Previously on the Bizarro World version of The West Wing, Steve Bannon’s far-right campaign to get the national security adviser fired appeared to be backfiring. With Rupert Murdoch urging Trump to fire his chief strategist and the introduction of a new character, Chief of Staff John Kelly, it seemed we might finally see the Bannon exit the show has been hinting at all season.
But Wednesday’s episode ended with a shocking twist: In a callback to the dramatic departure of Anthony Scaramucci after he called The New Yorker to share some profane thoughts about his co-workers, Bannon called Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect and shared his own unfiltered, possibly career-ending musings.
Kuttner says that Bannon, whom he’s never spoken to before, contacted him on Tuesday after reading his column in the liberal magazine on how China is profiting from the U.S.–North Korea standoff. Bannon told Kuttner he “absolutely nailed it,” and said he saw no reason to curtail the “economic war with China,” since Beijing won’t take stronger action against Pyongyang and mutually assured destruction will rein in both sides. Then he contradicted Trump’s threat to respond to any provocations from North Korea with “fire and fury”:
There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.
When asked about those in the Trump administration who still want to enlist China’s help, Bannon said, “Oh, they’re wetting themselves.” He claimed he’s replacing East Asian defense officials with “hawks,” and getting Susan Thornton, the acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, fired from the State Department. But can Bannon take on so many of his colleagues?
“That’s a fight I fight every day here,” he said. “We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and [National Economic Council chair] Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying.”
“We gotta do this. The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s like, every day.”
Bannon suggested he was calling Kuttner because he needed the backing of trade hawks on both the left and the right. As Kuttner notes, the idea that working with liberals would help Bannon win his war against other Trump officials does not make sense. Nor does the idea that liberals would ally themselves with one of the White House figures most closely associated with white nationalism. But Bannon had some interesting thoughts on that point:
I asked Bannon about the connection between his program of economic nationalism and the ugly white nationalism epitomized by the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s reluctance to condemn it. Bannon, after all, was the architect of the strategy of using Breitbart to heat up white nationalism and then rely on the radical right as Trump’s base.
He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism — it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.
From his lips to Trump’s ear.
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Kuttner says, “The question of whether the phone call was on or off the record never came up.” A short time after the piece went up, crashing The American Prospect’s servers, Axios reported that Bannon thought he was discussing Kuttner’s piece off the record, not giving an interview.
Nevertheless, Bannon’s colleagues are said to be fuming. One of his co-workers, who isn’t usually a Bannon enemy, told Axios: “Since Steve apparently enjoys casually undermining U.S. national security, I’ll put this in terms he’ll understand: This is DEFCON 1-level bad.”
Bannon is one of the most politically savvy people in the country, and prior to joining the Trump administration he ran a media company for several years. So, what’s Bannon really up to? Here are some possibilities to ponder.
Theory 1: Even Chief Strategists Make Mistakes
Kuttner told CNN he doubts Bannon was confused about the conversation because “the default setting” is “on the record.” Jonathan Swan, who penned the Axios report, thinks Bannon may have been overcome by his excitement about a trade war with China:
And some think that, as with the Mooch, this slip will prove fatal:
Theory 2: Bannon Leaked on Purpose
Many said Bannon is too smart to make such a rookie mistake, and this is just more Littlefingering — but to what end? To manipulate the left?
To score points in his feud with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster?
To show Trump who’s boss?
Or does Bannon actually think an aide’s uncensored remarks can distract from the president’s repeated, historic failure to properly condemn white supremacy?
Theory 3: Bannon Doesn't Care If He's Fired
If you’re going down, why not go out swinging, one year to the day after you first joined the Trump campaign?
The Mooch set a high (or maybe low) bar.