Bannon flies close to the sun

Could Stephen Bannon be getting too big for the White House?

The controversial counselor to the president has seen his profile soar higher than ever in recent days. 

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A close-up image of him fills the cover of the current edition of Time magazine. He was portrayed as the Grim Reaper — and also as the real power behind the White House’s Resolute desk — on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend.

And any number of stories have focused on his influence over Trump, as well as the power dynamics between him and other top White House players, notably chief of staff Reince Priebus.

How does his boss feel about that, given that the 45th president tends to be suspicious of anyone around him competing for the spotlight?

A tweet from the president early on Monday morning hinted at an answer. 

“I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it,” Trump said.

According to NBC News Editor Bradd Jaffy, Trump’s tweet was sent about one hour after MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” played a clip of the “Saturday Night Live” skit, showed an image of the Time cover and posed the question of whether Bannon was “calling all the shots.”

The previous day, Madeleine Albright — secretary of State during Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE’s presidency and a close ally of 2016 candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE — had told CNN that she assumed Bannon was “the person that’s pulling the strings.”

That’s the kind of comment that could rile the president further.

“I assume President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE was not pleased with the Time cover, because that is reserved for Donald Trump,” said one White House source granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“At the same time, Steve Bannon cannot necessarily control whether he is on that cover.”

Bannon declined to be interviewed by Time for the story, and the photograph had been shot on an earlier occasion. But it raised eyebrows among Trump supporters nonetheless.

“Any time you have staff members on the cover of Time magazine, that’s a problem,” said John Feehery, a Trump-supporting GOP strategist and longtime Capitol Hill aide.

“It’s fine for family to be on the cover. It’s fine even for political opponents to be on the cover. Staff members shouldn’t be on the cover,” Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill, said.

An email to Bannon seeking comment for this column was not returned.

The “SNL” skit concluded with the Bannon character sitting at the president’s desk in the Oval Office while Alec Baldwin’s Trump character moved to a child-sized replica. Even if that was played for laughs, it sent the kind of message that seems unlikely to sit well with the alpha-male president.

Further fueling the palace intrigue around Bannon was a detail in a New York Times story from the weekend: “Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council.”

Trump blasted the Times on Monday, tweeting that the news organization was printing “total fiction” about him.

If the media attention on Bannon seems to carry risks for him, he can also take comfort from the protection offered by his closeness to Trump. The two share an impatient disdain for business as usual in Washington and a particular loathing for the media. Both have, independently, described the media as “the opposition party” with whom the administration is at war.

When it comes to Bannon’s status, Feehery said, “all that matters is the principal. [Bannon] has an audience of one. It’s good if the principal likes that he is out there. If the principal gets annoyed by it — which most principals do — that could become problematic.”

Bannon has also hired staff members from Breitbart News, the conservative site where he was once a top executive. Such moves are seen as him building his own power base in preparation for any internal struggles at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Sebastian Gorka and Julia Hahn, both former Breitbart writers, now work for the White House. 

Administration insiders are adamant that the tension between Bannon and Priebus has been overblown by the media. They contend that the media has driven its preferred narrative beyond the facts. 

According to this theory, the two men have come to serve as handy cutouts for the two tribes presumed to be warring within the GOP: the Trump insurgency represented by Bannon and the GOP establishment personified by Priebus, who was until recently the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In reality, relations between the two are much more collegial, some insiders say, and a senior staff meeting last week at which the roles of top aides were clarified also helped.

Even GOP strategists critical of both Trump and Bannon argue that the idea of the strategist’s public profile rising to problematic heights could be exaggerated.

Rick Tyler, who worked for Trump rival Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJim Carrey fires back at 'Joe McCarthy wanna-be' Cruz Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech MORE (R-Texas) during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, said that the administration had not “got off to a great start.” 

But asked about the perils of Bannon’s rise, he responded, “I would argue with the premise. It would be extraordinarily difficult to upstage Donald Trump. You’re never going to take up as much space as he does.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.