Adapted from The Best People: Trump's Cabinet and the Siege on Washington by Alexander Nazaryan. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.
WASHINGTON — He has been training populists in Italy and fomenting revolution in Belgium. He has been down in Texas, building a wall. But these have all been halting projects, placeholders. The real question is whether Steve Bannon will be back by Donald Trump’s side in 2020, after a two-year exile from Trumpworld.
That could happen, at least according to Trump himself. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Trump said when I asked him about Bannon in February, during an Oval Office interview. “I watched Bannon a few times, four or five times over the last six months. Nobody says anything better about me right now than Bannon. I don’t know.”
Bannon, of course, was the mastermind who took over a faltering Trump campaign in August 2016, guiding it to improbable victory. He then served as Trump’s chief political strategist in the White House, only to be forced out by Trump’s second chief of staff, John Kelly, in a move that a plainly exhausted Bannon seemed to almost welcome after months of battling the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and, well, pretty much everyone else.
Bannon’s banishment, though, did not truly begin until January 2018, when journalist Michael Wolff published his book Fire and Fury about the Trump administration. A main source for Wolff, Bannon was on the record deriding Trump’s two favorite children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka. The president didn’t exactly turn the other cheek, branding his former consigliere “Sloppy Steve” on Twitter. Just a few days later, he was summarily removed from the chairmanship of Breitbart News, the right-wing news organization that had made a bracing case for Trump in 2016.
Since then, Bannon has waged a faltering war on the Republican establishment and has continued to foment a populist movement in Europe, where he has spent much of his time in the last year, returning only occasionally to the handsome Capitol Hill townhouse known casually as “the Breitbart Embassy.”
The estrangement could be nearing an end, however, now that the 2020 presidential election is nearing and Trump may need Bannon to rile the conservative grassroots once more, as he did in 2016. At the very least, Trump’s anger at the man once branded “The Great Manipulator” on the cover of Time magazine — a cover image impossible to avoid at Breitbart Embassy — appears to have entirely dissipated.
“I think Steve wants it,” says Sam Nunberg, a former close Trump adviser who later worked with Bannon.
When we spoke, Trump dismissed the comments Bannon made to Wolff, describing Fire and Fury as a “phony book.” We did not speak about Siege, Wolff’s second book on Trump, because it had not yet been published. Bannon was Wolff’s main source in the book. He too reports that “rumors” of a rapprochement have circulated in Washington.
A person close to the White House who was previously a member of the administration said that he had “noticed” Trump recently “softening” toward Bannon. “I want to say yes, but then he does stuff that hurts his own cause.” This person, who asked for anonymity in order to not imperil professional relationships, says that Trump was upset that Bannon cooperated with Wolff on Siege, but not nearly as upset as he had been with Fire and Fury. (The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.)
“He will never be back in an official capacity,” the White House insider adds, “but if he’s smart, he could get back into good graces.”
Nothing Trump told me suggests those rumors are untrue. Our conversation moved on, but then the president later returned, unprompted, to the subject of his former chief strategist. “There is nobody that has been more respectful of the job I’m doing than Steve Bannon,” Trump told me.
Bannon appears to have made a calculated effort to return to Trump’s good graces. When I spoke to Bannon in New York in late 2018, he was as effusive about Trump as I had ever heard him.
“He has a great love of his country,” Bannon said. “I’ve seen this guy up-close. He’s got a great love of his country. He did this out of duty. I know that makes people’s heads blow up, but he did it out of duty.”
Bannon also made sure to praise first lady Melania Trump (“a lovely wife”) and the “loving” Trump family, a departure from the criticisms he had made to Wolff more than a year before.
More recently, Bannon has been busy promoting Trump’s trade policies when he is not meeting with right-wing leaders in Europe. His influential publicist, Alexandra Preate, recently sent me a video of a Bannon appearance on CNBC. In the clip, Bannon praises Trump’s trade policies.
“Every president beforehand, Clinton, Bush and Obama, have all blinked,” Bannon said of the trade war with China. Trump didn’t blink."
But even as a reunion between Trump and Bannon could be imminent, it is unclear whether Bannon could ever have a formal role on the Trump campaign. Trump often relies more on informal, outside advisers — Fox News host Sean Hannity, Newsmax publisher Chris Ruddy — than he does on formal ones, using late night phone calls to test out lines of attack and evaluate staffers. But it’s unclear if Bannon would even play the role of informal adviser.
“He’ll keep him at arm’s length,” says Nunberg. “The president is really his own strategist now,” he adds, and would hesitate to share credit.
The reelection campaign is being run by Brad Parscale, the 2016 campaign’s digital director. He has never managed a campaign before, let alone a presidential one. He was named Trump’s campaign manager in February 2018, an unusually early time for a president in his first term.
A former senior West Wing staffer who remains close to some in Trump’s inner circle explained to Yahoo News that Parscale was effectively installed by Kushner, the president’s influential and media-averse son-in-law. Even as Parscale divides his time between Florida and Northern Virginia, where the campaign is based, his title is a constant reminder that Kushner’s man, and no one else, is in charge.
The former West Wing staffer — who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly without compromising personal and professional relationships — said that Kushner has little interest in sharing power with Bannon, or with running the kind of freewheeling campaign Bannon would almost certainly have in mind.
Bannon, in turn, made his conditions known to Wolff: “If you get your f***ing relatives and Parscale out of there, I will run the f***ing campaign,” he said.
That seems highly unlikely. It is difficult to imagine Bannon working in the anonymous Arlington high-rise where the Trump reelection campaign has taken root. Filled with cheerful young staffers who have come from the Republican National Committee, the White House or branches of the federal government, it is nothing like what Bannon called the “crack den” in the Trump Tower where he set up shop in 2016. (The campaign declined to comment on the record.)
Then again, the unlikely and the probable are close partners in the age of Trump. And though Trump campaign insiders claim they are not worried, they also know that the president is utterly unpredictable. If he wants Bannon back, Bannon will be back.
Certainly, Bannon is saying all the right things. Trump “saved the country,” he told me during our lengthy conversation in December. “Regardless of how this works out now, he saved the country.”
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