President Trump declared his former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon persona non grata on Wednesday, delivering a scorching rebuke to the man who had been Trump’s most visible partner in his efforts to redefine the Republican Party according to their populist and nationalist vision.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” Trump said in a caustic four-paragraph statement released by the White House. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Trump rarely dispatches his advisors entirely, whether he fires them or they are disgraced. Bannon had tested that in recent months, however, with reported comments mocking Trump and his children and casting himself as a master strategist and political theorist.
The president’s public denunciation of Bannon came only after a report early Wednesday, based on excerpts from a forthcoming book, that quoted Bannon condemning as “treasonous” a June 2016 meeting in which Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, met with Kremlin-linked Russians to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad … and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon reportedly said.
His verdict on the meeting in Trump Tower — an event now at the center of a special counsel’s criminal investigation of Russian election meddling and potential Trump campaign complicity — was taken from a book to be released next week and obtained before publication by the Guardian newspaper. Bannon’s reported comment is an especially damning charge, undercutting Trump’s claim that the Russia story is a Democratic hoax.
Other portions of the book, as reported by the Guardian and excerpted in New York magazine, quote other Trump aides, and overall they portray him as ill-informed, unprepared and ill-tempered and contend that neither Trump nor family members and associates expected him to win election. In a separate statement, the spokeswoman for First Lady Melania Trump denied an assertion that “Melania was in tears — and not of joy.”
Bannon, who led Trump’s campaign through most of the general election season and was a senior White House counselor for seven months, has long used the populist website he runs, Breitbart News, to war against mainstream Republicans and party leaders while giving voice to white nationalists. After his firing in August, Bannon sounded a fresh declaration of intraparty war, vowing to support challengers to Republican lawmakers insufficiently supportive of Trump’s protectionist populism and hard-line immigration policies.
But even as he rankled many Trump allies and GOP congressional leaders, Bannon enjoyed a continued relationship with Trump, who praised him publicly and sought his advice. When Bannon left the White House, Trump thanked him for his service on Twitter, and said he “will be a tough and smart new voice” at Breitbart.
Bannon’s critics blamed him for encouraging Trump’s most destructive instincts and for the president’s failure to appeal to voters beyond his political base. A smaller group of supporters praised Bannon for helping the president solidify that base.
Trump’s disowning of Bannon immediately cheered mainstream Republicans. A political group tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been a Bannon target, summed up its glee in a Twitter message that had no words, just a short video of McConnell grinning.
Trump Jr. and Anthony Scaramucci, another banished Trump official, who’d conflicted with Bannon, shared their joy on Twitter. Both cited profanity-laced comments that Scaramucci made about Bannon in an interview with the New Yorker magazine in July, accusing Bannon of trying to build his own brand off “the strength of the president.”
Trump’s oldest son also tweeted that Bannon had turned the opportunity of working in the White House “into a nightmare of backstabbing, harassing, leaking, lying & undermining the President. Steve is not a strategist, he is an opportunist.”
The president apparently reached the same conclusion. In his statement he dismissed Bannon as “a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination.”
“Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look,” Trump added.
Trump blamed Bannon for leaking to the media while in the White House and for losing an Alabama Senate seat in last month’s special election.
Bannon backed Roy Moore, who defeated an incumbent Republican senator that Trump supported. Bannon campaigned for Moore in Alabama and through Breitbart, sending reporters to the state in a failed effort to discredit reports in the Washington Post that Moore had molested a 14-year-old girl decades ago and made advances on other underage girls. Trump, at Bannon’s urging, endorsed Moore in the general election race against Democrat Doug Jones.
“Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans,” Trump’s statement said. “Steve doesn’t represent my base — he’s only in it for himself.” (Republicans had the seat for 21 years.)
Separately, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Bannon of “going after the president’s son in an outrageous and unprecedented way” and said that the president was “furious” and “disgusted.”
Bannon is expected to testify soon in a closed hearing of the House Intelligence Committee and will be questioned about what he knew, if anything, about ties between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower occurred before Bannon joined the campaign. He didn’t object entirely to the meeting taking place, he reportedly recounted in the book, but said it should have been handled by lawyers and held far from Trump Tower. Any dirt on Clinton should have been passed, he said, “to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication.”
Attorneys for Trump Jr. and Kushner did not respond to emails requesting comment. An attorney for Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time of the meeting who also attended, declined to comment.
Bannon’s denigration of Trump and his family represents yet another unusual twist to the Trump presidency.
Though other presidents’ aides have, on occasions, written tell-all books or given indiscreet interviews, they have rarely done it with such gusto and abandon. A profile in Vanity Fair last month reported that Bannon had told a friend that Trump was “like an 11-year-old child,” and that he recalled allegations in a dropped lawsuit that Trump had raped a California teenager.
“Bannon has his own platform, unlike most chiefs of staff or advisors who seek to be part of conventional politics,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative author.
Olsen, however, argues that Bannon’s role in the populist movement has been overstated.
“Bannon,” he said, “assumed a public persona because, in a world of reporting that focuses on personalities, he was one of the few personalities who could be ascribed to be Trump-like.”
Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.