Trump Feud Is Putting Steve Bannon’s Favored Primary Candidates In A Bind

The difficulty of standing on the right side of the right.

WASHINGTON ― Just a few months ago, conservative candidates looking to topple GOP incumbents were jockeying to win the support of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive chairman who had a finger on the pulse of Donald Trump’s America.

Bannon’s stock dropped sharply Wednesday, however, after several news outlets published excerpts of an explosive new book by journalist Michael Wolff in which Bannon is quoted criticizing several members of Trump’s administration, including son Donald Trump Jr., daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to the book, the former White House strategist called the infamous meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian operatives at Trump Tower in June 2016 “treasonous.”

The White House denied many other juicy details in the book and issued an angry statement from Trump that claimed his former staffer had “lost his mind.”

“Steve Bannon has nothing to with me or my Presidency,” Trump said in the statement. “Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.”

Bannon has been a reviled figure among the Republican establishment for targeting vulnerable GOP incumbents across the country whom he deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump’s agenda. Now that Trump has distanced himself, it has put pressure on the candidates Bannon had endorsed to follow suit.

“After Steve Bannon’s vicious attacks on President Trump and his family, [Attorney General] Patrick Morrisey should immediately disavow Bannon’s support,” Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) said in a Wednesday press release, taking aim at his GOP primary rival for the Senate. “If he refuses, West Virginians will know that what President Trump said of Bannon today is also true of Morrisey: ‘he is only in it for himself.’”

Morrisey’s campaign brushed off the attack by stating that he “does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family.”  

Several other Bannon-backed candidates similarly downplayed the Breitbart News chief’s endorsement, yet they did not break with him entirely.

A spokesman for Kelli Ward, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), said that Bannon was “only one of many high-profile endorsements” she has received so far. The spokesman dismissed what he called the “daily parlor intrigue” in Washington but did not renounce Bannon’s support.

In Wisconsin, U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson similarly rejected a call from a GOP primary rival to denounce Bannon, stating through a spokesman that it is “disappointing” that she would “take this moment to attack another Republican for an endorsement she herself aggressively sought.”

Danny Tarkanian, a Bannon-backed conservative candidate seeking to unseat Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), meanwhile, said he’d still welcome Bannon’s support.

“If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the President’s back, I welcome his support,” he said.

Not every favored candidate of Bannon held their fire on the matter, however.

Former New York congressman-turned-convict Michael Grimm, who is mounting a bid to win back his seat, said he “strongly” denounced Bannon’s comments.

“They are baseless attacks against the President’s family, beyond disturbing, and I fully support our Commander in Chief,” Grimm said in a statement.

Paul Nehlen, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and whom Bannon recently disavowed over his flirtations with white nationalism, had the last laugh.

“Good thing I had already been disavowed by Bannon and Breitbart, or I might be in an embarrassing position!” Nehlen said.

The ostracization of Bannon from the White House and on the campaign trail is good news for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who started the new year with one fewer GOP member in Congress. Bannon’s preferred candidate in Alabama’s Senate race, Roy Moore, lost to Democrat Doug Jones, who was sworn into the Senate on Wednesday. 

McConnell’s campaign couldn’t help but gloat on Twitter.

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.