On Sunday night, America got a taste of what it’s like to be in a Trump strategy session when Steve Bannon sat down with Charlie Rose and delivered contradictory prognostications in a frenetic tone while inexplicably wearing at least three black shirts.
Some of the advice Bannon doled out on 60 Minutes seemed far more reasonable than the plans ultimately pursued by the White House. For instance, he appeared to confirm that he had argued against Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, acknowledging that it may be the biggest mistake in “modern political history” because it led to the appointment of a special counsel in the Russia probe. He also said he thinks it was unwise for Trump to set up a battle within the GOP over immigration reform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections:
STEVE BANNON: I’m worried about losing the House now because of this — of — because of DACA. And my fear is that with this six months down range, if we have another huge — if this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013. And to me, doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise.
Bannon’s proposed solution made less sense. He suggested that if the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were ended decisively, hundreds of thousands of young people would opt to return to their country of origin — though many can barely remember it. “As the work permits run out, they self-deport,” he said. “There’s no path to citizenship, no path to a green card and no amnesty. Amnesty is non-negotiable.”
Bannon didn’t get to weigh in on that decision in an official capacity, since he left his role as President Trump’s chief strategist and returned to Breitbart last month. Bannon grew defensive when Rose suggested he was forced out of the White House after his influence waned:
CHARLIE ROSE: Did General Kelly say to you, “You’ve gotta go”?
STEVE BANNON: Absolutely not. What General — I went to General Kelly on August 7th saying, “My one-year anniversary’s coming up.” And in fact, when I went to him on the 7th and said, “Hey, I am — I’m gonna put in my letter of resignation, and I’m gonna be outta here on the 14th. It’ll be one year to the date.”
CHARLIE ROSE: But by that time, and you know this, you were isolated inside the White House.
STEVE BANNON: That’s not — absolutely not true. I still — I was still — I had the same influence on the president I had on Day One.
Bannon explained he wanted to go because there were “certain things” he couldn’t do in his role as chief strategist. “I cannot take the fight to who we have to take the fight to when I’m an advisor to the president as a federal government employee,” he said.
Apparently one of those things was openly declaring war on the Republican Establishment. Bannon described embracing the GOP Establishment as the “original sin of the administration,” explaining that the Trump team felt in the days after the election that they would need their help to govern. However, their deal with congressional leaders to spend Trump’s first year in office repealing Obamacare, enacting tax reform, and passing an infrastructure bill quickly went off the rails. Now Bannon believes that mainstream Republicans were never really interested in Making America Great Again:
STEVE BANNON: The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election. That’s a brutal fact we have to face. I think Mitch McConnell, and to a degree, Paul Ryan. They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. It’s obvious as — it’s obvious as the — it’s obvious as night follows day is what they’re trying to do —
Thus, he’s decided to go after Establishment Republicans:
STEVE BANNON: They’re not gonna help you unless they’re put on notice. They’re gonna be held accountable if they do not support the president of the United States. Right now there’s no accountability. They have totally — they do not support the president’s program. It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill. Everybody in this city knows it.
CHARLIE ROSE: And so therefore, now that you’re out of the White House, you’re going to war with them?
STEVE BANNON: Absolutely.
There’s been some confusion about what it means when the Trump administration puts someone “on notice,” but in this case it appears to mean unseating Republican lawmakers who won’t get behind Trump’s agenda. Politico reports that Bannon is leading an effort to mount primary challenges against a handful of Senate Republicans:
Bannon has begun holding private meetings with insurgent challengers, vowing his support. He’s coordinating with conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attacks on GOP incumbents. Bannon has also installed a confidant at an outside group that is expected to target Republican lawmakers and push the Trump agenda.
Potential targets include senators Dean Heller, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and Roger Wicker. Top Republicans are said to be alarmed about the possibility that the Republican Party will be forced to spend millions fending off pro-Trump primary challengers, rather than Democrats, and McConnell has reportedly warned the White House repeatedly that this strategy puts the slim Republican Senate majority at risk.
“The issue is: Do you invest your time and energy in attacking people who are carrying this president’s water in Congress to the benefit of people who are trying to impeach him? That seems like an incredibly short-sighted strategy,” Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff, told Politico.
It’s not entirely clear why Bannon thinks his 2018 GOP showdown will succeed while the immigration fight will give Democrats the House, but he seems confident in his plan. After all, he quit his White House job to pursue it (or just came up with it after he was asked to leave).