The Memo: Bannon firestorm consumes Washington

A firestorm over former chief strategist Stephen Bannon is consuming the White House with the new year only days old. 

It comes even while the president’s latest controversial tweets are still reverberating and the stubborn cloud of investigations into collusion with Russia remains.

By the end of an extraordinary day of news on Wednesday, Bannon’s enemies within the GOP were glorying in his apparently final demise from the Trump inner circle. His loyalists were complaining that the White House was being too easily spooked and had overreacted.

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Those in between were left scratching their heads. One former Trump adviser — a person who described their own dealings with Bannon as warm — was perplexed by his fall from grace.

“He’s lost his financial backers, he lost his power in Alabama and now he’s lost Trump — so how long can you go?” the source wondered, alluding to Bannon’s support for Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRepublican state official faces pushback for comments on Sinema's attire Hillicon Valley: Dem blasts groups behind Senate campaign disinformation effort | FCC chief declines to give briefing on location-data sales | Ocasio-Cortez tops lawmakers on social media | Trump officials to ease drone rules Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook MORE, the Republican who lost a December Senate race in one of the most conservative states in the nation.

Among sources in Trump’s orbit who spoke to The Hill on condition of anonymity, opinions were varied as to whether the relationship between the two men was at a permanent end or whether Trump would simply shut Bannon out for a period. 

"When Trump is blaming him for losing a Senate race and not giving credit for the White House victory, it’s questionable about whether Bannon survives this,” one GOP strategist with close ties to the administration said.

The day’s revelations almost entirely subsumed another storm that had been ignited the previous evening by a Trump tweet. 

Addressing implicit threats by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about a nuclear button on his desk, Trump shot back: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

The tweet, which was widely interpreted as a double entendre, drew harsh criticism from many foreign policy experts. 

Vice President Pence defended Trump’s approach in a TV interview, telling Voice of America that “President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE made it clear: America will not be bullied, America will not be threatened.”

But other Republicans more skeptical of Trump saw it much differently.

GOP strategist John Weaver, a frequent Trump critic, compared the Trump-Kim spat to a schoolyard confrontation between seventh graders, “except if it involved nuclear weapons.”

Weaver added, “We have an embarrassment as a president.”

The avalanche of news threatens to again weigh down a president whose polling numbers had been showing some modest signs of improvement — albeit from historic lows — in the wake of the passage of tax cut legislation just before Christmas.

The administration has also been buffeted in recent days by two separate developments pushing back at its preferred narrative about how the Russia investigation came to be launched by the FBI in the first place.

Trump’s media and political allies alike have suggested that the Russia probe now led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE is a witch hunt and that it was given its initial impetus by the contentious dossier compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele. 

The firm that later employed Steele, Fusion GPS, was initially paid by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news site funded by billionaire Paul Singer. He had supported one of Trump’s 2016 primary opponents, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOn The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week Trump declares national emergency at border Democrats veer left as Trump cements hold on Republicans MORE (R-Fla.). But after Singer pulled out, the research that led to the dossier was paid for by a lawyer who represented the Democratic National Committee and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders expected to announce exploratory committee next week Bernie Sanders records announcement video ahead of possible 2020 bid Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants MORE’s campaign.

However, a New York Times story published on Dec. 30 included claims that it was not the dossier that sparked the investigation after all. 

Instead, the story asserted the “driving factors” behind the opening of the FBI investigation were comments made by a former Trump campaign aide, George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosDrama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry Fox & Friends host says program will ‘absolutely’ accept Mueller report findings Source of Steele dossier info sought access to Trump allies in 2016: report MORE, to an Australian diplomat suggesting he knew Russia had dirt on Clinton. 

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Relatedly, The New York Times also published a separate op-ed by the co-founders of Fusion GPS, in which they called on Republicans to release their full testimony before congressional committees. For now, the founders said, those Republicans were prone to “selectively leak details to media outlets on the far right.”

That is the backdrop against which the Bannon furor had such a profound impact.

In a forthcoming book by veteran journalist Michael Wolff, Bannon was quoted describing as “treasonous” a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower at which Trump family members and advisers met with a Russian lawyer.

The Trump Tower meeting was attended by the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpHouse chairman: Trump lawyers may have given false info about Cohen payments Sarah Sanders says she was interviewed by Mueller's office Trump dismisses Ann Coulter after criticism: 'I hardly know her' MORE, his son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? Rule change sharpens Dem investigations into Trump Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE and then-campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortMake the special counsel report public for the sake of Americans Paul Manafort should not be sentenced to 20 years in prison Mueller recommends Manafort serve at least 19 years in prison MORE

Manafort is under criminal indictment on money-laundering and other charges, although he struck back with counter-suits on Wednesday.

Bannon’s animus toward Kushner is an open secret in Washington. 

But the reaction from the White House to the “treasonous” comment and to other remarks attributed to Bannon was cold fury. 

Bannon was also reported as saying that investigators into the Russian matter would “crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”

In a statement, the president accused his former chief strategist of having “lost his mind.” Trump also asserted, “Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonFormer Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 In next election against populists, centrist forces already making mistakes Chris Christie: Kushner’s dad committed 'one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes that I prosecuted’ MORE has nothing to do with me or my Presidency.” The statement added “Steve doesn’t represent my base — he’s only in it for himself.”

Amid a feverish atmosphere at the White House media briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Bannon’s accusation of treason “ridiculous.”

Some Republicans took glee at the opprobrium aimed at Bannon’s head. Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingDems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland Assault weapons ban push tests Dem support Cuomo says declining NY tax revenue stems from Trump's ‘economic civil war’ MORE (R-N.Y.), who has clashed with Bannon before, tweeted, “Congrats to @POTUS Trump for pulverizing loud mouth self promoter Bannon. Time for Bannon to disappear or find work in a circus.” 

Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, told Fox News that Trump had administered “a 2x4 to the head of Steve Bannon.”

But Bannon remains the head of Breitbart, a news organization with a powerful connection to many grass-roots Republicans. 

If he turns his fire on Trump, it could hurt the president with the base that has remained largely loyal through all his travails so far.

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

This story was updated at 10:40 a.m.