By Niall Stanage - 04-13-17 06:00 AM EDT
President Trump has taken chief strategist Stephen Bannon down a peg or two in public, but sources inside and outside the White House tell The Hill that they do not expect Bannon to be ousted despite mounting speculation that his firing is imminent.
A brief story that appeared on The New York Post's website on Tuesday evening reverberated through Washington. The president told Michael Goodwin, a columnist with whom he is known to be friendly, "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late."
The president pushed back against the idea of Bannon as a Rasputin-type figure pulling his strings - a portrayal that has reportedly irked Trump on previous occasions.
"I'm my own strategist," Trump said.
But several people with ties to Trump insist that his bond with Bannon remains strong.
"There is all this palace intrigue, but there are few people that the president respects more than Steve Bannon," said Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior adviser on Trump's presidential campaign. "They are peers age-wise, Steve is quite successful and Steve steered him through the general election."
Another Trump ally argued that the media overplays any perceived Bannon misfortune.
"There is a lot of wishful thinking in the press, because they don't like Steve," this source said.
The idea that Bannon will survive is far from guaranteed, especially with a chief executive so unpredictable as Trump.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough predicted that Bannon was "about to get kicked out of the White House" during his "Morning Joe" show on Wednesday. Later that day, The New York Times reported that GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, a longtime Bannon patron, had spent last Friday "holed up in her office ... in New York, discussing possibilities for Mr. Bannon should he leave."
But big names within the administration moved to shore Bannon up on Wednesday, fueling the sense that he is likely to be safe for the time being.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham that he was "an admirer of Steve Bannon and the Trump family." Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, went even further on the same show.
"Bannon should stay," Mulvaney said, describing the strategist as "a great member of the team."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, appearing at a public event in Washington's Newseum on Wednesday morning, told Greta Van Susteren of MSNBC that most Americans were more concerned about kitchen-table issues than "whether or not two individuals or three individuals are going back and forth in the White House."
Even so, Spicer seemed to send out a different message later in the day. He told Dana Perino of Fox News that Trump wanted to be "very clear" that he won the election under his own steam and that the line had been "blurred up a little bit" regarding where credit should go.
There seems little doubt that the battles between different factions in the White House, often fought via leak and counter-leak, have begun to wear on the president.
The president "wants infighting to stop [and staff to] focus on agenda," a White House source told The Hill via email.
Bannon was ousted from his slot on the National Security Council last week, reportedly at the behest of national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Even more perilously for Bannon, there have been numerous reports that he has clashed with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In most of these accounts, Bannon is portrayed as an anti-establishment bomb-thrower, clashing both ideologically and temperamentally with the more reserved Kushner, a top White House adviser. A New York Times story reported that Bannon had recently told Kushner, "Here's the reason there's no middle ground: You're a Democrat."
Trump appeared to allude to those tensions in his New York Post interview - and in a way that carried an implicit threat to Bannon. "Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will," the president said.
By most accounts, the cooling of Trump's ardor for Bannon dates back to the start of the administration.
Substantively, Bannon received some blame for the controversial travel ban that sparked street protests and remains bogged down in the courts.
Stylistically, Trump was said to be unimpressed by the strategist's high profile, which included a February appearance on the cover of Time magazine and a skit on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" in which Bannon was portrayed as a Grim Reaper figure and the real power in the Oval Office.
"Any time you have staff members on the cover of Time magazine, that's a problem," John Feehery, a Trump-supporting GOP strategist and longtime Capitol Hill aide, told the Hill at that time. Feehery also writes a regular column for The Hill.
In a Wall Street Journal interview published Wednesday, Trump called Bannon "a guy who works for me." He added, "But I make my own decision. I don't have people making decisions."
Still, defenders of Bannon argue these are signs of Trump asserting his own primacy rather than ushering Bannon to the exit. They also aim considerable fury at Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, a Kushner ally and a registered Democrat.
In the minds of many Bannon allies, Cohn has worked his way closer to Trump at Bannon's expense. The voices most skeptical of Cohn say the former Goldman Sachs president has turned to his advantage the president's deep-seated desire - despite all his rebellious rhetoric - to be accepted by establishment elites.
For those who see Bannon as the keeper of the Trump's populist flame, that is a source of real anger.
"Nobody voted for the president so Gary Cohn could go to Washington," said one Trump associate. "If Trump fired Bannon and kept Cohn, I don't think the White House understands the shit storm they would face."
Meanwhile, others in Trump's orbit continue to say that Bannon's troubles are exaggerated.
"The president always speaks very highly to me about Steve Bannon," said one Trump ally. "He respects his mind and appreciates his loyalty and friendship during a difficult time of the campaign."
This source added that he had met with Bannon within the past few days.
"I have never seen him more confident in terms of the things he is working on with the president," he said.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.