Once again, Donald Trump has crossed what had seemed an inviolable political line, and once again his former top strategist Steve Bannon says the party can either follow the new path he’s blazing to be victory or be left behind.
Multiple West Wing officials who spoke to The Daily Beast this week, following the president’s widely panned summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, compared the mood in the White House to that after other notoriously chaotic episodes of the Trump era. One source half-joked they’d been “triggered” into a flashback of the Charlottesville atrocity, when the president refused to unequivocally condemn violent Nazis.
The gloom was more pronounced outside the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where GOP lawmakers and top party fundraisers fretted that the fallout of Helsinki—alongside the president’s seeming penchant for damaging political drama—could undermine the party’s hopes to retain control of the House.
“I don’t focus on the things I can’t change and I can’t change a 70-year-old who is stuck in his way and knows what he wants,” said one GOP lawmaker. Asked what he feared the president might do next, the lawmaker added: “If I knew what to be concerned about I would be much smarter than I am.”
But while numerous GOP lawmakers rushed to distance themselves from the president this past week, Trump’s most fervent loyalists circled the wagons. Far from being politically poisonous, Bannon argued, the president represented the party’s lone bit of electoral salvation.
“These House guys are running around with a very conventional district-by-district plan. This is the way you lose 40 seats. This is Trump and conventional won't work. They are thinking about this the wrong way. This is not a midterm election—this is Trump’s first re-elect,” Bannon, Trump’s ousted top White House strategist, told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
“This is a deplorables-plus electorate to hold the House and build the majority in the Senate: Deplorables plus the Reagan Democrats, plus those people who voted for the president in ’16 who never voted before in presidentials much less off years,” he added. “You’ve got to get those guys by telling them it is a presidential. Because the college-educated Republican women in the suburbs are a challenge. You are not going to be able to easily secure their support, a top target for the Democrats. Maybe they don’t vote for the other side and maybe they straggle in because their 401(k) is up. But it’s gonna be a challenge.”
Few episodes have tested the fabric of the Republican Party like Trump’s performance of Helsinki. The psychic shock of watching a president give more weight to an antagonistic foreign leader’s denials of election meddling than to the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, sparked an outcry in the press, led administration to give remarkable, public rebukes of the president and his team, and prompted scores of friendly allies, GOP lawmakers, and outside advisers, to harshly criticize the president. Even within the donor class, a fear has arisen that Trump could be an albatross in 2018.
“Those [donors] in Texas and the midwest are more confident about holding the House and less buffeted by Trump’s stumbles,” said one of the party’s top fundraisers. “The New York and California finance types are deeply concerned about another clumsy Trump episode.”
Despite those concerns, no one has resigned from his or her post in protest in the aftermath of Helsinki. And as was the case in previous Trump-era nadirs, much of the finger-wagging has given way to forgiveness after Trump offered a parcel of public remorse. Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a current informal adviser to the president, tweeted on Monday night that Trump had to “clarify his statements” which, in his words, constituted “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
On Tuesday, the president issued a partial walk-back—one that blamed his blunder on an allegedly intended double-negative. Senior officials, speaking to The Daily Beast on Tuesday said they did not find it convincing or earnest in the slightest. But for Gingrich, it was enough.
“He is not a guy, as you know, he is not a guy who likes to correct himself or likes to admit he made a mistake,” Gingrich said during a Wednesday appearance on Fox & Friends. “I thought this was big enough one that he simply had to stop and set the record straight.”
For those in the political trenches, it has not been as easy to move past the Helsinki blunders. Nor is there much confidence that a similar mishap (though, perhaps, not on such a global scale) won’t happen again. For that reason top Republican campaign operatives are plotting a delicate midterm strategy, in which the president would effectively engage in some swing districts without actually stepping foot within them. That effort would include the heavy use of robocalls, mailers and local media interviews done from a comfortable enough distance.
For Bannon, that’s a recipe for defeat. The former head of Breitbart stressed that after Labor Day, Trump needed to be on the campaign trail three days a week upping that after Oct. 1 to five days a week with three rallies a day. “We turn up the volume like they have never heard before and we crank it. I mean crank it,” he said. “No one is better on the campaign trail than Donald Trump.”
“It’s very simple, very basic, very clear—it’s the entire package; this is a national referendum on Trump, an up or down vote on his presidency: vote Republican for the Trump program, all of it (or) vote Democrat to impeach him,” he continued. “Full stop. And the entire package means the entire package—all of it, the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, the tax cuts and the tariffs, the judges and the border; the defense increase and the tweets—all of it.
“Up or down vote on Impeach him or press on. You are either with Trump or you are against him.”