Republicans on Capitol Hill are on edge over what they view as Stephen Bannon’s growing influence inside President Trump’s White House.
The White House counselor’s elevation to being a permanent member of the National Security Council has deepened the debate, as has the furor surrounding Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration.
“The president has the right to appoint him to be his adviser, but I think there is a lot of concern about his influence,” said one GOP lawmaker, who spoke on background to offer a candid view from Capitol Hill.
Bannon has reportedly formed an alliance with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law. That would give him enormous power in the White House given Kushner’s perceived influence with Trump.
On the refugee order, Bannon is seen as having worked closely with White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a former aide to Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE (R-Ala.) known for his hard-line position on immigration.
Sessions, who is expected to be confirmed soon as Trump’s attorney general, is also seen as a Bannon ally. And Bannon has brought other people to the White House from Breitbart News, giving him more influence.
“We clearly see what Bannon is doing. There’s no secret in it. He’s increasing his people inside and aligning with Kushner,” said one former GOP leadership aide. “And the person to look at is really Kushner, because at the end of the day, he’s the person Trump trusts most. And together, those two guys seem like they want to knock everyone else over.”
Many Republicans fear that Bannon’s ascendance is coming at the expense of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman who is a home-state friend of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.) and has longstanding ties with many lawmakers.
In a joint statement announcing the hiring of Bannon and Priebus last November, Trump said the two would work together as “equal partners.” But Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are seeing scant evidence of that.
If Priebus is seen as a Washington insider, Bannon is the ultimate outsider.
Before joining Trump, he oversaw Breitbart News, which repeatedly published stories criticizing Ryan and other GOP lawmakers for a lack of conservative fortitude. Many lawmakers saw those attacks as unfair, and this history is weighed into their views of what is happening now at the White House.
The lack of vetting on Trump’s immigrant and refugee order — which bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States for 90 days, freezes the nation’s refugee program for 120 days and indefinitely pauses the acceptance of Syrian refugees — left many Republicans on Capitol Hill fuming. House GOP leaders have acknowledged they only learned of the order when it was being rolled out, even though staff on the House Judiciary Committee reportedly provided input to the White House.
“They’re not doing the basic blocking and tackling, and that makes it more difficult for congressional leaders to defend it,” one former GOP leadership aide said.
The decision to make Bannon a permanent member of Trump’s National Security Council was a shock. Past White House political advisers such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod didn’t make that leap.
“[Bannon] wouldn’t be anywhere near my National Security Council if I were president,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) told The Hill.
While Trump added Bannon, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will only attend committee meetings when the discussions pertain specifically to their areas of expertise.
“Why would you remove the [director] and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (R-Maine) said to The Hill. “I don’t think that’s a good decision, and I hope the president will reconsider. … The removal of two people whose advice is essential when these critical policy decisions are made — that bothers me.”
Allies of Trump on Capitol Hill are eager to defend Bannon.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who initially supported Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Rubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (R-Fla.) for president, told The Hill that it makes sense for Trump to have his chief strategist sit in on important national security meetings.
And any executive orders that Bannon may have had a hand in should have been expected, Rooney said, because Trump promised it all during his campaign.
The furor over Bannon’s rise is just “because it’s him and he’s controversial,” Rooney said.
Others, like House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who campaigned with Trump several times during the 2016 race, are excited about Bannon’s rise because they think it puts Washington on notice.
“He is a brilliant strategic thinker who understands how to get the most out of a team,” Meadows told The Hill. “Bannon, Kushner, Miller and [Kellyanne] Conway have built a winning combination, and they are not afraid to act as long as they believe that they have the best interest of the country at the core of their mission.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a key Trump ally on Capitol Hill and a policy adviser to the campaign, said reports of Bannon’s rise are overplayed. Bannon has always been one of Trump’s most trusted confidants, Cramer said, and Americans elected Trump knowing that.
“I think he’s always had a lot of influence, and maybe it’s just becoming more obvious,” Cramer said. “While he seems to be a controversial figure to some, I don’t find it all that egregious personally.”
There is always enormous interest in who holds power in a White House, and that’s no exception for Trump’s team.
The president’s history in setting up rival centers of power in his businesses has only raised interest in how he will manage his White House team — as has the sense that whoever talks to Trump last might have an edge.
“There’s always been a nice balance — for every Trump, there was a [Vice President] Pence; for every Bannon, there was a Priebus,” said one current GOP aide. “Now, the important question is who will be the first among the equals, because whoever that is will determine whether this is an administration that Republicans think they can work with.”
Scott Wong contributed.