White House

What is Steve Bannon’s end game?

You might think I’m crazy, but I’m going to say it: I don’t think this the end for Stephen K. Bannon, not by a long shot. While the majority of my liberal brethren have been gleefully celebrating his demise, I have a different take on the fallout from Bannon’s statements in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the World of Donald Trump. In the book, Bannon takes multiple swipes at Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump, labelling the former two’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and calling the latter “dumb as a brick.” Bannon also intimated that the President’s oldest son and son-in- law were guilty of money laundering.

These statements no doubt undermine the Trump administration and surely enraged the President, but they are also notable for what Bannon did not say. In the excerpts, Bannon does not directly criticize or disparage President Trump himself. While there are some derogatory allusions to then-candidate Trump’s comprehension of issues, Bannon is not on the record calling him “like a child,” “crazy,” or “a f***ing fool,” like other Trump staffers. Moreover, since his ouster from the White House, Bannon has done nothing but praise the President and his agenda in public, including (and especially) since the excerpts from Wolff’s book were made public.

While many Democrats and Republicans (including I’m sure, one Mr. Mitch McConnell) are gloating that Bannon’s loose lips resulted in political harakiri, I think Bannon has a much different outcome in mind. Bannon is anything but a rube when dealing with the media, and no matter how large his ego or deep his frustration with the President, he is not stupid enough to serve up quotes blowing up his relationship with the most powerful man in the world for no reason. My theory is that Bannon’s long-game is to ultimately bring Trump closer to him (Bannon) by undermining Trump’s trust in everyone else around him, including (and especially) his family. The reasons I think this are threefold:

Firstly, It is well known that Trump does not trust the competence of his staff and frequently calls
friends outside the White House to survey them on the performance of various staffers. This includes his family members- for example, it’s an open secret that the President believes Iavanka should do everyone a favor and return to New York. As Kushner and Trump Jr. become further entangled with Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, Bannon’s remarks about their incompetence will be vindicated in the President’s mind. Trump reflexively turns against those who make him look bad, so as Kushner and Junior’s stock goes down in 2018, I predict Bannon’s will creep back up.

Secondly, since Bannon’s departure, the Trump administration is markedly bereft of any senior officials, other than Stephen Miller, who are true believers in the “MAGA” ideology. Rather, the President is almost entirely surrounded by Establishment/moderate figures á la Kushner, John Kelly, and MitchMcConnell who seek to curb his populist rhetoric and undignified conduct. We know from reporting that Trump abhors being controlled and gravitates towards those who share his worldview and indulge his behavior. As his aides seek to further contain him in order to: a) prevent more unforced errors and b) actually get legislation passed, I predict Trump will lash out and reconnect with Bannon, with whom he shares a genuine ideological connection and anti-establishment streak.

Thirdly, Trump always brings people back. Just look at his infamous on-off relationships with Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski. Trump especially goes back to people who he believes were correct in their actions and/or predictions. Steve Bannon knows this and has been laying the seeds for months. Katy Tur blithely observed that one can easily manipulate President Trump by being nice to him. As I observed above, Bannon never directly criticizes the President in Wolff’s book and has been showering him with support since August. The effect of Bannon calling Trump a “great man” on Wednesday night is already apparent. On Thursday, the President adopted a much more restrained tone in his first public comments on Bannon than in the irate screed the White House put out after the initial excerpts from Wolff’s book were published. Bannon is smart enough not to take the bait by engaging in a public feud with Trump; if Bannon does not pour fuel on the fire, he knows that Trump’s current rage will burn out. As others around the President continue to defy and disappoint him, Bannon understands that Trump will turn back to the person who supports his purpose in the Oval Office. By all accounts, Bannon s a voracious reader, so I’m sure he is familiar with Sun Tzu. His current actions smack of The Art of War: seeing that opportunity exists in the weakness of others within the WhiteHouse and responding successfully to shifting circumstances. Steve Bannon may be persona non grata for the present time, but given everything we know about President Trump, I doubt this is a permanent
state of affairs.