On August 4, Trump and key members went to his golf course in Bedminster. Bannon did not get the invite and was in fact waiting for the call to go. One person who went with Trump was now Chief of Staff Kelly. Neither Bannon or Trump were really sure about Kelly. Bannon liked to claim credit for bringing Kelly in to the administration, but he wasn’t sure how Kelly would fit in. He also bemoaned that Kelly was not right-wing enough. Trump kept asking if people thought Kelly liked him.
Kelly himself had watched the Trump administration from his previous position as director of Homeland Security. Kelly was disgusted and came on as Chief as Staff in order to bring everything in line. Some pro-Trump advocates had wondered if Trump had somehow been tricked into being tamed. In fact, right after Kelly fired Scaramucci, he began to consider what should be done with Jared and Ivanka. The two were supportive of Kelly, but it was inevitable that they would bypass him to influence Trump. Though they feared Bannon, they were themselves feared for the power they had accrued behind-the-scenes and their overt access to the President.
This put Kelly in a bit of bind. Jared and Ivanka might have to go, but that would mean Bannon stayed. Bannon, however, was on the outs with Trump again, so siding with him was a non-starter. Finally, there was Trump himself. Kelly’s true success was in controlling Trump, an uncontrollable personality. Trump loved how Jared and Ivanka operated and the best Kelly could do was get an agreement that they should be part of a defined hierarchy. With that in mind, Kelly started sending signals that Jared and Ivanka had to go through him for access to Trump.
Bannon, for his part, really believed that Kelly would send Jared and Ivanka home. This was largely based on Bannon’s belief that they were the biggest threat to the Trump presidency in addition to his inability to see that Kelly might think differently. Sam Nunberg, one of Bannon’s acolytes was convinced that Bannon would stay on before jumping ship of his own will to join Trump’s reelection campaign.
Bannon, however, couldn’t see a way out. He openly remarked that he couldn’t envision the future of the Trump presidency. While waiting for the call to go to Bedminster, he decided to try and force Kelly’s hand. He would offer his resignation if Jared and Ivanka stayed and would stay if Jared and Ivanka left.
On August 4 at Bedminster, Trump was having a working lunch. The subject was the opoid crisis, which was a detailed issue that was boring Trump. After that was a round of questions in which one reporter asked about North Korea. North Korea was a problem for Trump because it was a detail-heavy situation for a heavily non-detail attention span. His staff hadn’t prepared him for taking a question on North Korea, but he was so happy to stop talking about the opoid crisis that openly threatened “Fire and Fury” if North Korea kept threatening the United States.
North Korea became the topic of discussion for the next week. Because of this, the news was drowned out that an alt-right radical named Richard Spencer was was organizing a protest at the University of Virginia in response to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. He also wanted to make an explicit connection between Trump politics and white nationalism. Trump, meanwhile, was busy capitalizing on the North Korea discussion by also suggesting military action in Venezuela, which mystified everyone.
On August 11 Spencer set up an evening protest, complete with chants of “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” Spencer’s group was met with a counter-protest, but no police providing reinforcement of safety. Without a strong police presence, the first of the weekend’s violence began to occur. Both sides became entrenched and went after each other with rocks, mace and in some cases even firearms. Then James Alex Fields, Jr., a would-be Nazi, drove his car into a group of protestors, killing a woman named Heather Heyer and injuring others.
Trump’s team composed and induced him to tweet a message of unity, declaring that there is no place for violence and the country must come together. Beyond this, however, Charlottesville was considered a distraction. The staffers were spending the majority of their efforts on keeping Trump off the subject of North Korea.
Unfortunately, the issue wasn’t going to go away. Later in the day there was a ceremony occurred in which Trump signed an act extending the funding of a VA program. During the signing, Trump decided to condemn the violence in Charlottesville, but with an emphasis of bad actors “on many sides”. Trump came under attack for his equivocation almost immediately, but he proved what Richard Spencer had suspected; that Trump’s sympathies were ambiguous. He would instinctively resist attempts to force him to disavow white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
Trump went so far as to call Bannon and bemoan where the line would be drawn if he denounced the white nationalists. He seemed to think it would lead to a removal of America’s history. Bannon urged Trump to condemn the violence, but defend America’s history. Such an action, in Bannon’s view, would frustrate the left and comfort the right. Jared, Ivanka and Kelly, unfortunately, urged something more presidential. They wanted Trump to be more forceful in his criticism of the white nationalists. Bannon urged Kelly to reconsider. He knew it would be obvious that Trump would not be honest in his statement and that the whole thing would backfire.
The following Monday, Trump stood in front of a teleprompter and droned out a statement of economic recovery, jobs and then, finally, a quick statement denouncing racism and the violence in Charlottesville. Immediately reporters began asking why it took so long for him to make such a statement, which only frustrated Trump further. The next day a news conference was scheduled and Bannon urged Kelly to cancel it. The focus of the conference was on infrastructure, but Bannon could see the signs and he knew Trump was going to blow. This is what, in fact, happened. Without any ability to regulate his emotions, Trump went off at the reporters, claiming the “alt-left” came charging “with clubs in their hands” and insisting there was blame on both sides.
It was a conference where Trump had, yet again, set himself on fire (politically speaking). Everyone wanted to see how Kelly was going to handle this situation. This was yet another moment where the entire staff had to come to terms with the idea that perhaps, maybe, Trump didn’t have the ability to be President. Now, it was Kelly’s turn to face and try to manage that reality.
For Bannon, China was a big deal. He felt the United States and China were destined for war with each other and that no balance could be struck between the two. By this point, however, Bannon was convinced he was on his way out of the White House. Even Jared and Ivanka were quietly whispering of this, to the point where it was regular background noise. Bannon might have had a chance to stay, but it was in his nature to push boundaries and so he gave an on-the-record interview which ultimately resulted in him being fired.
Just as Trump could not stop being Trump, Bannon could not stop being Bannon. In the interview (which he later insisted had been off-the-record) Bannon made Trump look weak on China, mocked Trump on his North Korea statements and insisted Bannon’s enemies in the White House “were wetting themselves”.
Bannon’s acolytes were confused about the interview. No one could understand why he did it, and no one was sure what the outcome would be. Their loyalty and belief in Bannon was such that they couldn’t accept he had ejected himself from the White House until Sam Nunberg, who always seemed to be able to predict Bannon’s fortunes, texted in saying Bannon was finished.
Unknown to everyone save Nunberg at the time, Bannon was finalizing his exit with Kelly. The next day, he packed his office. Then he moved to the Breitbart offices in Washington where he would continue his work, in his mind, as the chief strategist of the Trump revolution.