THE MEMO: Trump's base frets about post-Bannon era

Loyalists of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE fear he is at risk of relinquishing the unique appeal that got him elected, even as moderate figures in the GOP celebrate the departure of the polarizing chief strategist Stephen Bannon and hope for a more orthodox White House.

The loyalists’ anxiety was sharpened on Monday evening in advance of the president's speech about Afghanistan. Trump, who campaigned as a candidate skeptical of foreign intervention, had been expected to announce an increase in troop levels. The 16-year U.S.-led war has no obvious end in sight. 

In the end, Trump announced no specific increase, though his speech clearly implied a strengthening of U.S. forces.


“Since the president was elected as a non-interventionist, I would like to hear him continue in that vein,” said Roger Stone, a long-time friend of the president who worked on the Trump campaign’s early stages. “I do not think we should be putting more troops in Afghanistan, nor should we be putting troops in Syria, as his advisers want him to.”

Another aide from the early stages of the Trump campaign, Sam Nunberg, said hours before the speech that he believed any troop build-up “is going against a campaign pledge. I don’t think the country, 16 years later, wants to continue nation building in Afghanistan, which seems to me to be a nation that can’t be built.”

Trump insisted, "We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists."

But more broadly, Nunberg lamented the same possibility that others celebrate: a more mainstream administration.

“Look, the Trump presidency is turning into a conventional presidency — which is fine,” Nunberg said, without enthusiasm. “It is what it is. That’s not the secret sauce that got him elected.”

It is that larger point that worries some conservatives beyond Trump’s immediate orbit.

They fear that Bannon’s ouster may be emblematic of a turn on the part of the administration — a shift away from the priorities of conservative “insurgents” who are almost as skeptical of the GOP establishment as they are of Democrats.

Bannon himself told The Weekly Standard just hours after his departure that “the Trump presidency we fought for, and won, is over.”

In Congress, Bannon has his defenders among the insurgent wing, with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) among those speaking up for him in the media even as the ax was sharpened over the past week.

Meadows has an open line of communication with the president, independent of Bannon. But conservative concerns linger.

One Freedom Caucus source, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, noted that Bannon had been a key point of contact for conservative lawmakers. 

“There is a lot of discomfort over who fills that role now,” the source said.

At the same time, this person cautioned against extrapolating too much from the chief strategist’s departure.

“The White House is bigger than any one staffer,” the source said. “It’s complicated, but we hope we are still going to have those conversations with the White House. They won’t end just because Mr. Bannon is gone.”

There are Republicans who see things differently. They argue that a more conventional approach from the White House is essential if the president is to recover from his current low ebb.

The situation in which Trump finds himself is bleak: beset by historically low approval ratings and enduring a fractious relationship with his party colleagues on Capitol Hill.

To some, it is the hard-right tendencies encouraged by the likes of Bannon that have helped put him in that predicament.

The most recent example was the president’s deeply controversial response to deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. 

An ABC News-Washington Post poll released on Monday indicated only 28 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s approach, which included the assertion that “very fine people” were on both sides of the clashes between white supremacists and protestors. 

Trump’s stance also drew criticism from senior Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (Ky.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDemocratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' Trump lashes out at Reagan Foundation after fundraising request The Memo: Trump's grip on GOP loosens as polls sink MORE (Wis.) and the GOP’s presidential nominees from 2008 and 2012 respectively, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The hope on the center-right is simply that the president might be able to pull himself upwards from his current low point.

“Trump still has every opportunity to turn around his presidency,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal ACLU targets Democrats, Republicans with mobile coronavirus billboards MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “Look, a lot of presidents have rough first years and go on to be very successful, and there is no reason Trump can’t do that.”

Conant added that recent shake-ups, which have seen chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer resign as well as Bannon, should be seen as a net positive. The new chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, has also won praise from some GOP figures.

“I think [recovery] starts with recognizing that there is a problem, and by asking many of his senior staff to resign in the last few weeks, [Trump] seems to be doing that,” Conant said.

The Bannon departure has heartened more moderate figures in the president’s orbit. They cite a desire for a less dysfunctional White House as much as anything else.

“Things will improve over the long term because there won’t be the major, internal staff-on-staff violence that was caused by Bannon,” said one GOP strategist with ties to the White House. 

The same person cautioned, however, that “there are still plenty of sharp elbows being thrown around by others.”

That is not the only complication. Even Conant’s relatively optimistic outlook has its limits with regard to the president’s impetuous ways.

“Seventy-one-year-old men who have behaved one way their entire lives normally don’t change once they are given more power,” he said. “Trump will continue to follow his instincts, which will continue to lead him into trouble.”

To conservatives, though, those instincts also led Trump to the White House in the first place, against the steepest odds.

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