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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 MooreFormer campaign aide to New Jersey governor says she was sexually assaulted by his ex-staffer Mellman: When questions don’t mean what they say CNN's Toobin: It's Trump's ‘nature’ to not believe accusations of sexual assault 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 TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation 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 RubioMeghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia 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 ClintonRepublicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Katy Perry praises Taylor Swift for diving into politics Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue 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 PapadopoulosMueller assembles team of cooperators in Russian probe Calif. man ensnared in Mueller probe sentenced to 6 months in prison The Mueller investigation: Where it stands at the midterms 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 TrumpElection Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue Election Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B Eric Trump: Trump Org has 'zero investments' in Russia or Saudi Arabia MORE, his son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerSaudis say journalist killed in ‘fight’ at consulate; 18 detained White House responds to Joaquin Castro's Kushner allegations: 'an outrageous slanderous lie' Attacks on public figures are growing MORE and then-campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortManafort to be sentenced in Virginia in February Former FBI agent sentenced to 4 years in jail for leaking to reporter The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan 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 BannonBannon: Timing of Nikki Haley's departure 'horrific' Oversight Dems call for probe into citizenship question on 2020 census House Intelligence Committee to vote Friday on releasing dozens of Russia probe transcripts 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 KingKey GOP lawmaker says public oblivious to consequences of opioid crisis Cook Political Report moves 5 GOP-held seats towards Dems The Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh could be confirmed within days 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.