“We’re just finishing,” Steve Bannon told me. “Reince is giving me my daily back massage.”
The two men burst into a fit of conspiratorial laughter.
“Off the record!” Reince Priebus said.
“Off the record!” Bannon repeated.
They continued to laugh.
It was Tuesday morning and, having just returned from a weekend jaunt to the “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and the White House chief of staff huddled in the latter’s West Wing office to, as they put it, “help make the truth come out.” Specifically, the two men wanted to address, in each other’s company, reports in the media — many based on quotes from high-level White House officials — that they are engaged in a bitter, zero-sum power struggle to win primacy with Trump, instead of continuing to function as improbable co-equals. The contest is now, the story goes, being waged in the form of damaging leaks about each other.
Plenty of savvy media observers see obvious intent in the gush of leaks now coming out of the White House. “If you read between the lines in some of the anonymous quotes,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, said, “it’s clear that Bannon, [Jared] Kushner, and Priebus are spending half their time blaming each other and the other half ensuring they don’t get the blame.”
But Bannon and Priebus said these impressions are wrong, and that rumors and reports that they are furiously leaking to gut each other and gain more sway with Trump are mostly media inventions. Any leaks come from lower down the totem pole. The truth, they said, is that they are rather chummy.
Bannon and Priebus spoke with me on a prearranged conference call, joined by Katie Walsh, Priebus’s deputy, and Lindsay Walters, deputy to press secretary Sean Spicer. For about 25 minutes, talking into Walsh’s cell phone on speaker mode, Bannon and Priebus performed a buddy comedy, finishing each other’s sentences and swearing up and down that they are good friends who work together well — and constantly.
“I’m quite aggressive, and Reince is a calming influence on hey — bang bang bang, here’s how we ought to think about doing that,” Bannon said, explaining how their personal styles complement each other.
“We talk a lot, pretty much all day long,” Priebus said. “And then we communicate at night —”
“Until we fall asleep,” Bannon interjected with a laugh.
Priebus cut in, “Until somebody falls asleep … You fell asleep last night.”
“I did,” Bannon said.
“I think, like, a quarter to 11,” Priebus added.
“I did,” Bannon said.
“He became unresponsive,” Priebus laughed.
Claims to the contrary, Priebus said, are upsetting to both of them. “It bothers us because it’s not true, and we actually like and care about each other a lot. So it’s sort of like, if we were just sort of colleagues that kind of tolerate each other every day, maybe it wouldn’t bother us. But because it’s the total opposite — and we’re sitting here, and we’re friends and we’ve kind of been to hell and back ten times together and we like each other — so then we see these things, yeah, it bothers us because it sort of hurts our friendship, and it’s not truthful.”
Bannon dismissed the entire theory as a manifestation of media myopia and incuriosity. “The opposition party” — meaning the press, not the Democrats — “has to have …” He paused. “Since they’re too dumb and too lazy to actually do any work, um — am I over my skis here right now?” he asked Priebus.
“No, no,” Priebus laughed.
“They have to come up with the gossipy stuff. It’s just like on the campaign,” Bannon continued.
He criticized the “well-paid media” and “all the commentators” who couldn’t predict Trump’s victory, blaming them for having “never rolled up their sleeves” to do the hard work of analyzing demographics and economics, which, he believes, would have revealed Trump was tapping into something. “It’s very easy to write the gossipy stuff,” he said, mocking the media for reading into Priebus’s Republican National Committee background, or casting himself and Stephen Miller as “wild men” and people “who are crazy.”
Writing those stories, he said, was “easy” because it only required talking to “underlings around here” and then “you just kind of type it up.”
There’s no question that the men offer a study in stark contrasts. After stints at Goldman Sachs and in Hollywood, Bannon got involved in populist right-wing media, taking control of Breitbart News after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart. He labeled it “the platform for the alt-right” in an interview last year. The alt-right, a broad label for the fringe far-right (including outright racists and anti-Semites), is at the forefront of the outsider hordes that are overrunning the conservative Establishment — that is, the political culture that produced Priebus, two-time chairman of the RNC.
