Opinion writer

Stephen K. Bannon. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

THE MORNING PLUM:

Washington is abuzz with chatter about President Trump’s latest comments concerning his chief ideologist, Stephen K. Bannon, which suggest he may be on his way out. Trump said this:

“I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”

He ended by saying, “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.”

Bannon only got involved in his campaign “very late,” Trump says. But as Aaron Blake points out: “Bannon joined the campaign in August for the lion’s share of the general election, taking on the role of campaign CEO.” Indeed, Bannon reportedly co-wrote Trump’s dystopian convention speech, which he described as “an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and nationalist movement.” Bannon’s blueprint currently remains the touchstone for Trumpist governance, if you can call it that.

Which raises a question: If Bannon is indeed seeing his influence wane, is there any evidence that the stench of Bannonism itself is any less prevalent in this White House? Perhaps Bannon is getting pushed out, but will that change the fact that the Trump agenda continues to reflect the ugliest aspects of Bannon’s nativist nationalism in as pronounced a fashion as ever?

White House advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon are in the midst of a feud — one that's being waged in the media. The Fix's Callum Borchers explains how it's typical of the inner turmoil that's plagued the Trump administration from the start. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is still fighting in court to try to rescue his ban on refugees (including from Syria) and migrants from Muslim-majority countries — even after Trump bombed Syria out of professed concern for Syrian civilians victimized by the government. The shift to mass deportations is underway: Anecdotal tales are coming in about parents who are yanking kids from day care out of fear of removal and about longtime residents with no other offenses who are getting deported. People who previously were low priorities for deportation now fear that routine check-ins with immigration officials will result in their removal. Trump’s vast expansion of the pool of targets for deportation is creating precisely the climate of fear — and, perhaps, the self-deportations — that it is designed to create.

Meanwhile, Politico reports that the administration is demanding that both funding for the Mexican wall and language restricting funding to sanctuary cities — thus punishing localities that don’t enforce the federal immigration crackdown — must be included in the upcoming spending bill, which could cause a government shutdown. CNN reports that immigration hard-liners are in the process of getting installed in key immigration posts. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced that prosecutors must try to charge border crossers with a felony (even though the move’s impact on deportation efforts remains unclear), while declaring: “this is the Trump era.” Reminder: If Bannon does get pushed out, Sessions remains in the perfect position to carry out Trumpism’s worst impulses in the areas of immigration and criminal justice.

It is sometimes argued that Bannon’s decline can be seen in the fact that his “economic nationalism” is losing influence inside the White House. But this misses the fact that there has never been any evidence that his “economic” nationalism has led him to try to get Trump to adopt any particular policies. Bannon allies made a great show of leaking his disdain for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s health-care plan (when it collapsed), but the fact remains that the White House threw its lot in with Ryanism at a critical moment, backing a health plan that would roll back the coverage of millions, including untold numbers of lower-income Trump voters. Bannon pushed that plan among congressional Republicans, and if he has any populist health-care alternative to the Ryanism he supposedly disdains, we haven’t seen it.

We are supposed to believe that Trumpist economic nationalism — as shaped by Bannon — embraces a heterodox combination of hard-line immigration restrictionism and pro-worker trade policies and a decisive ideological break with Ryanism when it comes to spending and social insurance for the elderly. But the ambition of Trump’s actual trade agenda is withering, and we don’t even know whether it will help workers. And while Bannon early on talked a good game about infrastructure spending, there’s no indication of any actual plan beyond a tax break and privatization scheme. Meanwhile, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney declined to say in an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood whether Trump would veto a bill that contained the sort of cuts to Medicare that Ryan has long championed (and Trump opposed).

Perhaps Bannon objects to that posture on Medicare, and maybe future reporting will establish this. But the point is that there’s no particular reason to believe he has any problem with it. The strains of Bannon’s nationalism that have turned up in actual policy are mainly the nativist ones. And whatever happens to Bannon, there’s no indication that those strains won’t continue to shape Trump’s agenda.

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* DOCUMENTS UNDERCUT CLAIMS BY NUNES AND WHITE HOUSE: Republican and Democratic lawmakers tell CNN they viewed the documents obtained by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, and that they don’t prove anything like what Nunes and Trump claimed:

Their private assessment contradicts … Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.” … One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

As always, the White House and (some) Republicans will continue going to extraordinary lengths to prop up Trump’s original absurdities (that Obama wiretapped his phones), no matter how much more ridiculous those efforts get.

* FBI OBTAINED WARRANT TO MONITOR TRUMP ADVISER: The Post scoops that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to monitor Trump adviser Carter Page last summer:

The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials. This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents.

National security analyst Susan Hennessey tweeted out the legal provision dictating what investigators needed to show in order to demonstrate “probable cause to believe Page was acting an agent of a foreign power.” It’s eye-opening stuff, though Page strongly maintains his innocence.

* KANSAS RACE SIGNALS TROUBLE FOR GOP: Republican Ron Estes beat Democrat James Thompson by only seven points last night in a deep red Kansas district that Trump won by 27 points. Nate Cohn summarizes:

The small and imperfect lesson of Tuesday’s special election in Kansas is that the Republicans might be in quite a bit of trouble. Mr. Estes’s seven-point victory is extremely poor for this district. … These are the circumstances that often end in a so-called wave election, like the ones that swept Democrats into power in 2006 and out of the House in 2010. We might well be heading for another. At a minimum, the Kansas result is fully consistent with that possibility.

As Cohn notes, it is easy to over-interpret the meaning of special elections. But there are other upcoming ones — notably in Georgia next week — that will begin to tell us how real this is.

* CLOSE KANSAS OUTCOME COULD BOOST DEM RECRUITMENT: The New York Times’ overview of last night’s results in Kansas makes an important point: The unexpectedly strong Democratic showing last night “will galvanize Democrats’ candidate-recruitment efforts for next year’s campaign.”

Democratic recruitment will also likely get a boost if Trump’s approval numbers remain in the toilet, and it may start showing itself if candidates begin entering races in districts that might seem relatively safe for Republicans — another dynamic worth watching.

* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT 2018: McClatchy’s Alex Roarty talks to GOP strategists about last night’s results and the signs they are seeing in other special elections:

Two Republicans strategists familiar with polling data in two of the special election races say the main problem is … the Democratic base is so energized that even voters who rarely pay attention to politics are suddenly engaged. … Another House Republican strategist said the Democratic base is so motivated, it doesn’t make sense to run attack ads because it will further incite those voters.

As another GOP strategist puts it: “At the end of the day, the national environment has to get better for us not to lose the House.”

* GOP POLLSTER WHACKS TRUMP ON SYRIA: Republican pollster David Winston points out to the Washington Examiner that the polling has shown only bare majority support for Trump’s missile strikes on Syria, and blames this on Trump’s failure to explain the rationale:

“They are not good numbers. … He needs to realize that there is a level of explanation that he needs to do, particularly when you’re about to put American lives potentially at risk … when they hear something he has done, 60 percent of the country starts off with the viewpoint of, ‘That guy I don’t like.'”

Trump’s abysmal approval numbers make it doubly necessary for him to explain his policies. Of course, the idea that Trump has actual policy rationales at all is questionable to begin with.