Trump's Policies and Jibes Suggest Bannon's Star Is Fading

  • ‘I’m my own strategist,’ president tells New York Post
  • Infighting between Bannon and Kushner spills into public

Steve Bannon's Weird, Winding Road to the White House

President Donald Trump’s message this week to his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, was hard to misunderstand: I’m president and you’re not. 

Trump’s policy decisions this week sharply departed from Bannon’s nationalist, “America First” ideology, and the president’s cutting remarks to the press downplaying Bannon’s role in the White House led to questions about the adviser’s future in the administration.

Trump on Wednesday touted an expansion of NATO at a news conference where Bannon, a skeptic of the alliance, sat in the front row. The same day, Trump told the Wall Street Journal he wouldn’t declare China a currency manipulator -- breaking a major campaign promise -- backed the U.S. Export-Import Bank and continued low interest rates, and said he might keep Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her job after her term expires next year.

Those moves, and Trump’s cruise-missile strike on Syria last week, appear to conflict with the populist ideals of his chief strategist. That they came a week after infighting spilled into public between Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a centrist whose influence with Trump is growing, intensified speculation in Washington that Bannon’s role may be diminished or that he may even be on his way out of the White House.

Blame on Bannon

This article is based on interviews with 10 White House officials, Trump advisers and other Republican strategists, almost all of whom insisted on anonymity to speak candidly. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For weeks, people close to Trump have blamed Bannon for the chaos and distractions that have marred the administration’s early days, and have expressed concern about his influence over the administration’s agenda. Aides and Trump himself reportedly bristled at magazine covers and late-night comedians who depicted Bannon as the president’s puppeteer. 

At the same time, Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have sought greater influence and a reordering of priorities within the White House. One lobbyist said Ross recently told him to disregard Bannon’s anti-trade rhetoric.

Kushner Quarrel

Still, Bannon’s place in the inner circle would likely have been secure had it not been for his dustup with Kushner. 

Trump values family above all else, those close to him say, and Bannon’s fighting with Kushner could have created an irreconcilable divide. One senior administration official said it’s widely understood that the last two standing in the White House at the end of the day will be Kushner and Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump -- making any spat with either of them particularly treacherous.

Another senior White House official said that Bannon and Kushner met last week to resolve their differences at the urging of chief of staff Reince Priebus.

One long-time friend of Trump’s said he had never seen Trump criticize an employee publicly like he did Bannon this week. Trump told the New York Post that “I’m my own strategist,” and said he had told Bannon and his adversaries, whom he didn’t name, “to straighten it out or I will.” In the Journal interview, Trump described Bannon as “a guy who works for me.”

Bannon’s allies argue that there were sound reasons for Trump’s policy swings, but he has had an especially bad recent stretch, beginning with his removal from the principals committee of the National Security Council on April 4 -- the first official sign of Trump’s discontent.

In a rare move, Trump left Bannon and the rest of his senior staff behind in Washington on Thursday as he headed off for a long weekend with his family at his Palm Beach estate.

Inner Circle

Since August, Bannon has been an entrenched figure in Trump’s inner circle, wielding influence over every decision. A Harvard Business School-educated, ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. investment banker and ex-movie producer, Bannon opposes the forces of globalization and envisions a new political order hinged on working-class populism. 

He has influenced almost all executive orders Trump has signed so far, and has found purchase with the president on plans to vastly scale back the U.S. regulatory regime and the government’s bureaucracy, said Tim Miller, a partner at Definers Public Affairs and a former Jeb Bush aide.

Trump’s energy is with the Bannon wing of his party, Miller said.

"Eventually he’s going to have to return to the policies and tactics that appeal to his core supporters. Dance with the one who brung ya," Miller said.

While Trump’s policies may eventually shift back in line with Bannon’s world view, it’s unclear whether Bannon himself will still be advising him, said two people familiar with the president’s thinking.

Carrying on the Campaign

Two administration officials sought to downplay the tensions between Kushner and Bannon, and said they didn’t expect any near-term changes in Bannon’s role, which they described as that of an adviser focused on helping Trump carry through on his campaign promises.

These officials said Bannon’s influence has been overstated, pointing out that many of the president’s ideas on trade, immigration and the economy were formed before Bannon joined the campaign. In meetings, it is the president who makes the final decision and Bannon doesn’t carry any more weight than other top advisers, the officials said. They also echoed Trump’s statements earlier this week saying Bannon doesn’t deserve much credit for helping the president win.

Another Republican strategist said he expects Bannon to continue to fall out of proximity to Trump, to be excluded from meetings and that eventually he will leave to work for an outside group -- potentially the political action committee run by Rebekah Mercer, a daughter of hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. She has become an influential player in Donald Trump’s administration and is Bannon’s political patron.

A group of 56 House Democrats sent a letter to Trump on Thursday calling for the president to remove Bannon from the White House, citing what they said were his anti-government views.

“His ideology and political agenda clearly have no place in the White House,” they wrote.

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