WASHINGTON ― Just a few months ago, Steve Bannon was warning “establishment” Republicans that a “day of reckoning” was at hand.
As it turns out, he was right.
Bannon, President Donald Trump’s initial top aide and self-described architect of his improbable victory, has fallen faster than might have seemed possible – from “The Great Manipulator” on the cover of Time magazine to the owner of a new, derisive Trump nickname in less than a year.
“Sloppy Steve,” Trump called him Friday ― a continuation of the criticism that began on Wednesday when the president declared in a lengthy statement that Bannon had done little for his campaign or his presidency.
Bannon did not respond to a query for comment, even as his erstwhile allies abandoned him to declare their loyalty to Trump. In a new book by author Michael Wolff, Bannon is quoted as describing first son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians as “treasonous” and calling first daughter Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
The clearest beneficiary of the new schism: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose now 51-49 Republican majority was threatened by Bannon’s vow to defeat GOP incumbents and McConnell-backed challengers in the upcoming Senate primaries.
“I’d like to associate myself with what the president had to say about Steve Bannon,” McConnell said, referring to Trump’s broadsides against his former “chief strategist.”
“It kind of goes to what we’ve been saying all along. Candidates get themselves too close to Steve Bannon, they’re going to have to answer for his toxic views,” said Chris Pack, who is with the McConnell-endorsed Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. “It seems common sense at this point that you would not want to associate yourself with somebody who’s at war with the president of your own party.”
Other Republicans, critics of Trump as well as Bannon, wonder whether Bannon’s exile matters at all.
“At the end of the day, he is a fraud, and so is the president,” said John Weaver, who ran Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s GOP presidential campaign in 2016.
Weaver added that what Bannon does next, or does not do, makes no difference. “Trump and Bannon are backing the same people. They’re backing nutjobs who would lose the general election. Trump was the original Bannon. It’s not like Bannon’s the only alt-right loon who’s talking to the president.”
“It seems common sense at this point that you would not want to associate yourself with somebody who’s at war with the president of your own party.”
Bannon was the earliest right-wing media impresario to champion Trump. In the summer of 2015, he threw his Breitbart website and radio show behind the New York City reality TV host in a field of GOP senators and governors.
That move, though, was more about making Bannon’s anti-immigration ideology a central issue in the Republican primary ― Bannon had previously considered backing then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for the same reason ― than a belief that Trump could actually win.
When Trump wound up defeating the last of his Republican rivals in the spring of 2016, Bannon was given much of the credit. He took on an unofficial advisory role in the campaign, and then was given charge of it in late summer at the urging of Robert and Rebekah Mercer. The billionaire father and daughter team had supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the primaries, but came over to Trump after he locked down the nomination. They had for years funded Bannon’s ventures, including Breitbart.
Trump’s unexpected victory in November catapulted a man best known for running a white-nationalist-leaning, anti-immigrant website directly into the West Wing. On paper, Bannon was a co-equal with chief of staff Reince Priebus and on a key committee on the National Security Council. But because Bannon had no official job duties, he was free to do whatever he wanted.
And what Bannon wanted was to push through as many of his Breitbart-world agenda items as possible, as fast as possible, from withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to a disastrously implemented travel ban against a handful of majority-Muslim countries.
The resulting chaos of those early weeks became the leitmotif of the Trump White House ― an outfit that could not get out of its own way, despite having a largely docile Republican Congress at its beck and call. As spring became summer, Trump’s own family began advocating for a more traditional structure.
In August, that structure came in the form of John Kelly, the retired Marine general running the Department of Homeland Security. He took over as chief of staff with the understanding that everyone in the West Wing would henceforth report to him ― a condition that led to Bannon’s easing out by the middle of the month.
Bannon claimed he had wanted to leave and that he was actually more powerful outside the White House. Always fond of apocalyptic themes and militaristic language, Bannon told The Weekly Standard: “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ‘It’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the opposition.”
To prove it, he inserted himself into a Senate primary race in Alabama ― on the side of Roy Moore, who had been twice removed from the state Supreme Court for defying federal court orders. Trump announced his support for Luther Strange, who had been appointed to the post after Sessions became Trump’s attorney general, at the request of McConnell. McConnell and other mainstream Republicans argued that Strange would certainly win the general election, while Moore could quite possibly lose.
As it happens, that split with Trump wound up foreshadowing the even deeper, seemingly unbridgeable rift created by Wolff’s book.
Bannon relished the fight. “Mitch McConnell and this permanent political class is the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country,” he said shortly before the September runoff election. When Moore easily won, Bannon promised that it was merely the first in a series of victories that his stable of populist insurgents would win over McConnell’s candidates. “Your day of reckoning is coming,” he said.
When a series of women came forward accusing Moore of having sought sexual relations with them when they were teens ― including one who claimed Moore had sexually assaulted her when she was 14 ― Bannon refused to back down, even sending reporters from Breitbart to Alabama to destroy the women’s credibility.
Trump, apparently consulting with Bannon, declared that he believed Moore’s denials. “Get out and vote for Roy Moore,” Trump said just days before the election at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, just over the bridge from Mobile, Alabama.
When Moore lost to Doug Jones ― the first Democrat to win a Senate election in Alabama since 1992 ― Trump then turned the blame on Bannon. He even cited that race in his 266-word statement on Wednesday in response to Bannon’s quotes in the book.
“Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans,” Trump said. “Steve doesn’t represent my base ― he’s only in it for himself.”
“He was more of a barnacle on the side of the Trump movement than vice-versa … His political organization, whatever that was, was always an empty suit.”
Trump’s feud with Bannon has cast his former top aide’s entire future in doubt. The Mercers have reportedly broken with Bannon, while candidates Bannon was hoping to call his own are distancing themselves from him.
“Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received,” said the campaign of Kelli Ward, who is running for the GOP Senate nomination in Arizona. “Her focus remains on winning this race, which she is in a great position to do, and then helping President Trump advance an America First agenda.”
New York Republican Michael Grimm, who left his House seat after his prison sentence for tax fraud and is now seeking to return, also disowned Bannon. “I strongly denounce the comments by Steve Bannon as quoted by Michael Wolff,” Grimm said in a statement.
“When you’ve got people like Michael Grimm putting out statements, things aren’t going well,” said Rory Cooper, once an aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Cooper and other Republicans argued that Bannon had always been overrated. “He was more of a barnacle on the side of the Trump movement than vice-versa … His political organization, whatever that was, was always an empty suit,” Cooper said. “It also goes to the question of whether you can replicate the Trump situation to lower ballot candidates, and I don’t think you can.”
What influence Bannon can retain in the coming months remains an open question. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested from the podium that Breitbart consider firing Bannon.
Breitbart did not respond to a query on Bannon’s status, but if he winds up being forced from his role as chairman, it could leave him without a platform at all, just as primary contests begin.
“If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear it make a noise, does it make a sound?” asked Pack, of the Senate Leadership Fund.
But Weaver warned that no conclusions about Bannon’s future can be drawn with Trump as president. “Who knows, he and Omarosa could wind up back at the White House in two months,” he said.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.