people who’ve had very similar experiences.”

One executive in regular contact with West Wing officials said it’s encouraging that Trump appears to be embracing more pragmatic allies. “It seems like he’s relying now on nonideological people like Gary who have business experience and just know how to execute and get stuff done,” the executive said.

With the twin influence of these business leaders and Trump’s son-in-law and daughter, as well as his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, Bannon seems to be fighting a losing battle. At the same time, of course, there is some risk for Trump in embracing the moderation that these groups are apparently counseling since it is unlikely to sit well with some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Already, we’ve seen some of these people, such as Iowa Congressman Steve King and conservative columnist Ann Coulter, openly criticizing Trump on various policies, including what appears to be a hardening of opposition to the Assad regime in Syria and criticism of Russia that we haven’t seen from Trump before. In moderating, Trump may see some of his core supporters walk away in frustration while also discovering that he’s really not gaining support elsewhere. Additionally, it seems likely that it’s far too early to pronounce Bannon as being on his way out at the White House. His role in getting Trump elected is likely not forgotten by Trump himself, and the fact that he represents a powerful voice in Trump’s base means that the President must be careful how he treats the situation. In the end, though, in a conflict between the family and Steve Bannon, it’s obvious whose going to win, and that means that Bannon would be best advised to just accept the reality of the influence that people like Jared and Ivanka have over the President or risk losing his power altogether.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Joe Gage says:

    “Wonderful things can happen when you sow seeds of distrust in a garden of ass holes.” – Raylan Givens, Justified

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  2. al-Alameda says:

    In the end, though, in a conflict between the family and Steve Bannon, it’s obvious whose going to win, and that means that Bannon would be best advised to just accept the reality of the influence that people like Jared and Ivanka have over the President or risk losing his power altogether.

    Simplicity can be a virtue.
    If I’m placing a bet, I’ll take Jared and Ivanka and give Bannon the points.
    Steve is not going to win this one.

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  3. CSK says:

    All Saturday Night Live has to do is air a few more skits with Trump as Bannon’s puppet, and Bannon’s back to running Breitbart. I’m being only slightly facetious. It’s not the squabble between Team Kushner and Team Bannon that’s really bugging Trump, it’s the insidious conviction that most people believe Bannon is pulling Trump’s strings.

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  4. Mark Ivey says:

    Trump always turns on his “partners”.

    Bannon can unleash the neo troll army on the Trump White House after hes out if he likes..

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  5. CSK says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    Oh, Bannon will do that in a heartbeat. The readers at Breitbart are already unhappy with Trump over Syria.

    There’s something else that might come into play here: Trump does not allow people to resign. He fires them. No one voluntarily leaves Trump’s employ. Remember Roger Stone?

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    For someone supposedly as intelligent as Bannon has been made out to be, it looks like he’s never read a book on history.

    Either that, or he thinks his Breitbartian base is sufficient to launch attacks at Javanka. Ha.

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  7. Hal_10000 says:

    If it’s a choice between nepotistic banking twerp Kushner and psycho ethno-nationalist Bannon, it will take me all of 19 nanoseconds to decided who to want to come out on top. I have long suspected that the force that will reign in Trump is not the media, Congress or The Resistance (TM) but business people who don’t want to see the country completely wrecked.

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  8. teve tory says:

    Everybody who supports Trump comes out looking bad (and the 2-3 Trumper commenters here are no exception).

    “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist, and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.

    –Donald Trump, couple days ago

    “I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,”

    –Donald Trump, 8/17/2016

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  9. SenyorDave says:

    OT, but this might win the award for the most ridiculous statement regarding Trump:

    Jeffrey Lord: ‘Think of President Trump as the Martin Luther King of health care’

    What’s next, Donald Trump’s “Letter from a Fifth Avenue penthouse”?

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  10. grumpy realist says:

    Giggle.

    I’d love to see Bannon attempt to let loose his flying monkeys against the administration. That should be worth some popcorn.

    Oh, and the usual suspects over at TAC are wringing their hands about how this just shows that Trump has been co-opted by the Globalists.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    New York Observer.com newspaper.

    As a result of Jared’s business acumen.

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  12. J-Dub says:

    @CSK: I was going to make the same point. Trump can’t stand the fact that he is being mocked as a puppet of Bannon. A couple more magazine covers and cartoons show do the trick.

    Good riddance to Rasputin.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    I have long suspected that the force that will reign in Trump is not the media, Congress or The Resistance (TM) but business people who don’t want to see the country completely wrecked.

    Does this include the Government Sachs guys and other banksters who did damn near wreck the country, hell the world, in ’08?

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  14. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist:

    For someone supposedly as intelligent as Bannon has been made out to be

    I’ll admit I missed that memo.

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  15. J-Dub says:

    @gVOR08:

    Does this include the Government Sachs guys and other banksters who did damn near wreck the country, hell the world, in ’08?

    But not themselves, which is all that matters to them.

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  16. Gustopher says:

    Loyalty is for little people. Little people must be loyal to their betters and keep in their place, but their betters (i.e., the Trumps of the world) don’t need to do sh.t for them — discard them like a soiled tissue when it is convenient, and always make sure they know their place.