They even wear their differences: Bannon dresses in casual black clothing and is generally unshaven, while Priebus — called “anal retentive” by one source — is usually clad in crisp suits and bright-colored ties that make him look like he’s just stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue.
But there’s a bipartisan perspective that what’s happening isn’t normal. Steve Schmidt, who served in the George W. Bush White House, told me that the tactics employed by Trump officials — like leaking as a means of harming the competition within — would have been “unthinkable” in the Bush or Obama administrations. “What you’re seeing here is a total lack of discipline and an utterly chaotic process,” he said, comparing it to Game of Thrones. Jon Favreau, the former director of speechwriting for President Obama, had a different reference. “Every White House has its share of leaks and infighting,” he said. “But this is like Hunger Games shit.”
Even some people inside the White House see Priebus’s mark on the emerging narrative that Bannon is the mastermind behind Trump’s populism — a story Trump surely dislikes. “He hates that,” one source close to the president said. “The way to kill somebody in the Trump orbit is to say to him, Oh, this guy’s your brain! He’s calling the shots! You’re just a fucker who does what he says! That’s the surest way to kill somebody, even if that somebody is doing a really good job.”
And potentially worse than suggesting Trump isn’t thinking for himself is diverting the spotlight away from him at all. “Bannon’s been very shrewd to give no interviews because when Trump urged [former campaign manager Paul] Manafort to give interviews and Trump urged Kellyanne [Conway] to give interviews — and they both went out there and did that and they both did a very good job — I still think there’s some jealousy,” the source said, noting that while Bannon has spoken occasionally to print media, he has stayed away from television. “The Trump show only has one star, there are no co-stars.”
Priebus denied any involvement in furthering that narrative about Bannon. “If I were the mastermind behind the Steve Bannon–brain story, Steve would know about it, because he’s sitting here in my office all day long,” he told me. “It’s totally ridiculous and I don’t have time to play the double-reverse-agent role and run the White House at the same time. It’s totally ridiculous and Steve would know because he’s sitting right here!”
The two of them laughed. “It’s all phony-baloney garbage that doesn’t exist and I hope that you can clear that up in the article,” Priebus added.
Bannon claimed that usually leaks from the Trump White House weren’t coming from people “in the room.”
He pointed to the example of Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge funder who was tapped to work at the White House as a liaison to the business community, before he was suddenly and unexpectedly sidelined just before his scheduled swearing-in. Plenty of observers saw it as a power move by Priebus, who is generally acknowledged to be in control of staffing. Scaramucci, who has known the president and Bannon since the mid-1990s and maintains a friendly relationship with both, would have posed a threat to the chief of staff, goes the theory.
“You can tell when the stories come out, like the Scaramucci thing, it’s so 180 opposite from what reality is, we sit here and laugh about it, right?” Bannon said. “It’s like these two factions and they’re all fighting for” that is, about — “Scaramucci? Riiight,” he said sarcastically.
“It’s not true,” Priebus said of the rumors that he nixed the hire. “The person closest to Anthony in the entire West Wing is me,” he said. “So, Bannon and Anthony know each other but I’m the closest to Anthony, and I love the guy. Whatever the narrative is that’s out there is 100 percent false.”
The White House similarly shot down claims that Priebus also undercut Monica Crowley, a Fox News personality who was Trump’s pick for a prominent national-security communications job. When she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist, Priebus, sources said, forbade Crowley from appearing on TV to defend herself, and before long, she was asked to resign. Spicer, through an email, said there was “zero” truth to that story.
True or not, paranoia has certainly set in among vulnerable members of the administration and those within its orbit, the most worried of whom have focused their frustrations and concerns on Priebus. They’ve nicknamed him “Rancid,” the creature of the swamp they thought they were going to drain.
Are these and other pesky underlings also hell-bent on sabotaging the relationship of the president’s two most important staffers? Or, to borrow a phrase from Trump, is something going on here?