Steve Bannon’s enemies in the Trump administration are once again out for blood—and this time, they feel emboldened by newly installed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has called for an “end to the drama,” senior officials say.
Kelly, in his various conversations with other White House aides, has heard from at least three White House officials that “Bannon is a problem,” according to one Bannon colleague.
Some Trump officials have been quick to blame Bannon for ongoing tensions, which often stem from heated, vocal ideological disagreements between Bannon and his fellow Trump advisers. Those same officials are all-but-openly hoping that Kelly brings the axe down on Bannon in the coming weeks, if not sooner.
“[Kelly] has made it clear to everyone he… wants an end to the drama,” one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, describing Kelly’s desire for reining in Trump’s staff. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss internal matters.
Other officials are expecting, if not an outright sacking, an “effective demotion” of Bannon, as one senior White House official characterized it. Under such a scenario, the White House chief strategist’s portfolio would be reduced, though he’d remain inside the building. Multiple administration sources said that Kelly has been advised in the past week to have Bannon sever his working relationship with his own personal PR operation that functions outside the confines of the federal government.
But the man lampooned as Trump’s Grim Reaper has been near death before only to hold on and even regain his influence inside the White House. Bannon’s allies in the administration are planning on laying low for now, but remain confident that the chief strategist’s importance to Trump’s hardcore nationalist, anti-immigration supporters and media allies will prove too great to have him sent off.
According to multiple sources close to Bannon and the president, Bannon, in conversations with associates and friends, has described Trump as “one of us” and a fellow right-wing “nationalist.” Those sources believe, as Bannon has indicated to them, that Trump still wants Bannon working in the administration, despite pressure to kick him to the curb.
Still, the president is said to be annoyed by Bannon’s alleged shenanigans and public image as Trump’s grand puppet master. And it’s not the first time.
In the past, the president was notably furious with Bannon after Time magazine put his top aide on the cover in February as the “Great Manipulator.” According to White House sources, it became a running joke among Trump’s top advisers that Bannon had deigned to “sign a copy for” Trump, who hates being overshadowed in the news media. More recently, the president has been piqued by the spotlight Bannon received in reporter Joshua Green’s new book, Devil’s Bargain.
Neither the White House communications shop nor Bannon commented on this story.
One person who doesn’t think he’s on the verge of getting canned is Bannon himself, according to those with direct knowledge of the situation. Bannon has also told associates that Kelly isn’t itching to fire him, and he genuinely sees Kelly as an ally, not as the possible executioner.
His relationship with the new chief of staff has been neither adversarial nor hostile in the way that it is with several other prominent White House officials. Bannon has previously said that he helped land Kelly his prior job as Trump’s secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Bannon supported Kelly’s ascension to the position of White House chief of staff. The two have known each other for years and have acted cordially, despite not being ideological kindred spirits. Nearly a decade ago, Bannon helped produce a film about Marines and troops who fought in pivotal battles in Iraq. Kelly endorsed and hosted screenings of the documentary and said he was “very impressed” with it.
Still, Bannon and his allies, both in and outside the White House, are expecting his opponents in Trump-world to “play dirty,” as one source close to Bannon put it. According to this source, Bannon and associates are “expecting some people” in the administration to try to “smear him with,” among other things, the killing at the Charlottesville white-supremacist gathering that occurred on Saturday.
Outside critics of Bannon, including recently fired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, said this weekend that Bannon and Breitbart (“Bannonbart,” as The Mooch said) are badly damaging Trump with their far-right, nationalist “influence.” Scaramucci strongly suggested on Sunday morning that in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, it was time for Bannon—another “leaker,” as The Mooch intimated—to hit the road.
It’s not just Scaramucci publicly fueling speculation that Bannon is on an island inside the White House.
On Sunday morning, national security adviser H.R. McMaster was asked three times by NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd whether he can still work with Bannon, given the circumstances and their mutual penchant for infighting. McMaster, who has privately blamed Bannon for engineering recent leak and smear campaigns against him—which Bannon has denied orchestrating—would not give a straight answer.
Still, with Kelly seriously weighing his options, there are some Trump advisers and confidants who are actively concerned about the kind of damage a disgruntled, ejected Bannon could do if exiled from the administration, given the influence he wields among influential pro-Trump media outlets and the heavy-hitter GOP donors the Mercer family.
“There are some who are genuinely worried about what he could do from the outside, if thrown out,” a White House official conceded.
Whatever the outcome of Kelly’s review, Bannon has previously discussed with allies what life after the White House could look like for him. One thing about which he has privately fantasized is returning to conservative media and launching the vast, Fox-News-rivalling media empire that he had envisioned with Roger Ailes shortly before Ailes died earlier this year.
In May, one source close to President Trump’s chief strategist described Bannon’s unrealized dream project as “Bannon TV.”