Bannon’s Path From Trusted Attack Dog to Toxic Liability

Trump just severed a vital link to his grass-roots conservative base.

Stephen K. Bannon, White House chief strategist in the Trump administration, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., in February 2017.

Photographer: Mark Peterson/Redux

Steve Bannon’s departure as White House chief strategist abruptly severs Donald Trump’s most important political relationship — at a pivotal moment in his presidency.

Exactly a year and a day ago, on Aug. 17, Bannon, a fiery populist who ran the right-wing Breitbart News, took over Trump’s struggling presidential campaign. The two outsiders joined forces to pull off the most shocking upset in U.S. presidential history.

Bannon, a former Naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker, and conservative filmmaker, first met Trump in 2010 and was a formative political influence on the billionaire reality-television star as he explored a run for president. Trump embraced Bannon’s hard-edged nationalist populism, along with his desire to crack down on undocumented immigrants, revive the economy, and — in Trump’s famous formulation — “Make America Great Again.”

Trump also thrilled to Bannon’s transgressive instincts and eagerness to plunge into any fight, characteristics Trump shared. “Attack, attack, attack, attack,” Bannon counseled him, last October, when the release of an Access Hollywood tape of Trump making vile sexual boasts looked as if it might end his presidential campaign.

President Trump congratulates Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. 
Photographer: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In Trump, Bannon discovered a politician capable of carrying his ideas into presidential politics. Initially, Bannon pushed his ideas on Trump from outside the campaign, in his capacity as executive chairman of Breitbart News. Bannon ended his formal affiliation with the website when he joined Trump’s campaign — and, according to three close associates, will return to Breitbart now that he’s been fired.

In his first public remarks since his ouster, Bannon said he will be “going to war” for Trump, warning that he will continue to press the populist cause against the political and corporate establishment. “If there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,” Bannon said in an interview just hours after his departure was announced by the administration. 

Although Bannon was frequently described as a Rasputin figure, his role was more that of an attack dog — a role he continued up until Friday as Trump faced an ever-growing backlash over his remarks this week on race. Bannon was one of the few White House officials publicly defending the president as the ensuing crisis engulfed Trump’s presidency, causing business leaders, military officials, and some Republican politicians to criticize or abandon him. Now he has lost his chief strategist, too.

In parting ways with Bannon, Trump also severed one of his most important links to the grass-roots conservative base that propelled him into the White House — right at the very moment Trump needs their support the most. Bannon’s unquestioning loyalty, along with his hostility toward establishment politicians, made him an admired and respected figure among these voters.

“Steve played an integral part in the president’s journey to the White House,” says Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser. “He went into the White House and didn’t betray his values, worked every day to advance the agenda that the president was elected on. Trump’s voters may get upset that America’s not being made great again. We’ll find out.”

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump listened to Bannon — and he won. This gave rise to a powerful political partnership that moved into the West Wing. Bannon hoped that together he and Trump would radically remake the federal government along the nationalist lines that Trump campaigned on so successfully. But Bannon’s aggressive instincts and sharp elbows didn’t translate to the White House. Both men’s aggressive, domineering style proved a poor fit for the intricacies and complications of governing. The cost of Trump’s inability to adjust to the byways of Washington legislating was made clear in the failure of the Republican health-care bill last month.

The cost of Bannon’s failure to adapt from campaigning to governing became evident on Friday. Ignoring efforts by Trump’s new chief of staff, former Marine Corps General John Kelly, to cease the internecine warfare that had roiled the West Wing throughout Trump’s brief presidency, Bannon on Wednesday gave a rare interview to the American Prospect, a liberal policy journal, in which he vowed to oust his ideological opponents in the State and Defense departments, who, he claimed, were “wetting themselves” over some of his plans.

Bannon also criticized National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, a former top executive at Goldman Sachs, and seemed to target another rival, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “We’re still fighting,” Bannon said. “There’s Treasury and Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying.” Worse still, Bannon publicly undercut the president’s stern warnings to North Korea’s rogue regime, telling the Prospect there was no practical military solution. “They got us,” Bannon shrugged.

As late as Friday morning, Bannon was telling associates that he believed he would hold on to his job. But his ill-timed public comments followed months of complaints from White House rivals that Bannon was a divisive force whose influence on the president had steered the administration into turmoil and stasis.

Kelly agreed, and by afternoon, Bannon’s fate was sealed.

Although Bannon was often portrayed as “The Great Manipulator,” as a famous Time magazine cover put it, the role he played for Trump was frequently his most ardent loyalist and ferocious defender.

When Trump was criticized for calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists during his June 2015 presidential announcement speech, Bannon urged him to double down and helped organize a trip for the candidate to the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, to repeat the sentiment. When Trump was challenged by then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in the first GOP primary debate, Bannon led the counterattack from his position running Breitbart News, the right-wing populist website.

After the Access Hollywood tape seemed to threaten Trump’s candidacy, Bannon gathered four women who had accused Hillary Clinton of abetting sexually inappropriate behavior toward them by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. This gambit helped galvanize leery Republican voters behind Trump — a critical occurrence that enabled his narrow victory over Clinton a month later.

