President Donald Trump and his former senior counselor Stephen Bannon have had a very public and destructive break-up in the past few days. Journalist Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House ignited the feud, but the storm had already been brewing for some time.
Here are five things to know about the Trump-Bannon breakup, and whether or not they can repair the rift.
1. What Bannon said.
Fire and Fury unleashed a storm in Washington, D.C., largely because the book claimed to reveal statements from Bannon that undergirded the Democrat line on Trump’s alleged “collusion” with Russia during the 2016 election.
On Wednesday morning, Britain’s The Guardian published many quotes from the book, and Bannon has not yet denied their accuracy.
One of the central debates about Trump-Russia collusion has been the significance of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Veselnitskaya had promised incriminating evidence on Clinton, but spoke about the Magnitsky Act instead. (It remains possible this meeting was a trap set by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC through Fusion GPS.)
“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers,” Bannon said, according to The Guardian. “Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s***, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Bannon also reportedly predicted, “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”
Even those were not the extent of Bannon’s remarks, however. He also reportedly told Wolff that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia connections is centered on money laundering. For this reason, he said the White House is “sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five” hurricane.
“This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose (senior prosecutor Andrew) Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy,” Bannon reportedly said. “Their path to f***ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face.”
These remarks play right into the Democrat narrative, especially the remark that the Donald Trump Jr. meeting with Veselnitskaya was “treasonous.”
2. How Trump responded.
Trump was furious. On Wednesday afternoon, the White House released a statement emphatically disowning Bannon.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” Trump declared. “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.”
The president slammed Bannon further, even claiming the advisor had “very little to do” with the 2016 victory. “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,” the president said. “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.”
Trump went straight for the jugular, claiming Bannon merely “pretends to be at war with the media,” but “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.”
On Thursday, Trump attacked Wolff and Bannon on Twitter. “I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book,” the president tweeted. “Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!”
I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2018
3. The fallout — from Bannon’s donors, and Breitbart itself.
Other conservative leaders also distanced themselves from Bannon, particularly the rich influential donor family of hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the Mercers were pulling their funding for Bannon — even for his protective detail.
“My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements,” Rebekah Mercer, Robert Mercer’s daughter, said in a statement. “I have a minority interest in Breitbart News and I remain committed in my support for them.”
The reference to Breitbart might have been an implicit threat against Bannon. While Bannon is chairman of the news site, many staffers there believe he might lose his job. Breitbart board members have already begun debating whether or not to oust the chairman, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Bannon’s star has been waning for months, especially after the sexual assault allegations against Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy S. Moore, whom he backed against Trump’s pick, appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
The Breitbart chairman met with various conservative donors to drum up support for a challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Shortly after the Moore allegations broke, however, a spokesman for Las Vegas casino magnate and conservative donor Sheldon Adelson pledged loyalty to McConnell.
“The Adelsons will not be supporting Steve Bannon’s efforts,” spokesman Andy Abboud said. “For anyone to infer anything otherwise is wrong.”
The Mercer family in particular had been drifting from Bannon for months. The Mercers were reportedly upset upon hearing that the Breitbart chairman had privately boasted that they would back him if he ran for president himself.
In addition to Breitbart, the Mercers are invested in the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, where Bannon sat on the board, and the Government Accountability Institute, which the Breitbart chairman co-founded.
Robert Mercer announced he would step down from the helm of Renaissance Technologies after liberals put pressure on university endowments, foundations, and pension funds to withdraw their money from the hedge fund.
“I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically,” Mercer wrote in a November statement. “Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.”
4. Bannon praises Trump, trying to heal the rift?
Despite Trump’s attacks on him, the Breitbart chairman reiterated his support for the president in comments on Breitbart radio Thursday morning.
Bannon assured a caller that “nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda.” He further added, “We’re tight on this agenda as we’ve ever been.”
On Wednesday night, the chairman declared, “The President of the United States is a great man. You know, I support him day in and day out.”
Trump noted this statement Thursday morning, noting that Bannon “changed his tune pretty quick.”
Just In: When asked if Steve Bannon betrayed him, President Trump said, "he called me a great man last night" although he hasn't talked to him.
— errol barnett (@errolbarnett) January 4, 2018
On Friday, The Hill‘s Jonathan Easley reported that Bannon had been warned about his attacks on Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. He had prepared a statement disowning his damaging comments about the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
“Bannon on Wednesday was about to issue a statement praising Donald Trump Jr. and disputing his quotes in a book from Michael Wolff, but the statement was spiked after President Trump went nuclear on his former chief strategist,” Easley reported.
“In the unreleased statement, Bannon had planned to call Trump Jr. a patriot and dispute the account in Wolff’s book,” The Hill reporter added.
Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported that the chairman’s allies are urging him to issue such a statement anyway, in order to make peace with Trump. Despite his praise for Trump, Bannon is reportedly resisting publishing this statement. “He views any apology or admission of error as a sign of weakness.”
Even so, Swan noted that an apology “may be the only way to preserve some sort of a political future for himself.”
5. What happens next?
The publisher released Fire and Fury early on Friday, circumventing President Trump’s efforts to forestall the book’s publication. Bannon’s comments are out in print, for everyone to see.
On Friday morning, Trump tweeted, “The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart!”
The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2018
If Bannon and Trump are to reconcile, it seems the Breitbart chairman might have to eat humble pie.
National Review‘s Jim Geraghty argued that a fallout between Bannon and Trump was inevitable, however. He made powerful arguments about the chairman’s character that suggest the kind of man Bannon is could not indefinitely work with another egomaniac.
“Bannon has one setting, ‘war,’ and he launches it against everyone who isn’t signing his paycheck,” Geraghty wrote. “He’s incapable of working with anyone who is anything more than a lackey. In his first big test of Congressional negotiations, Bannon met with the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus and declared, ‘Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.’ Except, they did have a choice, and exercised that choice on the first version of the legislation. Perhaps at Breitbart.com, Bannon got used to negotiating with people he could fire.”
Geraghty noted that Bannon and Stephen Miller wrote the first version of the so-called “Muslim ban” without coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security or any other government agency actually tasked with enforcing such rules. If Bannon had been willing to work with others on the order, it need not have faced constitutional challenges.
“In this light, it is not surprising that Bannon would eventually lash out at the president for being yet another person who disappointed him, another person who failed to recognize and appreciate his genius, another person who wasn’t enough of a fighter and who didn’t have the guts to fight the ‘war,'” Geraghy wrote.
It seems Bannon has a choice between his pride and his political future. Even if he apologizes, it may prove particularly hard to get back into Trump’s good graces. Meanwhile, it seems Trump’s populist movement was always more about Trump than it was about populism. Bannon, the doctrinaire populist, can barely hang on, while Trump occupies the White House.
The next few days will determine whether this schism is repaired or becomes a permanent divorce. In either case, things do not look rosy for the Breitbart chairman.