Stephen Bannon’s apology for his comments trashing Donald Trump’s family did little to tamp down the president’s anger at his former chief strategist, as aides describe the president demanding a stark choice from supporters of both men: you’re either with Bannon, or with me.
Trump’s aides are tracking who came out with full-throated criticism of Bannon over the weekend, and they put out the word that the president is keeping score.
“I don’t know if it’s ever repairable,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who has been friends with Bannon for two decades. “These wounds are pretty deep.”
The implications for Trump’s agenda are stark: at a moment when he needs maximum coordination to push through infrastructure, welfare reform and funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, he’s at war with the leader of the party’s activist base — the very voters who propelled Trump to the White House in 2016.
Bannon’s lengthy apology followed days of scorching responses from the president, both in public and privately to aides, to comments attributed to Bannon in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
It also comes after key financial backers Rebekah Mercer and Sheldon Adelson cut ties, and questions simmered about Bannon’s continued role at Breitbart, the conservative news website. These could doom his efforts to oust mainstream Republican incumbents in Congress and replace them with nationalist or anti-establishment alternatives. And those very mainstream GOP lawmakers, furious among other things at Bannon’s role in a losing Senate campaign in Alabama in December, won’t shed any tears.
“He may or may not know it, but the only way he is relevant to anyone other than the people he pays is if Trump lets him be,” said Fred Brown, a crisis communications strategist and former GOP spokesman. “The fact that Bannon was dumb enough to make people choose between him and the president shows he has a more delusional opinion of himself than even Trump does.”
Michael Wolff’s explosive book, publication of which was moved up four days to Jan. 5 despite — or because of — a cease-and-desist order from Trump, asserts that many of the president’s own top advisers think the former New York real estate developer is unfit to serve.
Trump, 71, who on Saturday declared himself a “very stable genius” in a tweet and later held a press conference at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland to drive the point home, said Bannon had “lost his mind” after being forced out of the White House in August.
The president has minimized Bannon’s role in Trump’s 2016 election win, characterized him as self-interested and destructive, and nicknamed him “Sloppy Steve.” At the same time, Trump denounced Wolff’s book as “fiction,” as well as “really boring.” On Sunday he bemoaned a “Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.”
While Trump is known for resuming ties with former advisers he has ousted, Bannon’s transgressions cut so close to the nerve that they probably can’t be reversed. As of Sunday evening, no one from the White House had directly reached out to Bannon since the fallout, three people familiar with the matter said.
‘Out Of Touch’
White House officials instructed television surrogates over the weekend to swing harder at Bannon, noting that Trump would be watching. Among those following the order to the letter was senior adviser Stephen Miller, who said Bannon’s comments were “vindictive” and “out of touch with reality” and that his importance to the campaign and administration had been greatly exaggerated. Miller was once among those most closely aligned with Bannon.
Wolff’s book says Bannon labeled as “treasonous” Donald Trump Jr.’s and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s 2016 meeting with Russian nationals, held in an attempt to dig up dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton, and called Trump’s daughter Ivanka “dumb as a brick.”
Bannon also predicted in the book that the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia would “crack” Trump Jr. “like an egg on national TV.” In his apology on Sunday, Bannon didn’t specifically deny the comments.
In the apology, Bannon said his support for the president and for Trump’s agenda was “unwavering,” and that his comments about the Russian meeting were aimed at Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort rather than Trump’s son, whom he described as “both a patriot and a good man.”
Corey Lewandowski, who preceded Manafort as campaign manager, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “I can’t justify what Steve said.” If what Bannon was reported to have said was accurate, he owes “the entire Trump family” an apology. At the same time, Lewandowski, who himself has floated in and out of Trump’s orbit over the past two years, suggested a path for Bannon’s rehabilitation.
“If Steve Bannon wants to get on the Trump team and join with the president to make sure that we hold the House in 2018, and we hold the Senate or expand our majority, then he’ll be welcome to do that,” Lewandowski offered. “But if you want to run an agenda which is antithetical to the president’s agenda, then there’s no place in the Republican Party for you because Donald Trump is the head of the Republican Party.”