Steve Bannon’s ouster, he felt, cut him loose to do what he did best. He was preparing to spearhead the next stage of the Trump revolution, without Trump himself, if need be. In fact, Bannon referred to himself as the leader of “the national-populist movement.” He was the Trump revolution, not Donald J. Trump himself.
On October 27, 2017, Roy Moore challenged Luther Strange for a Senate seat. Trump was no longer on speaking terms with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was confused and hurt about his ability to get along with congressional leadership and tried to make peace by stumping for Luther Strange, who was McConnell’s pick. Unfortunately, Roy Moore was the clear Trumpian candidate. Far right, even by Alabama standards, Moore was backed by Bannon. Bannon thought Trump’s reasoning was short-sighted, given the established relationship with McConnell. In fact, the preferred action by everyone was probably that Trump stay out of the race entirely. Further, Trump’s reasoning for supporting Luthor was infantile, at best: “Luther’s my friend.” Bannon likened the statement to something a child would say, adding there was no reality where Trump and Strange were friends in any sense of the word.
This was the problem everyone, including staffers, had with Trump. Why? One of his aids, Katie Walsh, reasoned that he did it because he needed to be liked and that everything for him was a struggle to get liked. This, however, translated into a constant need to either win or appear as a winner. Of course, that would require things like planning, strategy and so forth. Bannon could see that Trump’s impetuous allure was beginning to wear thin. He wanted to test it.
Trump was convinced that he was a king-maker because, well, of course. Bannon suspected Trump’s cult of personality would not extend beyond the man himself. It seemed to pay off. Roy More spent about two million on his campaign and the opposition spent about 32 million to keep Moore at bay. Trump’s stump speeches for Strange achieved a muted response at best.
Realizing he wasn’t gaining the crowd, Trump reached for a lifeline and came up with Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem at football games. Kaepernick was protesting police violence on non-whites, which was a perfect foil for Trump. He abandoned the rest of the Luther Strange speech and spent the rest of his time attacking the NFL and Kaepernick. This continued on for the next week. This effectively distracted from Strange’s eventual loss to Moore and gave Trump a new way to “win”.
Everyone who entered into work in the White House had the same internal monologue: We can make this work. About three-quarters of the first year, no one actually believed this. Most at this point felt the major selling point of being in the White House was to simply stop Trump from causing more damage than if they weren’t there.
By early October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on his way out. He had been caught calling Trump “a fucking moron”. It was something that Trump would never forgive, even if everyone said it behind his back all the time. In fact, there was behind-the-scenes amusement on who called Trump what when his back was turned. Like all subordinates, Tillerson felt his abilities could shore up Trump’s limits, but like many, he was wrong. He wasn’t alone. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly all, like Tillerson, felt like they were the adults in the room controlling the President.
The back-room scuttlebutt was that Tillerson was out, but also there was a discussion on how long Kelly could last. Kelly and Trump had enormous dislike for each other and it showed every time they spoke. It was actually sport for Trump to defy Kelly, who Trump was beginning to imagine as a disapproving father figure (something he hated.) For Kelly, the distaste for Trump was equally spent on Kushner. Even Trump had stopped defending his son-in-law. So basically, nobody liked each other.
By October, Nikki Haley was starting to pop up on everyone’s radar. Considered ambitious and opportunistic, it was felt she was lining herself up to a potential run at the presidency. Nikki befriended Ivanka, who then introduced her to Trump. It became clear that Haley was being groomed for Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State. The President himself spent time with her to mentor her, in a way, on the ways of Trumpism. One staffer noted that the danger here was that he would realize that she was much smarter than he was.
Bannon was worried about this because he could see that Nikki Haley did not believe in Trumpism. With this in mind, he set his resources into overdrive to push Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State after Rex Tillerson.
Chief of Staff Kelly was having a hard time controlling the White House. Trump’s eruptions couldn’t be controlled and Jared and Ivanka basically controlled the West Wing. Nine months in, people were leaving and no one of quality wanted to come in and replace them. Hope Hicks and Steven Miller, 28 years old and 32 years old, respectively, were now the senior-most people on staff. Hicks was now in control of the communications team and Miller was the senior political strategist.
After Scaramucci had left, Hope was placed in his position as an “interim” director. The “interim” word was added to the title because there was no way she was otherwise qualified for the job. If she became permanent, it would be clear to everyone that she was just a conduit for Trump’s own decisions. By September, however, she was quietly made permanent. Miller was referred to as Bannon’s typist, initially. He was public relations disaster, delivering cartoonish outrage at every public opportunity. He became the head policy and speech writer despite only previously having had the job of taking dictation.
Both Hicks and Miller were directly connected to the Russia investigation. This was either direct action, or attempts to deflect or cover up said action. Both had a hand in a letter Kushner had come up with at Bedminster to fire Comey. Hicks was with the Trump family on Air Force One when the press release about Don Jr.’s meeting with the Russians was made. This was the game at the White House; who was in what room, with whom?
Jared and Ivanka, for their part, were becoming more paranoid about their situation. They were worried about what might be said about them by those that were already out the door or heading in that direction. Kushner added a libel lawyer to his team, Charles Harder, who had defended Hulk Hogan in the infamous Gawker lawsuit. This was meant to send a message: Don’t talk about Jared and Ivanka or else.
What consumed everybody was the investigation lead by Robert Mueller. Bannon likened the environment to something out of Shakespeare.
Bannon was predicting Trump’s end. He thought there was a 1/3rd chance Trump would get impeached, another 1/3rd that he would resign and the final 1/3rd that he would fill out his term. Nothing after that. Bannon, for his part, seemed to be coming around to the idea of running for President in the 2020 election. Quietly, he was meeting every conservative leader in the country and was overtly headline every must-attend conservative event. Trump was confused about what was happening and aides were starting to worry.
This upstaging was becoming more obvious. Trump had been schedule for a 60 Minutes interview, only for that to be canceled when 60 Minutes did an interview with Bannon before that. Aides didn’t want a situation that made it look like Trump would be compared to Bannon. They were also worried Trump was losing his cognitive ability. He was given more to rambling and repetition. His ability to focus, as weak as it was, seemed to be getting worse. Having an interview after Bannon’s would mean Trump would simply look bad in comparison. Instead, aides set up an interview with Sean Hannity, with Hannity providing a preview of the questions to be asked.
Bannon, in the meantime, was selecting candidates for the 2018 midterm elections. Trump had vowed to support primary challengers of his enemies, but now Bannon was actually making it happen. In fact, he was doing it to demonstrate that he had the chops to replicate Trump’s victory on smaller scale. Bannon was backing extreme right and fringe right candidates to show how doing things his way could get results. The theory was that the more right-wing the candidates were, the more left-wing the Democratic candidates would become. This in turn, would lead to a rejection of the liberal side of politics and bring the country more to the right.
Bannon viewed the Trump presidency as the opening salvo, not the end result. He believed that Trump’s victory had created an opening for Bannon-style politics and philosophy, and he was determined to be the one that wrote the next chapter, or, perhaps, the remainder of the book itself.