Even Democrats have been leery about using the T word to denounce the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia during and after the 2016 election. So it’s been left to Steve Bannon, of all people, to come out and call them “treasonous.” What’s next, Jared Kushner admitting he’s always known his father-in-law is scum?
In Michael Wolff’s book, Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House, out today, the ousted West Wing wingnut and Breitbart honcho is quoted thusly on the subject of Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and campaign manager Paul Manafort’s notorious June 2016 Trump Tower confab with some shady Russkies in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton:
Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.
More provocatively yet, Bannon also claims that the odds Trump himself was unaware of the meeting are “zero.”
Trump fired back not only on Twitter, which you’d expect, but in a formal White House statement that began, “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” This fascinating document’s insistence that Bannon was a minor player “who had very little to do with our historic victory” might have sounded slightly, though not much, less preposterous if Trump hadn’t kept calling him “Steve”: “Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.” Almost every line helplessly reflected their former political intimacy in the course of strenuously denying it.
Meanwhile, POTUS’s lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters not only to Bannon, on the grounds that he’d violated a confidentiality agreement, but to Wolff and his publisher, threatening a libel suit unless the book is withdrawn. If you ask us, all this seemed like a bit more than a standard-issue Trump tantrum; the heavy artillery was being rolled out, with a whiff of panic in the air. It’s hard not to suspect that the real worry is about how much more dirt “Steve” might end up venting if his lurch off the reservation turns out to be permanent.
You don’t talk that breezily about other people getting indicted if you’re worried about joining them.
What prompted Bannon to go rogue in the first place is a puzzler. Even though Trump wasn’t happy with him after the Roy Moore fiasco, he’s recouped from similar mishaps in the past. (While it’s also unclear whether he shared his thoughts with Wolff before or after the Alabama election, an earlier time frame seems more probable.) Bizarrely, even after the Fire And Fury excerpts went public, Bannon reportedly told friends he thought the breach with Trump could be repaired. He’s gone right back to flattering him, too, saying on Breitbart’s Sirius radio show Wednesday night, "The President of the United States is a great man. You know, I support him day in and day out.”
That’s in spite of telling Wolff that Ivanka Trump is as “dumb as a brick”—we’re still reeling at the news, or maybe the insult to bricks—and predicting that Robert Mueller will soon indict Kushner, and maybe Donald Trump Jr. as well, on money-laundering charges. “The Kushner shit is greasy,” Bannon said, adding, “They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg.” If we know one thing about Trump, it’s that his only real loyalty is to family—not counting wives, who can always be traded in for newer models. Because husbands can be replaced as well, you can imagine him jettisoning Kushner in the crunch, but never Ivanka or Donald Jr.
So where does this leave Bannon? Although he’s never been the intellectual heavyweight he thinks he is, nobody’s ever denied he’s crafty. Unlike his volatile former boss, he’s always been consistent about his agenda, too: a white nationalist, populist, Establishment-wrecking insurgency. We have to assume he thought spilling the beans to Wolff would somehow be to its benefit, if only by reminding Trump that he isn’t somebody to be messed with. Most likely, in his view, Trump needs to be brought back to Bannon’s reservation—not the other way around.
Whatever else you think of him, Bannon has never lacked a game plan.
That’s why his timing is so interesting. If he truly thinks the 2016 Trump Tower meeting was treasonous, unpatriotic and “bad shit,” he presumably thought so whenever he first learned about it—but he hasn’t said so until now. As it happens, he’s almost the only (ex-) member of Trump’s inner circle who seems to be in the clear in Mueller’s investigation. You don’t talk that breezily about other people getting indicted if you’re worried about joining them. So another not totally far-fetched scenario is that he’s decided Trump’s presidency is doomed and he’s positioning himself to outlast it.
He just might, too. Bannon hasn’t abandoned his threat to boost a slew of the wackjob candidates he favors against the Republican incumbents he detests in this year’s GOP primaries, and it’s not insignificant that he (and Breitbart) still have enough clout that plenty of right-wingers have been reluctant to distance themselves from him, even after the Wolff book’s excerpts came out. He did lose the support of billionaire Breitbart backer Rebekah Mercer over this flaperoo, but that doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s even floated the idea of running for president himself in 2020. That presumably means he doesn’t expect Trump will be in contention.
Whatever else you think of him, Bannon has never lacked a game plan. If Trump’s presidency does end in disaster, Sean Hannity won’t have much choice except to go down with the ship, because Hannity isn’t renowned for thinking ahead. Bannon, on the other hand, could already be preparing for the outcome that’s been his secret goal all along: Trumpism minus Trump.