Did Steve Bannon jump or was he pushed, with the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville — and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to call out the perpetrators — the final shove?
The chatter circulated as soon as the White House chief strategist departed last Friday. Bannon’s opponents spoke of a firing, while his allies — and Bannon himself — said that there was nothing unusual: he had planned for weeks for a resignation, but the announcement was delayed because of Charlottesville.
Turns out both sides were right. But that is only the start of a tale in which the final chapters are not yet written.
Bannon’s departure was agreed in late July with the new White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, as the retired general tried to bring order to a chaotic Executive. But then the mid-August arrangement was complicated not only by Charlottesville but also by Bannon’s last rolls of the dice: spurring Trump’s defiant statements trying to shift blame to the “alt-left” and giving an interview to a liberal outlet in which he derided Trump’s North Korea policy, called for confrontation with China, and bragged that he could replace personnel in the State Department.
Rise and Fall
The shifting fortunes of the hard-right ideologue have often grabbed headlines — perhaps to his detriment — in the seven months of the Trump Presidency. Bannon was up after the inauguration, with Trump pushing his policies such as the Muslim Ban, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change, and the rhetoric of “economic nationalism”, i.e., protectionism. He was trying to expand his influence throughout agencies, including the National Security Council where he designated positions for himself and his allies.
But the chief strategist was soon down as the Muslim Ban ran into trouble, as his ally Michael Flynn was pushed out as National Security Advisor, and as agency heads — notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Flynn’s replacement H.R. McMaster — tried to take control. He fell out with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka: Breitbart, the outlet edited by Bannon until he joined the Trump campaign in August 2016, began referring to them as “West Wing Democrats” and “globalists”, the pejorative term for those who challenged Bannon’s economic ideas. There was also the possibility of a showdown with Trump, who was said to be upset that his chief strategist was becoming the focus of attention, including an appearance on the cover of Time magazine.
Still, Bannon held on, in large part because of his access to and affinity with Trump’s aggressive, often intemperate approach. He fed the President’s paranoia, using the claim of a “Deep State” conspiracy to turn Trump against others within the Government, such as CIA Director James Comey, dismissed in May over the Trump-Russia investigation.
But the chief strategist’s constant belief in attacking enemies, inside and outside the Administration, could never offer a settled, positive moment for his President. So even though he watched the downfall in the internecine battles of White House Press Sean Spicer and then Chief of State Reince Priebus, he hit a wall with the retired generals. McMaster, who had pushed Bannon out of his position on a key committee of the National Security Council, finally found the leverage to remove Bannon’s allies from the NSC. And when John Kelly replaced Priebus amid the 10-day turmoil of Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director, Bannon’s card was marked once and for all — even if the chief strategist incorrectly thought it meant the eclipse of his “globalist” foes: “Those days are over when Ivanka can run in and lay her head on the desk and cry.”
But the show of an amicable, mutually agreed departure would never take place.
Even before Charlottesville, Bannon was speeding up the timetable, and disrupting the process, with further battles. He and his allies were whipping up an electronic and social media campaign against McMaster. They tried to rally opposition to the generals over a review of Afghanistan policy, with Bannon pushing for a privatization of the US intervention and a handover to contacts like Eric Prince, the founder of the paramilitary firm Blackwater.
On August 12, soon after the white supremacists had marched with their flags, slogans, and salutes, Trump unwittingly started the final unravelling with his diversionary blame of “many sides”. Kelly supported Kushner and Ivanka Trump in their desire for a follow-up statement focusing on racism and the white supremacy movement.
The Kelly-Kushner-Ivanka axis forced Trump to the podium with a scripted statement two days later establishing, “Racism is evil” and calling out the white supremacists. But Bannon was not finished: he told Kelly and, presumably, Trump that the statement would only appease the “Praetorian Guard” of the press. The next day, Trump — free of any script and visibly overruling and distressing Kelly and other White House staff — held his impromptu press conference at Trump Tower reverting back to his focus on the “alt-left” and implicitly defending the white supremacist marchers as a vital response over Confederate statues.
Bannon had won the battle. Now came the war: allies of Kelly spread the stories that Trump disliked Bannon’s leaking, especially about the White House in-fighting, and the books and articles portraying the chief strategist as the power in the Executive. The President, in his tradition of playing factions off against each other — and knowing that Bannon’s departure statement had been due the preceding day, only to be postponed — said at Trump Tower that he would see about his advisor’s future.
On Wednesday, a day later, Bannon then — unwittingly or deliberately — committed “suicide by journalist”. Piqued by a story in The American Prospect about North Korea and China, he called up the journalist to complain about the approach — which he blamed on the generals — threatening a showdown with Pyongyang. The enemy, he said, was China in an economic war. He added his boasts about his influence, mirroring McMaster’s success in ousting the chief strategist’s allies with the illusion that he could do the same throughout Government.
The article was quickly presented to Trump. On Friday morning, in a staff meeting, the President said his right-hand ideologue would be leaving that day.
By Friday evening, Bannon was back as executive chairman of Breitbart, whose staff had declared “#WAR” on the White House as soon as their boss’s departure was announced.
Bannon refined the blunt declaration at the evening meeting. It would a war for Trump but against Trump’s enemies — not the counter-protesters at Charlottesville or even the “fake media” but those within the White House.
On Sunday, August 20, Breitbart headlined, “H.R. McMaster Endorsed Book That Advocates Quran-Kissing Apology Ceremonies”. And on Monday it pinned the blame on the National Security Advisor for Trump’s response to the deaths of 10 sailors aboard the USS John McCain in a collision near Singapore, “Source: McMaster Fails to Brief Trump Before ‘That’s Too Bad’ Error”.
As a Bannon ally summarized, perhaps without thinking through the implications for Donald Trump, “Winter is Here”.