President Trump trusted Stephen K. Bannon's political instincts in Alabama. Bannon steered the president wrong.
The question now is whether the Breitbart News chairman's standing with Trump will be permanently diminished, as a result.
“I hope Trump would trust Bannon less after Alabama,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who heads the conservative news site Daily Wire. “Bannon doesn't have his finger on any pulse — he's a leech on the a-- of power, not a brilliant orchestrator of political events. ... Why Trump would trust Bannon's political instincts is beyond me.”
“Trump's direct involvement in the race was almost certainly orchestrated by Bannon, and you would expect Trump, who cares more about winning and losing than anyone, to place the blame at Bannon's feet,” added Kurt Bardella, president of Endeavor Strategies and a former Breitbart spokesman.
It was a testament to Trump's belief in Bannon, the former campaign chief and top White House strategist, that the president publicly second-guessed his decision to back Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican primary to fill Jeff Sessions's old Senate seat — even before Strange lost.
Trump endorsed Strange in August on the premise that the former Alabama attorney general would be a more reliable party-line vote in the Senate than Roy Moore. Strange supported a GOP health-care bill that was on the table at the time, but Moore opposed it.
Bannon left the White House and returned to Breitbart News that month, and began to say that Trump had made a mistake — that Moore actually represented the president's base and agenda better than Strange, whether the president realized it or not.
Trump, who seldom admits an error, said on stage while campaigning for Strange in September that he might have picked the wrong candidate, just as Bannon said.
“I'll be honest: I might have made a mistake,” Trump said at a rally for Strange on Sept. 22.
A few days later, Bannon appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show and essentially said that he knows what's best for Trump.
“What I'm here to do is to support Donald J. Trump by having folks down here support Judge Roy Moore,” Bannon told Hannity after speaking at a rally for Moore in Fairhope, Ala., on the eve of the Republican runoff. “I think Roy Moore is the guy that's going to represent Donald Trump and fight the establishment.”
Moore beat Strange in the runoff, then presented the president with a dicey decision when he was accused of sexual misconduct by eight women who said that Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Unsure about what to do, Trump issued an ambivalent statement through a White House spokesman on Nov. 10: “Like most Americans, the president believes that we cannot allow a mere allegation — in this case, one from many years ago — to destroy a person's life. However, the president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.”
As prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) called on Moore to drop out, Bannon doubled down on his support for the former Alabama chief justice. Instead of taking his cues from the top elected officials in the GOP — or crowing that he had been right to back Strange, after all — Trump followed Bannon's lead and ultimately came around to an enthusiastic endorsement of Moore.
Trump trusted that Bannon would be right — that Moore would defeat Democrat Doug Jones, despite the misconduct allegations, and make the president look smart for going against the GOP grain. But Bannon's read of the electorate in Alabama, a state Trump won by 28 points, was wrong. Moore lost.
As a gauge of the president's base, Bannon now seems unreliable. In a Wednesday morning tweet, Trump suggested that he should have relied on his own gut, which told him that Moore “will not be able to win the general election.”
Nevertheless, Bannon could find a way to keep the president's ear, Bardella said.
“Bannon will spin to Trump that last night is the result of a biased media and that Moore is the victim of the 'fake news,' the same way Trump is,” Bardella said. “He will try to play to Trump's worst instincts to preserve his influence. Trump is susceptible to this, as we have seen repeatedly.”