David Smith, The Guardian, September 11, 2017
Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, has accused the Republican establishment of trying to “nullify” last year’s presidential election, driving another wedge between Donald Trump and his own party.
Notorious for fanning Trump’s nationalist and populist instincts, Bannon last month left the White House and returned to the conservative Breitbart News as executive chairman, but is reportedly in regular phone contact with the president.
“The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election,” he said in his first TV interview on CBS. “That’s a brutal fact we have to face.”
It is an “open secret on Capitol Hill” that many Republicans do not support Trump’s agenda, Bannon claimed, singling out Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan for criticism.
“They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented,” he said, warning that they will be held to account if they do not support the president.
Bannon, 63, who became head of Trump’s insurgent campaign in August last year, acknowledged that there was an attempt to make peace with the party hierarchy.
“In the 48 hours after we won, there’s a fundamental decision that was made. You might call it the original sin of the administration. We embraced the establishment. I mean, we totally embraced the establishment … because you had to staff a government.”
Speaking to the flagship current affairs programme 60 Minutes, Bannon also called Republican national security officials who had served in the George W Bush administration “idiots”, including former vice-president Dick Cheney and former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.
“I hold these people in contempt, total and complete contempt,” said Bannon, blaming them for the Iraq war and trade conflicts with China. “They’re idiots, and they’ve gotten us in this situation, and they question a good man like Donald Trump.”
Trump has made little secret of his frustration with McConnell and Ryan in recent weeks, especially after the failure of Congress to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s healthcare law. Last week, he blindsided both leaders by striking a deal to raise the debt ceiling with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi instead.
Trump, once again using language that implies he is separate from the party, tweeted last week: “Republicans, sorry, but I’ve been hearing about Repeal & Replace for 7 years, didn’t happen!”
The schism could soon have consequences across the country as Bannon seeks to weaponise Breitbart in elections. He has begun holding private meetings with pro-Trump challengers to incumbent Republicans in the House and Senate, according to Politico.
Last Thursday, Bannon reportedly held meetings with Danny Tarkanian, an attorney taking on anti-Trump senator Dean Heller, and Roy Moore, who is running in the upcoming Alabama special election against McConnell-endorsed senator Luther Strange.
Bannon’s top target for the 2018 midterm elections is said to be Jeff Flake, senator for Arizona, who has frequently clashed with Trump and wrote a critical book, Conscience of a Conservative. Tennessee senator Bob Corker, who recently questioned Trump’s “stability” and “competence”, could also be in the crosshairs.
Politico said Bannon is coordinating with conservative donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attack ads. “After exiting the White House, Bannon left Washington for Long Island, New York, where he spent five days meeting with the billionaire,” Politico added.
But past attempts by populist conservatives to run as Trump proxies have met with mixed results. Maverick businessman Paul Nehlen, who attempted to copy the billionaire celebrity in Janesville, Wisconsin last year, was trounced by Ryan.
Many moderate Republicans condemned Trump for seeming to draw moral equivalence last month between white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, and counter-demonstrators. In his 60 Minutes interview, Bannon said: “I was the only guy that came out and tried to defend him.”
He also had a message for Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn, who is Jewish and who denounced the Charlottesville remarks. “If you don’t like what [Trump’s] doing and you don’t agree with it, you have an obligation to resign.”
Bannon dismissed the investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia as “a total and complete farce” and said of his relationship with the president: “I think I’m a street fighter. And by the way, I think that’s why Donald Trump and I get along so well. Donald Trump’s a fighter. Great counter puncher. Great counter puncher.
“He’s a fighter. I’m going to be his wing man outside for the entire time, to protect [Trump]” and “to make sure his enemies know that there’s no free shot on goal.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed visibly irritated with repeated questions about Bannon’s comments. She said the president had seen clips of his appearance on 60 Minutes but took pains to distance the administration from Bannon’s more fiery statements. She shrugged off Bannon’s claims that giving Daca recipients a path to citizenship could lead to civil war by saying: “Steve always likes to speak in the most extreme measures.”
Sanders also insisted that Trump, who has long kept former advisers close within the fold, has only spoken to Bannon once since the controversial aide left the White House in August.
She also dodged Bannon’s harsh criticism that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and speaker Paul Ryan were trying to undermine Trump’s administration from Capitol Hill. “Right now the president is committed to working with the leadership we have,” said the White House spokeswoman.
Sanders did rebut Bannon’s description that the firing of James Comey was potentially “the biggest mistake in modern political history”, saying: “It has been shown in the days that followed that the president was right.”