“Well, we’ll see,” Donald Trump said of Steve Bannon’s future on Tuesday, while speaking to the press in the lobby of Trump Tower. “I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine,” he went on, “but Mr. Bannon came on very late. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries.” Trump added that he believed Bannon to be “a good person” and “not a racist,” but he reiterated the central point, a sort of gonzo cliffhanger in this week’s Trump Show: “… But we’ll see.”
Bannon was back in Washington at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House, where his office, which he called “the war room,” had been moved while the West Wing underwent construction. And flanking the president in front of the gold elevators were several of his enemies: Gary Cohn, the chief economic advisor; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Elaine Chao, the Transportation secretary and wife of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.
The staging was perhaps a clue. The president already knew what his viewers would soon find out: Bannon was finished, due to some combination of fucking things up, not doing enough in general, being too much of a distraction, and creating conflict that the president had grown bored of. In the following days, Bannon gave a series of candid interviews that laid bare his disagreements with other factions in the White House. As the chief strategist would go on to explain it in an interview Friday afternoon with The Weekly Standard, “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
What happens inside of the Trump White House now is not yet as clear as what will happen outside of it. In just a few weeks, Trump has isolated himself by purging his inner circle of figureheads of the Establishment and the nationalist right. What’s left are his family members, some Republicans, and a curiously substantial number of Democrats. “You do have people who were with him throughout the campaign and they understand what the base wants, but I don’t see any senior decision-makers around the president besides the vice-president who are real conservatives,” a source close to the White House told me on Friday afternoon.
The president is prone to making the following observation: “I’m the fucking president.” He believes his power is total, and that it will exist even if everyone around him ceases to. But those close to him recognize that the Republican National Committee still has the ability to exert influence among conservatives, and fear what humiliated RNC alums Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus could do. And now on the other flank, there is anxiety about how Breitbart and the alt-right more broadly will react to the latest news.
At around 6 p.m. on Friday, Bannon dialed into the Breitbart editorial conference call, news that was both a surprise and a cause for excitement among some members of the staff. He’s assumed his former position as executive chair of the far-right news website, which during the election served as an extension of the Trump campaign’s press apparatus. Those ideological foes of Bannon who remain in the president’s ear (like Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster) can expect to find themselves serving as pincushions for Breitbart and similarly aligned outlets — more than they already have. “There will be consequences for this,” the source close to the White House said. “When he’s right, they’ll commend him — but when Trump does wrong? When the Trump administration does wrong? They’re gonna know how Breitbart feels.”
Bannon returns to Breitbart with financial backing from the Mercer family, a chip on his shoulder, a year’s worth of sensitive — and classified — intel, and very little reason to hold back. When the source spoke to Bannon earlier this week and told him they hoped he would go on to use his White House credentials to “make a shitload of money,” Bannon replied: “I’m rich. I’ve already done that.” What he wanted instead, he said, was to change the world from the outside in ways he couldn’t from within the West Wing.
“The path forward on things like economic nationalism and immigration, and his ability to kind of move freely … I just think his ability to get anything done — particularly the bigger things, like the wall, the bigger, broader things that we fought for, it’s just gonna be that much harder,” Bannon told The Weekly Standard, adding that blame could be placed on, among others, “the West Wing Democrats.”
“His natural tendency — and I think you saw it this week on Charlottesville — his actual default position is the position of his base, the position that got him elected. I think you’re going to see a lot of constraints on that. I think it’ll be much more conventional.”
The future direction of the Trump White House remains to be seen — after all, even with Bannon already sidelined, this was a week in which the president played to the white-nationalist base his strategist represented at the expense of almost all his other support. And many of the policies being pushed — from immigration to trade — are much more Breitbart than they are Goldman Sachs. But it seems certain that the incoming fire will only increase, and that is something that the president, whose sensitivity is at this point well-documented, will be unhappy about.