When scoops from Michael Wolff’s about-to-be-published new book featuring extensive reporting about Trump’s election and first year in office appeared today in a report by the Guardian and in an excerpt at New York, you had to figure an explosion from the White House was imminent. Matt Drudge proclaimed the disclosures in the New York excerpt were creating a “hellstorm.” And it was easy to predict who would be the target of White House rage: Steve Bannon. Wolff reports that the president’s former chief strategist mocked members of Trump’s family (notably Don, Jr., whom he described as potentially “treasonous” and a sitting duck for the Mueller investigation), and reinforced Wolff’s hypothesis that Trump’s whole team was shocked and chagrined by their election victory. As Jonathan Swan rightly said, Bannon had touched “the third rail of Trumpworld.”
Bannon’s comments won’t surprise anyone who’s spoken to him, but as on the record statements they are shocking sources close to the president. The White House was prepared for the Wolff book to be bad for them — and sources there have told me he spent a ton of time in the building visiting with Bannon — but they weren’t prepared for Bannon doing this.
Still, the White House statement — from the president himself — was amazing:
Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican party.
Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans. Steve doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself.
Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.
We have many great Republican members of Congress and candidates who are very supportive of the Make America Great Again agenda. Like me, they love the United States of America and are helping to finally take our country back and build it up, rather than simply seeking to burn it all down.”
Trump is essentially denouncing Bannon as a poseur who had little or nothing to do with Trump’s victory, and who spent much of his brief time in power leaking negative information to hostile writers.
Interestingly enough, the president does not get into the underlying assertions made by Bannon in Wolff’s account — about Don Jr. or Jared or the Election Night shock — or express any doubt about the accuracy of Wolff’s quotes. And the real offense to his sensibilities seems to be reflected by this remark: “Now that he’s on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.”
While Bannon may or may not have represented a key asset in Trump’s presidential campaign, there is zero doubt that the eccentric ex–Goldman Sachs banker and movie maker deployed his Breitbart News effectively as a powerful weapon on Trump’s behalf in both the 2016 cycle and after the mogul took office. And to the extent that anyone can be called an architect of Trumpism as a semi-coherent political ideology, it is surely Bannon. He’s the one, more than anyone else in Trumpworld, who was able to connect the Trump phenomenon not only to American political trends but to the global emergence of “populist nationalism.” So in excommunicating Bannon from a church he helped build, Trump is doing definite if unpredictable damage to his legacy.
Most immediately, there is the question of how Breitbart News and the many right-wing opinion leaders it influences will deal with this split between its chairman and its hero (at the moment, the news of Trump’s statement is at the top of the site’s front page, without much comment), featuring its most insulting line: “When he was fired, [Bannon] not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” Yes, Trump has a long history of laughing off — and asking others to laugh off — nasty remarks he’s made; his apparently happy relationship with “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz is just one of many examples.
But you get the impression that this time Trump means what he says, and that Bannon has committed the Trumpworld equivalent of the unforgivable sin against the holy ghost: He’s claimed repeatedly that Trump represents something bigger than himself. To Trump, there is nothing bigger than himself.