Yet Trump has bridled at Bannon’s public profile and the credit he’s often given for helping the billionaire television star and novice candidate pull off the astonishing defeat of Clinton in last November’s presidential election. On Aug. 17, 2016, Bannon took over a Trump campaign in turmoil and infused it with his hard-edged populist politics.

“The campaign has been too lethargic, too reactive,” Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek, shortly after his hiring. “It’s not going to be a traditional campaign.” Within days of his hiring, Paul Manafort, who had been running Trump’s campaign, was fired, effectively leaving Bannon in charge.

From left: Adviser Stephen Miller, Bannon, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus listen as President Trump speaks before signing a presidential memorandum on the investigation of steel imports in the Oval Office on April 20, 2017.
Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

When Bannon joined the campaign from his position running Breitbart News, Trump was mired in controversy and trailing Clinton in the polls. He had just presided over a dark and divisive Republican convention whose themes contrasted sharply with the optimism presidential nominees usually try to convey. In the weeks after the convention, Trump became embroiled in public spats with Fox News’s Kelly and the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim U.S. Army captain killed in 2004 during the Iraq War.

Bannon quickly reoriented Trump’s message to focus almost exclusively on “Crooked Hillary” — Trump’s belittling nickname for his opponent — encouraging Trump to air his contention that a sinister cabal of “crony capitalists,” bankers, and establishment-minded political leaders was conspiring against the American people. Out on the campaign trail, Trump, whose talent for attacking opponents proved formidable, accused Clinton of plotting “the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors,” as he put it in an Oct. 13 speech in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Bannon’s distinctive politics drew from a swirling miasma of right-wing talk radio, conservative Catholicism, and his deep reading of fascist and Nazi intellectuals of the 1930s and ’40s, all of which was meant to give ballast to his “America First” populism. Filtered through Trump, this angry, anti-immigrant populist message proved astonishingly effective, carrying the novice candidate to the Republican nomination and the White House.

Soon after defeating Clinton, Trump named Bannon his chief strategist. In that role, Bannon quickly designed what he called a “shock and awe” flurry of executive actions that were intended to rapidly reorient the government toward Trump’s policies. This included a harsh crackdown on immigrants living in the country unlawfully; an expansion of law enforcement officials empowered to enforce immigration laws; and, most controversially, a temporary ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The latter order, sprung with little notice late in the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 27, sparked nationwide protests at airports in most major U.S. cities. A federal judge quickly blocked the order, though a rewritten version was later permitted to take partial effect. Bannon told associates that the timing of the order was intentional — and that he expected opponents, freed from work on the weekend, to stage angry protests that would draw attention to Trump’s action and galvanize his supporters as he followed through on a campaign promise.

These early weeks of Trump’s presidency marked the high point of Bannon’s influence. The initial failure to implement the travel ban, and the angry backlash it generated among lawmakers of both parties, hurt Trump’s standing. On Feb. 2, Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick resigned from Trump’s business advisory council under public pressure.

Thereafter, Bannon was a constant source of controversy in the administration and the subject of an ongoing campaign by rival Trump officials and some Trump family members to remove him from his White House position.

On April 5, Bannon was stripped of his position on the National Security Council. Even so, he continued waging internal battles to try and shape Trump’s foreign policy. This increasingly brought him into conflict with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, with whom Bannon carried on an increasingly public feud. Bannon generally favored a non-interventionist approach to dealing with global trouble spots that ranged from Afghanistan and North Korea to Syria.

Trump’s ouster of Chief of Staff Reince Preibus on July 28 was driven in part by the desire of top White House officials to clamp down on the internecine fighting. Preibus’s replacement Kelly immediately set about trying to impose hierarchy and discipline on a West Wing that had mostly resisted it.

Bannon walks toward Marine One after President Trump boarded on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 27, 2017. 
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Along with other top White House officials, Bannon agreed to defer to Kelly and curb his attacks on his colleagues. But the discipline didn’t last long. Bannon, who liked to compare himself to the rule-breaking “Honey Badger” of YouTube fame, soon veered from the script and resumed attacking his White House enemies.

As the Trump presidency became engulfed in crisis following the commander-in-chief’s combative declaration that more than just white supremacists were responsible for the Charlottesville bloodshed, Bannon was in the midst of playing his familiar role: the president’s lone defender. He seemed to believe that this granted him license to recommence his policy battles with White House colleagues.

His interview this week with the American Prospect was just the sort of rule-breaking Bannon had gotten away with before. Bannon talked to Robert Kuttner, the Prospect’s editor, about a range of subjects, including North Korea. His remarks undermined Trump’s hawkish stance toward that regime by stating “they got us” and indicating that U.S. military intervention there wasn’t realistic or feasible.

On Friday, following a staff review, Kelly made sure once and for all that Bannon would cease to cause such chaos in the West Wing — and decided it was time for him to go. 

(Updates first sentence to reflect that Bannon's departure was mutually agreed upon, and that he was not fired.)