The Trump era was only two weeks old when Steve Bannon was elevated to the cover of Time magazine, lauded as the Great Manipulator and second most powerful man in the world.
By the administration’s 82nd day, the former investment banker and provocative CEO of the rightwing website Breitbart, was facing another momentous headline, based on a New York Post interview, where his boss, Donald Trump, said: “I like Steve, but…”
As Trump seems to have gained energy – and better reviews – from a more interventionist, conventionally Republican approach to foreign policy in Syria and Afghanistan, the Bannon nationalist camp is at bay and its disruptor-in-chief finds himself the focal point of the palace intrigue that invariably swirls around the Trump White House.
Bannon, who serves as Trump’s chief strategist, has long been a flashpoint of controversy, the leader of those in the administration who regard themselves as “nationalists”. The faction, which consists of those in the administration who are hawkish on immigration, protectionist on trade, isolationist on foreign policy and fundamentally contemptuous of the inherited wisdom of the Republican establishment, has been under siege in the White House in recent weeks.
In the wake of the repeated failure of the Trump administration to implement a travel ban on residents of six Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the rise of the so-called “New Yorkers” within the West Wing, led by former Goldman Sachs chief Gary Cohn, the Bannon group has seen diminished influence in the White House.
Trump’s rebuke this week was most pointed. As the president said of his top aide: “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve.”
In addition, Bannon lost his position on the principals committee of the National Security Council last week, a move which is also regarded as clear evidence that his influence in the administration is being reined in.
But while Bannon has long been a hate figure on the left and members of Congress, including former speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi, have gone so far as to claim that he is a white supremacist, the White House aide has a secure base on the right. He is beloved by the rightwing talk radio base which fueled Trump’s rise and is closely tied to the Mercers, the reclusive billionaires who funded Breitbart and help sustain Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Further, in an administration that sees the growing influence of a faction that detractors call “the West Wing Democrats”, even conservative skeptics value Bannon as an ideological counterbalance.
Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, told the Guardian that while Bannon is certainly not an orthodox conservative “beloved by everyone”, he has still made “a big difference in the conservative movement”. Schlapp, a self described fan of Bannon, described the White House strategist as “a lot of fun to work with”.
“Republicans tend to be by the book and careful and we don’t say things that are too interesting – and he’s just the opposite,” Schlapp said, adding that Bannon “is a bit bombastic, says really interesting things, a lot of emotions, smiles and laughter” as well as some shouting.
The particular shouts that have been getting Bannon in trouble though have been very close to home for the Trump family. Sources have described as growing tensions with Jared Kushner, Trump son-in-law. Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, is one of Trump’s top advisers and nominally is the White House’s point person on a bewildering array of issues, ranging from peace in the Middle East to opiate addiction.
Kushner and the rest of the Trump family may lack political experience, but they have long been the rare constants within the president’s ever-shifting inner circle. It was due to conflict with Kushner that Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, was finally sacked in June 2016.
Yet for all of Bannon’s issues with Kushner – heavily fueled by his allies from outside the administration going after Jared – the real conflict is with Cohn, whom Bannon allies have dubbed “Globalist Gary”, as well as his close ally Dina Powell, a former Goldman employee and veteran of the George W Bush administration who has been closely aligned with Cohn.
A source noted that this faction had risen in prominence in the White House not because of any faults of Bannon, but because of the perceived weakness of Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. The result was the view that Trump was leaning on these “West Wing Democrats” for their perceived competence as opposed to any ideological congruence. As the Trump administration has careened from defeat to defeat on its travel ban and attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, they are “steady hands that he can turn to”.
Although the biggest failure, on the abandoned healthcare legislation, was not Bannon’s fault, the White House adviser does bear blame for the failure of the first travel ban aimed at those Muslim-majority countries, the administration’s opening attempt at a defining move.
Further, Bannon, took some damage from the resignation of national security adviser Mike Flynn in February over his ties to Russia. Flynn, seen as a maverick in security circles, was a Bannon ally in the administration.
However, the pressure is still on Bannon to deliver “wins for the president”. As a result he has been playing a lead in reviving the failed talks over healthcare, in an attempt to use his clout on the right to win over recalcitrant members of the Freedom Caucus who killed off legislation before it was even put to a vote in the House.
Even the rise of Cohn may not be a lasting impediment to Bannon. While Cohn is, in the words of one former Trump aide, the president’s “new shiny toy”, there was a sense that Cohn faced inherent limits by virtue of his political ideology.
While no one would ever confuse the Wall Street mogul with Bernie Sanders, he is, as the former Trump aide put it, “a liberal Democrat with liberal Democratic ideas”. The result is that many of his initiatives, including reported interest in a carbon tax in recent weeks, are likely doomed to failure because they are anathema to congressional Republicans.
In the meantime, in a volatile White House, anything can happen. As the Bannon ally noted, the strategist is “not in a good spot but by no means out” of Trump’s frenetic orbit.
But there’s one thing Bannon urgently needs to do. Working for a president obsessed with winning, the strategist needs to be able to point to some successes of his own for the administration.
“Anything can change on a moment’s notice,” the Bannon ally said, “but I think he could turn it around in 72 hours, or be gone in 72 hours. Anything can happen.”