No one symbolizes the populist nationalism on which Donald Trump ran more than White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News.
So Bannon’s newly precarious position in the administration—an ascendant, more centrist faction associated with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is trying to take him down--is about more than just Bannon the man. It is about id versus superego. It’s about the place of the hard right in the administration, and whether the movement spearheaded by Bannon can govern. And if Bannon goes, the backlash could be considerable. In fact, even with him still in the White House, that backlash has already begun, with some of Trump’s most vocal supporters becoming restive over his flip-flops on Syria, China, the Ex-Im bank and other issues.
“I think that Steve has come to be the symbol of keeping the flame of the Trump revolution in the White House,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser. “So I would assume that there would be hysteria all over talk radio and conservative media were Steve not in the White House and the White House would be run by Democrats.” Nunberg specified that he was referring to Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, who is among Bannon’s greatest opponents and who has become a target of Bannon allies in the right-wing media.
“Bannon isn't a red line for me, but I'm already feeling apathetic,” said “new right” pro-Trump blogger and Twitter personality Mike Cernovich, who has recently been among those tweeting a #KeepBannon hashtag. (There’s also a related protest planned for outside the White House on Saturday.) “Messaging from Trump's administration sounds like what we'd have received from Mitt Romney. Trump's base won't turn on him as much as they'll check out.”
Bannon’s fall from grace began in earnest last week, when he was removed from the principals’ committee of the National Security Council. His position there had been controversial from the start, as political advisors do not normally serve on the committee. Bannon and his allies presented the move as not a demotion but instead just part of the plan, with Bannon telling me reports he had threatened to quit were “absurd.”
Since then, both Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus have been seen as in danger of losing their jobs. The two have formed an alliance under pressure after initially appearing to be at odds.
“Yeah, I think there’s gonna be a backlash,” said Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart News reporter who quit the site after conflict with its Washington editor Matt Boyle. “What I’ve been trying to do is factually make people aware that there’s a solid reason for the backlash and it’s not just personality but ideology. Trump did not run on what Ivanka Trump and her circle of friends want.”
Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Cohn, and Dina Powell—the deputy national security advisor—have formed a rising center of power within the White House as Bannon’s position becomes more threatened. The Kushner-Cohn axis is seen as pushing Trump in a more centrist direction. According to a source close to the White House, Kushner and Cohn want to control the Chief of Staff position, “and they know there’s an expiration date on Reince’s forehead but they now realize Steve is a problem for them.” Bannon is “alone and he’s surrounded,” said longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone on MSNBC on Thursday.
Bannon and Kushner held a meeting last week that was intended to mend fences. And Bannon’s side, the source said, believed an agreement had been reached. But then Joe Scarborough, who Bannon allies believe is close with Kushner’s camp, repeatedly attacked Bannon on television and on Twitter this week. And in the most troubling sign, Trump himself appeared to distance himself from Bannon in an interview with the New York Post, saying Bannon “was not involved in my campaign until very late” and emphasizing that he is his own strategist.
Bannon still has his job as of Friday. But even if he keeps it, the war against him both inside the West Wing and via the media has led to an unavoidable impression of imminent downfall. Daylight is even appearing between him and the young senior adviser for policy Stephen Miller, a former Jeff Sessions aide de camp who has been close with Bannon—and was the subject of a Politico story on Thursday calling him Trump’s new “favorite Steve.” (A senior White House official acknowledged to me that Miller is “sort of becoming his own power center.”)
One source close to the White House told me that Bannon could be “reassigned,” though it’s “TBD” and “There is an attempt to repair the disagreements.” A senior White House official told me talk of a reassignment was “total nonsense.”
“We are focused on dealing with the problems keeping Americans up at night, not the overblown palace intrigue stories the media is obsessed with,” said deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“It sort of odd because from the inside we’re not feeling that,” said the first senior White House official of the drama surrounding Bannon. “Steve’s around, he does his job. It’s not different.”
This official pointed out that the White House is aware of the potential for backlash if Bannon is removed, and said “the gossip is that he’s not going to leave.”
“Steve definitely has the pulse of a very significant part of the president’s base, and has had the confidence of the president in terms of communicating with that constituency,” the official said. “Certainly the political folks would be concerned about that issue.”
Another source close to the White House argued that this concern is overblown.
“I think some people at the White House including the president might be overly concerned about this, I really don’t think that’s a problem for them,” the source said. “Steve and Breitbart do not have much pull with conservative media, their influence overstated. They could turn against Trump and he won’t like it for sure, I’m not sure it will matter.”
After running a flurry of anti-Kushner stories, Breitbart has cooled down in recent days. Business Insider reported that Breitbart writers had been ordered by editors to stop attacking Kushner.
But the site’s history with Bannon, who shaped it into the aggressive pro-Trump organ it became over the course of the 2016 election, leaves a lingering threat in the air. Could it be weaponized if he leaves?
“It’ll be open warfare against those that Bannon has dubbed the West Wing Democrats and the people who were behind his fall from grace, from Trump’s good graces,” said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for the site. “And I suspect that the ideological and policy direction that Trump takes will come under significant scrutiny from Breitbart and the Laura Ingrahams and Mark Levins of the world.”
“I think that they’ll wait until something definitive happens with Steve’s position until they unleash their dogs of war,” Bardella said.
One friend of Bannon’s argued that Breitbart has actually been caught flat-footed by the twisting allegiances inside the White House, and was unprepared for what became the real threat to Bannon’s position.
“You had some of them fighting with Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus when in reality the real opponents are Gary Cohn, Dina Powell and Jared Kushner, they were the real opposition,” the friend said. “They have been amassing troops at the border ever since November 8.”
“It would be an absolutely massive boon to Breitbart if he returned,” the friend said of Bannon. “I also think it would be a good check on the administration.”
“If I were him, I would look at the outside group very strongly,” the friend said, referring to a pro-Trump political group associated with the Mercer family of Republican donors who are close with Bannon and with Trump called Making America Great. The New York Times reported recently that Rebekah Mercer had held discussions about what Bannon could do if he leaves the White House.
Even despite the fact that Bannon is in place for now, the backlash on the base towards Trump is “massive,” this friend said. “The prevailing consensus is where’s the beef? All the things you’ve campaigned on, all the promises.”
What’s still unclear is how broad the backlash to Trump’s shifts and Bannon’s diminished status truly is , what it means, and whether the unhappiness is shared by a majority of Trump supporters and not just Trump’s most diehard nationalist fans.
Last week I received an email from Patrick Howley, a former Breitbart writer who left last year after the election and is in the process of launching a competing site called Big League Politics.
“I’m declaring war on Gary Cohn,” read the subject line. I asked what he meant. Howley said, “A sustained campaign of opposition research, agitation, and media manipulation intended to completely undermine Gary Cohn in the conservative and populist nationalist movements so that he cannot become White House chief of staff.”
But on Thursday, Howley backed down when I asked him about this again.
Bannon, he said, had not asked him to lay off Cohn. But “I know that he is in a position now where he’s being a team player and not fighting with other people in the White House. He doesn’t have to tell me something for me to take a cue, or Boyle for that matter.”
For now, Bannon is “not gonna resign unless things get really horrific,” said another source close to the White House. But “if he’s neutered, what difference does it make?