    I can think of few people more deserving of this treatment than Bannon though. Sucks to be him.

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    Bannon, schmannon. Bannon was and is a creature of the Mercers. Every Republican has a billionaire boys club backer/owner. The Mercers are Trumps. Where do they stand with Trump now?

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  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Franklin: Yeah. Not only do we have a Machiavelli; we’ve got an ignorant Machiavelli.

    Bannon’s supposed intelligence has always seemed to me to be along the lines of Gingrich’s intelligence, i.e., non-existent.

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  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: Kiss up, kick down.

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  20. grumpy realist says:

    I loved Jezebel’s take on the matter:

    Yesterday, amid reports that crumbling lead pipe Steve Bannon is quickly losing sway in a warring White House, Donald Trump told the New York Post that he “didn’t know Steve” before he joined the campaign in August (that is not true) and that “he was not involved in my campaign until very late” (Bannon ran the bulk of Trump’s general election campaign). If this sounds familiar, it’s because his administration has made similar overtures before; when someone is causing Trump problems, his favorite way to deal with it is apparently to pretend he actually doesn’t know that person very well. Bannon, who refers to his West Wing office as his “war room” and speaks in what the New York Times calls a “trademark military vernacular,” seems to be getting routed by this guy.

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  21. Hal_10000 says:

    @gVOR08:

    Yes. I said “completely wrecked” not “mostly wrecked”. They’ll happy to precipitate another banking crisis if they can make a buck off it. But that’s better than Bannon’s envisioned race riots and crusades.

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  22. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Not surprising. Im serious. Trump needed some crazies for the useful idiots to buy his act hook line and sinker. Bannon and the Mercers were useful and can now be jettisoned–just like Flynn. Whatever Trump may be–its not an Ethno-National / Conservative — I’ve always suspected that most of that was performance art. In the coming months I think we’ll see what the actual views/agenda of Trump and his close advisors are.

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  23. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    They’ll happy to precipitate another banking crisis if they can make a buck off it. But that’s better than Bannon’s envisioned race riots and crusades.

    Agree, but with the caveat that the banksters are good at what they do, Bannon isn’t.

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  24. Kylopod says:

    Being a Trump Administration official is sort of like being henchman to a Bond supervillain. It’s only a matter of time before he feeds you to the sharks with laser beams.

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  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I don’t know who’s more dense: DT, for thinking that he could encourage his subordinates to undercut one another without realizing what that leads to, or Bannon, for thinking that a white nationalist agenda could make headway relying on the backing of a less-than-popular President and a fringe group in Congress.

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  26. CSK says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    I think Trump figured he could do the white nationalist xenophobia bit to get elected, which, sadly, appears to have worked.

    As for having his underlings backstabbing each other–that’s the way he’s run his business “empire,” so he figured it would work for him as president. His operating assumption has always been that if his minions are trying to cut one another’s throats, they’ll remain loyal to him.

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    A nice analysis of why it’s so easy to sabotage Trump. Twitter jokes and SNL skits can needle Trump into doing the stupidest things….

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  28. CSK says:

    @J-Dub:

    And what’s Trump gonna do when, once Bannon’s back to running Paranoid Conspiracy Central, SNL starts portraying him as the puppet of co-presidents Jared and Ivana Kushner?

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  29. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @gVOR08:

    Goldman literally has engineering PhDs on staff as analysts. Math is math.

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  30. grumpy realist says:

    @HarvardLaw92: It’s not the math; it’s what you do with it….

    Actually, we saw the whole problem played out in the 2008 cash: a bunch of back-room quants putting together CDOs and other financial derivatives, which they then sent out to the front-room people together with five pages of explanations, caveats, and warnings. The front-room people immediately ripped off the five pages, stamped “AAA” on the rest, and sent it out to the world in the hands of salesmen who were only interested in unloading the stuff and thought that “quantitative” was a hot word for advertising purposes.

    And so it goes….

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  31. Tony W says:

    Bannon has tremendous leverage over Trump – it’s not so easy to dismiss him.

    If Breitbart chooses to seriously aims its guns at the Trump administration, they have the audience to do tremendous damage to him with Trump’s most important constituents. They’re smart – a lot smarter than Trump – and could do a lot to erode support.

    Bannon definitely overplayed his hand here, but it’s an interesting Game of Thrones going on in the first 100 days.

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  32. grumpy realist says:

    @Tony W: The question is whether Trump realizes it or cares. His ego has been hurt. He’s always got to be The Big Cheese. The fact that it’s better having Bannon inside the tent and the potential aftereffects of kicking him out are totally ignored.

    Plus, Trump would probably be even more ticked off if he thought Bannon’s supporters weren’t Trump supporters. The audience is supposed to love him, Trump–no matter what he does.

    So yeah, I can see Bannon getting kicked out (especially if SNL continues its theme of “Bannon as puppeteer of Trump”) and Trump getting into a rage at the alt-right if “they” don’t support him as “they’re” supposed to.

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  33. Jeremy says:

    Hey, I’ll take Javanka over Bannon any day. They might be able to steer Cheeto Jesus away from the more racist, xenophobic material, and maybe even convince him to pick up one or two socially liberal things (moderate, low hanging fruit type things, but hey, it’s something.)

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