WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST REASSERTS INFLUENCE IN 100-DAYS PUSH
Stephen Bannon was left for dead.
The media and plenty of President Trump’s supporters thought the White House’s polarizing chief strategist was done for after he was booted from his unusual spot on the National Security Council’s principals committee.
Bannon again appeared doomed after the president publicly rebuked him for fighting an ideological battle against senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, in a feud that was prosecuted by both sides through leaks to the press.
Trump later dressed Bannon down in an interview with the New York Post, saying the former Breitbart News chief joined the campaign late and was not as influential as media outlets have made him out to be.
Meanwhile, Kushner and economic adviser Gary Cohn, a former Democrat and Goldman Sachs executive who is despised by Trump’s base, appeared to gain influence for their more traditional GOP positions as the president modified several positions on business, trade and foreign policy.
Grassroots conservatives expressed alarm when media reports suggested a West Wing shakeup was in the works, with Bannon among the casualties.
But with the White House hungry for victories ahead of Trump’s 100th day in office, the president has fallen back on the “economic nationalism” that’s central to Bannon’s worldview.
“Steve was benched, and I think it got his attention and he realized he had to step up and show the president how valuable he is,” said one GOP operative with close ties to the White House. “He’s kept his head down and got back to work and was ready when he was called upon.”
Keeping up a blistering pace punctuated by executive orders and tough talk, Trump appears to have recommitted himself to the nationalist-populist themes he rode into office when Bannon acted as his campaign chairman.
Trump visited a manufacturing plant in Kenosha, Wis., last week to sign an executive order aimed at overhauling the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers, a favorite tool of tech companies.
The administration believes businesses have abused the H-1B system, using it to import cheaper foreign labor to fill jobs they say should go to American workers.
This week, Trump made the surprise announcement that he’d slap a hefty tariff on softwood lumber coming in from Canada, essentially starting a trade war in an effort to boost domestic timber production.
The potential for more trade disruption ramped up further when figures in the White House, including Bannon, drafted an executive order that would withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
It appears the order may have only been used to ratchet up pressure on Canada and Mexico — Trump has since said he’d rather renegotiate NAFTA than withdraw from it entirely — but it was further evidence that Bannon’s economic nationalism would continue to be a driving force inside Trump’s White House.
Those actions have allayed the fears of conservatives who worried that the president was more concerned with appeasing Washington insiders than fulfilling campaign promises.
“All of these people who say the president doesn’t have an ideology, they’re wrong,” said one Bannon ally. “He does have an ideology, and it’s Bannon’s ideology. They are just now figuring out how to implement it.”
Bannon’s allies acknowledge that some of his setbacks have been self-inflicted.
They say that while Bannon brings ideas and vision, he is not a very good political operative or strategic thinker when it comes to maximizing his influence or jockeying for position inside the White House.
“He’s not the skilled Washington politico that runs around all day stabbing people in the back,” said the GOP operative. “Not that he wouldn’t enjoy that, but it’s just not what he’s best at.”
That has been evident in several high-profile miscalculations that may have contributed to his sidelining.
Bannon’s blunt style turned off House conservatives at a crucial moment in the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace negotiations when he demanded in a meeting that they get on board, telling them they had “no choice” about backing the GOP’s bill.
Bannon has been accused by some in the White House of talking too much to reporters. His allies say he should have known better than to take on a Trump family member in his feud with Kushner, which played out in the press.
And they say Bannon has been slow to accumulate influential allies inside the White House, while others, like chief of staff Reince Priebus, have surrounded themselves with loyalists.
“He needs people around him to implement his ideas,” the Bannon ally said. “He’s a genius at understanding what needs to be done but not great at the nuts and bolts of it. Kushner could help him with that, and I think contrary to what people think, those two are largely on the same page.
“Bannon’s relationship with Priebus is a marriage of convenience, but Priebus could also be helpful in getting these things done. You’ve had these 100 days dominated by these various fiefdoms fighting. I think it’s a learning curve and they’re all kind of figuring out how they can work together.”
Some close to the White House say the reports that Bannon was ever sidelined were overblown, calling it a product of the media’s eagerness to play up intrigue stories that ascribe outsize influence to Trump’s advisers.
The president himself has a decades-long record of talking about American protectionism and economic nationalism. Those are his ideas, not Bannon’s, said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, who is friends with Trump.
“This is all about Donald Trump,” Ruddy said. “He’s always had an agenda of America First, strong borders, protected industries and fair trade deals. He’s been advocating this for over 20 years, and it’s no surprise he’s carrying through with it. No matter who he had on his staff, the result would be the same.”
Still, the narrative of competing wings of influence within the White House has caught the attention of the president’s supporters, who are eager to see Bannon regain his standing.
Some, like Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley, are deeply suspicious of Cohn and say there would be a grassroots revolt if his wing won out at the expense of Bannon.
Dooley is thrilled by this week’s policy push and said it’s evidence that the balance of power has been restored.
“We’re watching closely to see how influential some of these people are, and we’re committed to fighting to make sure Trump keeps his promises,” Dooley said. “These actions are a good sign. You dance with the one that brought you and that is what Trump is doing by listening more to Bannon.”