Political News

‘Furious’ Trump Snaps at Bannon Over His Ridicule

Posted January 4, 2018 1:40 a.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump excommunicated his onetime chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, from his circle Wednesday, ending for now a partnership of convenience that transformed U.S. politics while raising questions about the future of the nationalist-populist movement they cultivated together.

The rupture came after Bannon was quoted in a new book disparaging the president’s children, asserting that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” in meeting with Russians and calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Trump, described by his spokeswoman as “furious, disgusted,” fired back by saying that Bannon had “lost his mind.”

In a written statement, the president excoriated Bannon as a self-promoting exaggerator who had “very little to do with our historic victory” in the 2016 presidential election and was “only in it for himself.” Rather than representing Trump’s hard-core political base or supporting his agenda to “make America great again,” Bannon was “simply seeking to burn it all down,” the president said.

While Trump had remained in touch with Bannon after pushing him out of the White House over the summer, the two now appear to have reached a breaking point. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”

Assuming it lasts — and with Trump, nothing is ever certain — the schism could test whether he or Bannon has more resonance with the conservative base that has sustained the president through a tumultuous tenure marked by low poll numbers. Bannon’s Breitbart News has been a key weapon in Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

Cheering the breakup Wednesday were establishment Republicans who resent Bannon’s bomb-throwing style and his vows to wage war on incumbent lawmakers in the party primaries this year. Senate Republicans could barely contain their glee as they redistributed Trump’s statement blasting Bannon with the note “in case you missed it” and a smiling face symbol. By afternoon, candidates whom Bannon has endorsed in a handful of races faced pressure to disavow his remarks about the president’s son.

At the White House on Wednesday morning, aides who had kept a watchful eye on Bannon’s efforts to make himself a kingmaker saw an opening to finally rid themselves of him. They encouraged the president to hit back publicly, and Trump went through at least three drafts of a statement with his communications director, Hope Hicks, and other aides before sending out a final version unlike any issued by a president against a top adviser in modern times.

“Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was,” Trump said in the statement. “It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.”

A private lawyer representing Trump sent Bannon a letter Wednesday directing him to cease and desist making derogatory comments about the president and his family and threatening a defamation lawsuit. “Legal action is imminent,” said the letter, first reported by ABC News and confirmed by a person close to the president.

Bannon declined to comment Wednesday. But people close to him said that he believed that the president would eventually come around because Trump would need help with his base at a moment when his political muscle appeared to be on the wane. Bannon’s Breitbart site reported the contretemps but did not return fire against Trump on Wednesday.

The president was responding to comments attributed to Bannon in a new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff. The book, due out next Tuesday, was obtained by The Guardian, which first reported Bannon’s remarks, and New York magazine then posted an excerpt. A copy of the book was later obtained by The New York Times.

In the book, Bannon was quoted suggesting that Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law; and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman, had been “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for meeting with Russians after being promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers,” Bannon said after The Times revealed the meeting in July 2017, according to Wolff’s book.

“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,” Bannon continued, according to the book.

He also said that the chance that Trump Jr. did not introduce the Russians to his father “is zero,” a supposition rather than an assertion but one that would contradict the president’s insistence that he knew nothing about the meeting at the time.

According to Wolff, Bannon also predicted that a special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any coordination with Trump aides would ultimately center on money laundering, an assessment that could lend credibility to an investigation the president has repeatedly called a witch hunt. “They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV,” Bannon was quoted as saying.

Trump Jr. did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he jabbed at Bannon on Twitter on Wednesday when he reposted a message noting that Alabama now had a Democratic senator. “Thanks Steve,” the younger Trump wrote. “Keep up the great work.”

The president and his advisers blamed Bannon for backing Roy Moore for the Republican nomination in Alabama and then pressing Trump into endorsing Moore even after he was accused of sexual misconduct with several women and girls as young as 14. Moore ended up losing last month, embarrassing Trump and souring his already complicated and strained relationship with Bannon.

Trump grew more upset about an interview Bannon gave to Vanity Fair that criticized Kushner’s contacts with Russians. During his Christmas break in Florida, Trump stewed and consulted aides and relatives, according to advisers, but ultimately opted against responding publicly to avoid drawing more attention to Bannon’s remarks.

But accusing the president’s eldest son of treason crossed the line. “Going after the president’s son in an absolutely outrageous and unprecedented way is probably not the best way to curry favor with anybody,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

The book presents Trump as an ill-informed and thoroughly unserious candidate and president, engaged mainly in satisfying his own ego and presiding over a dysfunctional White House. It reports that early in the 2016 campaign, one aide, Sam Nunberg, was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” it quotes Nunberg as saying, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”

The book cites an email from an unnamed White House aide offering a harsh assessment of Trump’s operation that was said to reflect the view of Gary D. Cohn, the president’s national economics adviser: “It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”

The book also asserts that Cohn and other advisers and associates of Trump deride him in private, calling him an “idiot,” a “dope” or “dumb” as dirt. Thomas J. Barrack, a friend and adviser to Trump, was quoted telling a friend that the president is “not only crazy, he’s stupid.”

Reached by telephone Wednesday, Barrack said that account was “totally false.” Barrack added, “It’s clear to anyone who knows me that those aren’t my words and inconsistent with anything I’ve ever said.” He said that Wolff never ran that quotation by him to ask whether it was accurate.

A longtime media columnist and author, Wolff brings a high profile, vivid writing style and years of experience but sometimes mixed reviews to the task of chronicling Trump’s White House. Interview subjects have complained in the past that he took comments meant to be off the record and used them.

Wolff clearly benefited from close cooperation from Bannon and the book is infused with his views. The author was frequently seen in Bannon’s office while Bannon was working in the White House. According to Sanders, Wolff spoke with the president just once, for five to seven minutes, in the first month of the administration, when Trump called Wolff to thank him for his criticism of a Times article that the president did not like.

Going beyond the president’s pushback on Bannon, Sanders attacked the book as a whole, hoping to discredit its reporting. Sanders released a statement calling it “trashy tabloid fiction” that is “filled with false and misleading accounts from individuals who have no access or influence with the White House.

Wolff, responding by email, said he was “wholly comfortable with my numerous sources.”