The Memo: Bannon legal move causes stir among Trump allies
Stephen Bannon moved back into the spotlight this week in a Washington Post interview in which he urged a significant change in legal strategy for President Trump.
Bannon is reportedly suggesting Trump should fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He is also arguing that the president should retroactively invoke executive privilege in order to render unusable some material that special counsel Robert Mueller has already gathered.
But his intervention caused a significant stir in the president’s orbit, where Bannon is a divisive figure — lauded by some for his role in Trump’s 2016 election but criticized by others for what they see as a propensity for self-promotion.
After the former chief strategist was quoted in Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Trump asserted publicly that Bannon had “lost his mind.”
Now, at least among Bannon critics, there is a suspicion that he is trying to work his way back into favor.
Within hours of the Post story appearing, one former Trump aide told The Hill, “Is his plan a plan to save Trump or a plan to save Bannon? Maybe he should rethink his last great strategy, about working on the book.”
A former senior administration official was just as scathing, saying the move was simply “a bomb-thrower using his best bomb-throwing technique to get back into the good graces with POTUS. It does not matter to him that this would exponentially increase the president’s legal jeopardy.”
But someone familiar with Bannon’s thinking insisted he is not concerned about returning to Trump’s good graces but instead is trying to “help salvage a near-disastrous situation” for the administration.
Bannon was opposed to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which happened during his time in the White House, and had also previously been opposed to a move against Mueller and Rosenstein.
But, according to this interpretation of events, the recent FBI raids on Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen show that the investigation is moving away from Russia collusion and into Trump’s personal and business dealings. Trump critics have long suggested that it is those areas that pose the greatest peril for the president.
There has been persistent speculation this week that Trump could move against Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters.
Bannon’s plan in that regard dovetails with broader attacks on Rosenstein from the president’s political and media allies.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday morning that two people who had spoken to Trump this week believed that it was just a matter of time before he fired Sessions and Rosenstein. The previous evening, CNN reported that the White House was preparing talking points to attack Rosenstein’s credibility.
But the second and most distinctive part of Bannon’s suggested plan — that there should be a retrospective assertion of executive privilege — was received much more skeptically. The former chief strategist told the Post that Ty Cobb, the attorney who has led the White House response to the Mueller probe, should be fired — in part for proving too cooperative, as Bannon apparently sees it, with Mueller’s demands.
But Trump appeared to push back on that idea in a Thursday tweet.
“I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!),” the president tweeted. “I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my Special Counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process.”
One former administration official highlighted the president’s tweet, noting that it appeared to show that Bannon’s proposal had “landed with a thud.” The former official added, regarding Trump, that it was “good to see him stand by his lawyers” and that it “hasn’t always been easy” to get him to follow their advice.
Meanwhile, some legal experts were dismissive of the pushback on executive privilege, arguing that such a tactic would be even less defensible than a firing of Rosenstein.
“The firing of Rosenstein has a lot of tactical and political issues but it is within [the president’s] power,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general who is now a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law. “The magical retroactive application of executive privilege is not in his power. It is simply a fiction or a fantasy, offered by a non-lawyer.”