The fractured relationship between President Trump and his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon took center stage on Thursday as questions mounted about Bannon’s political future.
The heaviest blow for Bannon came as one of his most important financial backers, Rebekah Mercer, issued a rare public rebuke of the strategist in a statement first reported by the Washington Post on Thursday afternoon.
Republican politicians who have long disliked Bannon — including New York Congressman Peter King and, reportedly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — have been gratified by his apparent demise.
Even conservative strategists who harbor some sympathy for Bannon are shocked at the speed of his apparent fall.
“Bannon has pretty effectively marginalized himself, with inexplicable speed,” said one long-established Republican strategist, who added that Bannon had “lost a war of words with the president.”
A former Trump aide, meanwhile, when asked about Bannon’s future, replied wryly, “Time of death: 1:20 p.m.”
The former aide was referring to Trump’s Wednesday statement in which he excoriated Bannon as having “lost his mind.” Trump’s statement added, “Steve doesn’t represent my base — he’s only in it for himself.”
To Bannon skeptics, the strategist has destroyed his own main asset — his proximity to Trump.
Bannon was an early enthusiast for Trump’s candidacy and took over as de facto leader of the campaign in August 2016 when conventional wisdom held that it was doomed.
But his influence may have reached its high-water mark when he was appointed chief strategist at the outset of the Trump presidency. He soon became embroiled in in-fighting and made powerful enemies, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. He was pushed out of the White House last August, soon after John Kelly took over as chief of staff.
His alienation from Trump world appears to have been made complete with his comments to author Michael Wollf in a new book about the White House.
In particular, Bannon’s description of a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting as “treasonous” infuriated the White House. At that encounter, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer. Trump Jr. had been told in an email in advance of the meeting that the lawyer might have dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and that this was being provided as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Bannon loyalists insist that predictions of his demise are premature and suggest the White House has overreacted. But they acknowledge that this most recent break with Trump is dispiriting.
“It’s a family fight. They always get back together,” said one source close to Bannon. But this person also admitted, “This one could take some time.”
The same source insisted, however, that Bannon retained enormous influence with the conservative base — influence that could be deployed in forthcoming Senate primaries, where Bannon has encouraged hard-right candidates to run against incumbent Republicans.
The source said that this week’s furor “puts a damper on those efforts, but there are a lot of voters out there still on Steve’s side, including the millions of Breitbart readers.”
Even Bannon’s place at the helm of the website seemed in fresh danger on Thursday evening, however.
Rebekah Mercer, who with her father billionaire Robert Mercer is one of the most important funders of conservative political activities, came down hard on Bannon. Mercer is a major shareholder in Breitbart, having agreed to buy her father’s shares in the organization in November.
“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” Rebekah Mercer said, according to the Post. “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”
The New York Times reported that the Mercers had also cut off funding for Bannon’s private security detail.
There has been some speculation that, if Bannon retains control of Breitbart, the site could adopt a more critical stance toward Trump. But others in the conservative world disputed that idea, and Bannon himself praised the president during his Breitbart-branded Sirius XM radio show on Wednesday night.
If Breitbart wanted to shift its approach, GOP strategist Alex Conant said, “It would have to be a slow and gradual shift. Breitbart, for the last two years, has been mostly a pro-Trump site. They would immediately lose a lot of readers if they became anti-Trump.”
Conant, who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the 2016 primaries, was one of several sources who, though not Bannon allies, cautioned against counting him out.
“Bannon is so good at generating media for himself that it is hard to imagine he will disappear,” Conant said. “He will continue to be a voice in American politics for the foreseeable future.”
But others insisted that Bannon’s success in the past should not be confused with his claims that he could be a player in the primaries leading up to this year’s midterm elections.
“As an outside the box-thinking strategist and tactician, he was effective on several fronts,” said the senior Republican strategist. “But there is no Bannon constituency. There isn’t a legion — or even a small group — of Bannon activists in Arizona or in some other state that can have an impact on an election.”
This strategist argued that the idea that Bannon would foment some kind of schism among populist or hard-right activists and voters was overdone. There had been discontent with Washington Republicans among grassroots conservatives for years before Bannon became a national figure, the source argued. It was not within Bannon’s power to direct them in one way or another.
In another sign of how alienated Bannon has become from Trump, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders played down the relationship between the two men at Thursday’s media briefing.
“I’m not aware that they were ever particularly close,” she said.
Still, the storm over Bannon, the Wolff book and more has buffeted a White House that had been showing some signs of stabilization after the passage of a tax bill last month. That in itself is a problem, at least to some eyes.
“It’s a huge distraction and takes away momentum from their recent legislative wins,” said Conant. “I can’t imagine a worse way for a White House to start its second year. It feeds [Trump’s] detractors’ worst fears and it needlessly divides his supporters. He is fueling the opposition while fighting with his base.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.