WASHINGTON—In his West Wing office, Stephen Bannon kept a chart listing trade actions—on China, steel and autos—that the Trump White House planned to roll out, week by week, through the fall.
Now that Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, has been pushed out, the question is whether his agenda will be erased along with him.
It is not just trade: Bannon has had a strong voice on issues, from climate change and China to immigration and the war in Afghanistan.
He has been an unyielding advocate for a visceral brand of nationalism, and, though he lost as often as he won in policy debates, his departure could tip the balance on some fiercely contested issues toward a more mainstream approach, even if the core tenets of his philosophy survive.
Bannon’s dormlike office functioned as a sort of command center for the administration’s nationalist wing. He met there with a coterie of mostly young, like-minded colleagues, planning strategy and plotting against foes, from Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to Gary D. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council.
Some of Bannon’s protégés have already been sidelined while others may depart soon, people in the White House said.
He will no longer have access to briefing papers or sit in meetings, like a regular Tuesday morning session in the Roosevelt Room where he sparred with Cohn and other officials over the timing of trade moves against China.
Still, there are reasons to believe Bannon’s core worldview will outlast him. Last Friday the US announced it would open an investigation into China’s alleged theft of technology from US companies.
The decision, only days after Donald J. Trump formally asked his trade representative to look into the issue, suggested the US would continue to pursue a hard economic line against China, even without Bannon.
On immigration, Trump listens to another adviser, Stephen Miller, who pushed the administration’s travel ban on Muslims. Miller has strengthened his position in the West Wing, in part by building a rapport over 18 months with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Miller, who has been seen by some as a member of the Bannon camp, chafes at suggestions that he is a creation of Bannon.
“Trump and Bannon share similar views on these issues,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump, who said he advised both the president and Bannon to part ways. “The big difference is that Donald Trump is much more practical and pragmatic than Steve.” Even if Bannon had hung on to his job, it is clear his bomb-throwing style was not going to work well in a West Wing under the control of Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly.
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, has moved to tighten discipline and access to the president, cracking down on a culture where aides often loitered around the Oval Office without appointments, interrupting scheduled meetings to bend Trump’s ear on their pet issues.
Kelly, officials said, has particular disdain for people sounding off on sensitive national-security issues without background or expertise, as Bannon did when he told a liberal publication, The American Prospect, that the US had no military option against North Korea.
Although he was saying what virtually every military commander believes—that a military attack on the North would prompt a catastrophic reprisal on the South—his comments contradicted Trump’s bellicose warning to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, that he would rain “fire and fury” down on him.
Bannon, a former Navy officer who spent most of his career in banking and media, also immersed himself in how the US should wage the military campaign in Afghanistan.
He pushed unorthodox proposals, like substituting mercenaries for US soldiers, which were greeted with disdain by military commanders but appealed to the president.
His departure helps those in the administration who favor a more interventionist military approach, whether on Syria, where Bannon opposed Trump’s missile strike on President Bashar al-Assad, or on Afghanistan.
Last Friday, Trump met with his national security team at Camp David, and has all but decided on a more conventional plan that would keep nearly 4,000 US troops in the country. But, prompted in part by Bannon’s persistent questioning, the US will place more demands on the Afghan government, according to officials.
Bannon’s departure was a victory for Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who tangled with him on trade, as well as whether the US should withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
Cohn argued against the withdrawal—as did the president’s daughter Ivanka—but Bannon prevailed by appealing to Trump’s nationalist instincts.
Still, Cohn’s future is also in question. Officials said he is lobbying for Trump to appoint him chairman of the Federal Reserve to replace Janet L. Yellen. An erroneous report that Cohn was leaving the White House in the wake of Trump’s statements on the deadly clashes in Charlottesville was enough to roil stock markets last Thursday.
Similarly, Bannon’s exit has uncertain implications for McMaster. The two men clashed bitterly over Afghanistan, and some officials suspected Bannon was behind a campaign in right-wing media to discredit McMaster by saying he was anti-Israel.
With Bannon out of the picture, McMaster will have less internal resistance to his proposals for Afghanistan. But Trump himself has expressed deep skepticism about an open-ended US military commitment in that country. And Bannon is likely to turn up the pressure on McMaster from his perch at his old employer, Breitbart News, where he is again the executive chairman.
Bannon predicted he would be far more effective outside the White House. He plans to use Breitbart to champion all the themes he pushed while in government.
He also anticipates he will continue talking to Trump, whom friends say often prizes advice he gets from outsiders or on cable-news shows more than the guidance he gets from his staff.
Bannon and Trump had an easy chemistry, a crucial factor for the president with his aides, until the relationship frayed.
In his eight months in government, Bannon said, he got a crash course in how the bureaucracy functions, which he will use to advance his positions on trade, taxes and China.
Critics of Bannon said his influence on Trump’s positions had been overstated: The president’s views on trade and military intervention date to the 1980s. Other officials said Bannon’s policy portfolio was never as broad as his Wizard-of-Oz profile suggested, while some faulted him for not bringing in the allies he needed to get more done.
“He will temporarily be more dangerous on the outside, but he still won’t be able to get anything done on the inside, and that’s the problem,” said Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the president for decades, who has recently become deeply critical of Bannon.
Some White House veterans said Bannon should not underestimate the value of geographic proximity.
“I don’t think Bannon can have more influence on policy from the outside, whatever he does, simply because he won’t be at the table to make the case when decisions are made,” said David Axelrod, who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist and has written about his frustration over his diminished access to Obama after he left the White House in 2011.
“A lot depends on Trump,” Axelrod continued. “If Bannon and Breitbart are spinning him up, Trump may dial him up on a regular basis. That may give him leverage.”
As always, the wild card in assessing this White House is the president himself. On many issues, he and Bannon are philosophical soul mates. But their relationship curdled over Trump’s resentment that his staff member was taking credit for his election victory.
Trump reached out to Bannon last Friday after the split was made public, but the two did not speak, according to White House officials.
Last Saturday the complexities of Trump’s relationship with Bannon were on vivid display. “I want to thank Steve Bannon for his service,” the president tweeted. “He came to the campaign during my run against Crooked Hillary Clinton—it was great! Thanks S.”
Image credits: Al Drago/The New York Times