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 MooreHillicon 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 Jones asks federal officials to investigate misinformation campaign tactics in Alabama Senate race 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 TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing 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 RubioHillicon Valley: Lawmakers worry as 'deepfakes' spread | New intel strategy sees threats from emerging tech | Google fined M under EU data rules | WhatsApp moves to curb misinformation Tlaib: 'Right wing media is now targeting my little sister' Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work 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 ClintonPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media Poll shows 36 percent support Trump's reelection, 43 percent prefer generic Democrat How the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit 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 PapadopoulosHow the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit Barr: It would be a crime for president to pardon someone in exchange for their silence Press: What dirt does Putin have on Trump? 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 TrumpPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media Dem senator: 'Putin had something on' Trump which may account for 'plainly false' statements Russian pop star linked to Trump Tower meeting cancels US tour MORE, his son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDem senator: 'Putin had something on' Trump which may account for 'plainly false' statements Christie says Trump hired 'riffraff' in new book Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback MORE and then-campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media Dem senator: 'Putin had something on' Trump which may account for 'plainly false' statements Debate builds over making Mueller report public 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 BannonChris Christie claims Jared Kushner enacted 'hit job' as revenge for prosecuting father On immigration - Congress should not pay the hostage taker Schiff says Kushner, Bannon invoked ‘bogus privileges’ in testimonies before Congress 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 KingHouse passes bills to fund Transportation Dept., HUD, Agriculture GOP emphasizes unity ahead of new shutdown votes Dems look to chip away at Trump tax reform law 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.