Steve Bannon is a devout Catholic who believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it’s the story of Christ’s descent into hell that occupies his mind most this Easter weekend.
The embattled chief strategist to President Donald Trump is a student of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century nun and German mystic whose visions, documented in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, served as inspiration for The Passion of the Christ, the 2003 film by Mel Gibson (who, incidentally, Bannon once reportedly tried to work with on a movie about, among other things, Adolf Hitler and eugenics).
In that book, in a chapter favored by Bannon, this is how Emmerich describes hell: “All in this dreary abode tends to fill the mind with horror; not a word of comfort is heard or a consoling idea admitted; the one tremendous thought, that the justice of an all-powerful God inflicts on the damned nothing but what they have fully deserved, is the absorbing tremendous conviction which weighs down each heart.” Those poor souls in hell are notable not for their misfortune, but for their deservedness. (Coincidentally, I’m sure, Emmerich also predicts that Lucifer will be “unchained for a time fifty or sixty years before the year of Christ 2000”; Trump was born fifty-four years before, in 1946.)
Likewise in the White House, where Bannon has endured a cinematic and enthusiastically documented fall in recent weeks, there is a sense that he made his own dismal fate. “All of his problems today are of his own making,” one source with knowledge of the latest West Wing drama told me of Bannon. “Whether Bannon is gone or not is an open question. Whether he’s neutered? He’s neutered. There was a time he had influence. His influence has waned.”
Media reports have not been subtle in characterizing Bannon’s political future. The New York Times branded him “doomed” while Politico planned his funeral (while also predicting a “revenge saga”). But as with all things Trump, the truth may be at once less and more predictable than that. “You’re always up and down with Trump,” another source said. “There’s always gonna be a favorite.”
Trump is dissatisfied and looking to assign blame for a first 100 days in office defined by humiliation and defeat, according to half a dozen sources I’ve spoken to in recent days. At any given moment, what irks him might be the death of the health-care bill, or the early misstep on the travel ban, or, perhaps most painfully of all, the old media chatter that Bannon is, in the words of Time, “the great manipulator.” Trump attempted to dispel the latter perception last week in a remark to the New York Post, denying Bannon credit for the election victory against Hillary Clinton (“I’m my own strategist”). “There was obviously residual lagging effects for all the press that Steve got,” another source said. Trump mentioned to the Post an ominous threat to “straighten out” tensions between Bannon and the presumably untouchable Jared Kushner. Bannon also might be paying the price for press Trump believes, accurately or not, Bannon engineered: “He thinks Steve was leaking against Jared and Ivanka,” the source said. “If I was trying to fuck Steve? That’s what I would do.”
White House sources tell me the ideological split with Kushner is real but not quite the point — Bannon’s primary “gunfight” is with economic adviser Gary Cohn, a longtime Democrat whose influence has ballooned as Bannon has fallen out of favor with the president. The Goldman Sachs alums — Bannon was an investment banker there in the ’80s, Cohn was the COO until earlier this year — can comfortably “shoot the shit,” but mutual suspicion looms beneath the superficial friendliness. “Look, in all honesty? Steve has said things to me about Gary,” a source close to Bannon told me. “He’s never said one thing to me derogatory about Jared.”
“The president has started his love affair with Gary,” another source said, “Gary’s not aware of this: That love affair will end abruptly. Gary Cohn will step on a landmine.”
Many sources believe Bannon’s “fatal mistake” was choosing to stay out of early, top-tier hiring disputes, focusing instead on his big picture, anti-globalist agenda. But now Bannon stands alone — a self-styled radical seated at the table with ideological opponents Kushner and Cohn, who haven’t similarly been blamed for the turmoil of the first 100 days. Even White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a natural ally to Bannon, has been working more closely with Kushner recently, a source said.
Another administration official close to Bannon added, “He’s an intellectual messiah, right? There’s a little bit of a messianic, I’m gonna cure all the ills of the United States — him and Trump are like that together. But what I do think is he’s realizing [that] he needs more allies.”
For his part, Bannon appears to be abiding, if nervously — with the official divulging that he’d been “rocked” by his abrupt change in status with the president, and the uncertainty he now faces.
Trump is, for instance, both prone to nostalgia — recently calling a former aide in the middle of the night to ask his advice on a Tweet — and also deeply unsentimental. “You could play golf with this guy for 40 years, have a heart attack on the ninth hole, he’ll pick up a new golf partner on the tenth hole like nothing happened. He doesn’t give a shit, okay? Doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you,” the official said, adding, “What happens with all these guys is they get very confident in their relationship with Trump and then Trump blasts them. As soon as you think you’re in Trump’s good graces and you start to be at ease and take that for granted, that’s when you get annihilated.”
But fittingly, given the holiday, in this week’s carnage was a miracle of sorts for Bannon. The president, according to multiple sources, has been distracted at least a bit by the military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan as well as his needling of North Korea. “He’s always been enamored of the generals,” a source close to him said. “The more medals you’re wearing on your chest, the more he likes you — that’s a danger.” For someone trying to keep a low profile in the White House, it might seem like welcome cover.