The departure of Steve Bannon from the White House won’t have a big impact on the day-to-day operations of the West Wing. An economic nationalist who served as Donald Trump’s political id (as well as his chief strategist), Bannon was effectively sidelined back in April, after he was removed from the National Security Council and was accused of insulting Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Bannon’s planned in-house think tank, the Strategic Initiatives Group, never quite got off the ground. His policy portfolio was slim, down to two areas: trade and foreign policy—specifically the war in Afghanistan. Much of the time, Bannon could be found on a couch in the office of his unlikely White House ally, Reince Priebus, scrolling through his phone.
What was Bannon doing on his phone? Reading the news. As a former (and future) media figure himself, Bannon is a voracious news consumer. He would often call up journalists, out of the blue, to offer praise for articles he liked or found useful. That was what Bannon did earlier this week, when he telephoned the liberal journalist Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect to laud Kuttner’s latest piece on how the rising nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea were benefitting China. Kuttner published an article based on their conversation, in which Bannon criticized his colleagues and undercut President Trump’s public positioning on North Korea.
The interview likely hastened Bannon’s firing, but it was also a part of the former Breitbart chief’s strategy during his nearly eight months at the White House to try to influence President Trump from outside the West Wing as well as within it. Bannon, as a member of the senior staff, did advise Trump directly by attending as many meetings as possible and working to get the final word in with a president inclined to side with the last person he hears from. He populated the West Wing with acolyteslike Seb Gorka and Julia Hahn. Even in his final week at the White House, he encouraged Trump to stick to his instincts in his response to the Charlottesville violence, to attack the left-wing protesters and not categorically denounce the alt-righters whose rally begat the violence.
But Bannon also worked to weaponize the media to his advantage. Jonathan Swan of Axios, for instance, reported last month that Bannon was pushing for raising the marginal tax rate on top earners to above 40 percent. But an administration official told me at the time that Bannon’s tax hike idea had been heard and discarded months ago by those crafting the White House’s tax-reform proposal. “We’re beyond that,” the official said. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal a few weeks after Swan’s report, Trump teased that he might be okay with raising taxes on the rich before saying he didn’t support Bannon’s proposed rate.
One of Bannon’s most useful tools in the media was, of course, Breitbart, which regularly pushed his side of internal White House debates, especially against National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Opposed to continuing the war in Afghanistan, Bannon began calling a proposal to increase troops levels there “McMaster’s War,” a term that (surprise!) was also used in a headline. Bannon’s own war, against McMaster himself, has been conducted primarily at Breitbart. (See this, this, this, this, and this for starters.)
The administration debate over the Afghanistan war offers the best example of how Bannon worked from the outside. From the beginning of the Afghanistan policy review, Bannon was on an island—McMaster, James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and most of his entire national security team (Jeff Sessions excepted) have been supportive of some version of continuing America’s involvement. Trump himself has and remains spiritually with Bannon on Afghanistan, but the sway of his other advisers has been strong and convincing. So Bannon turned to a plan concocted by Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder, to “privatize” the war, as Rosie Gray at the Atlantic put it. Internally, Gray reports, Bannon pressed for Trump to consider Prince’s plan, while the businessman helpfully appeared on cable news to tout the idea. Breitbart, too, played a role in promoting the Prince plan.
And yet, there are limits to Bannon’s tactics. Prince was reportedly blocked by McMaster from attending Friday’s South Asian policy meeting with the president. Trump still hasn’t decided on a plan for Afghanistan, although most signs point to his adopting some sort of troop increase. While Bannon promises to keep fighting the fight from the outside, it’s much harder to have the last word with the president when you aren’t working down the hall from him.