If there was any doubt that President Trump supports the “war” his former chief strategist is waging against the Republican establishment, he basically erased it during a Cabinet meeting Monday, when he told reporters, “I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels.”
Bannon, who returned to the helm of Breitbart News after leaving the White House in August, said at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Saturday that “it's a season of war on the GOP establishment.” The remark was consistent with an earlier Bloomberg report that Bannon plans to back primary challengers to virtually every incumbent Republican senator in 2018.
Bannon also likened Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor who was stabbed in the back, saying, “Up on Capitol Hill, it’s the Ides of March. They’re just looking to find out who is going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar.”
Two months ago, in one of his first post-White House interviews, Bannon recounted for the Weekly Standard a conversation he had with Trump before leaving:
And, he says, Trump encouraged him to take on the Republican establishment. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll focus on going after the establishment.’ He said, ‘Good, I need that.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ll always be here covering for you.’”
Based on Bannon's account of his exit interview with the president, it is no surprise that Trump would essentially endorse Bannon's effort to replace McConnell and other Senate Republicans, whom Trump blames for legislative failures in the first year of his presidency.
“We're not getting the job done, but I'm not going to blame myself,” Trump told reporters on Monday. “They are not getting the job done.”
Still, Trump's remarks were strikingly candid, coming just before he was scheduled to meet with McConnell over lunch.
In a post-lunch news conference, Trump tried to smooth things over.
“My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding, has been outstanding,” he said, with McConnell at his side.
It was only three weeks ago that Trump and McConnell were united — against Bannon — in backing incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in a primary runoff. Bannon supported eventual winner Roy Moore.
At the time, Trump was publicly on board with the idea that McConnell's preferred candidate, Strange, gave the party its best chance to pass bills. For example, Strange supported the most recent Republican health-care proposal, while Moore said he would have voted against it.
Bannon argued that a political outsider such as Moore would do more to advance Trump's agenda — whether Trump realized it or not.
“We're not here to defy President Trump,” Bannon said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show after headlining a September rally for Moore. “We were here to praise and honor him. And we think the best way to do that is to send somebody to Washington, D.C., out of Alabama — the good folks of Alabama to send somebody that's going to have Donald Trump's back.”
McConnell allies say that Bannon couldn't be more unhelpful to getting Trump's agenda done. The Senate majority leader spends nearly every day strategizing about how to get tax reform done, or push through Trump's judicial and political nominees. Meanwhile, Bannon is threatening to create primaries that suck Republicans' time, energy and money away from defeating Democrats next year.
For now, at least, Trump seems to have returned to Bannon's way of thinking. The president's comments Monday suggest he agrees that more disruptive figures in the Senate would be a good thing.
Amber Phillips contributed to this report.