When President Trump goes low, Stephen K. Bannon goes high?
The Breitbart News chairman seemed to channel Michelle Obama on Wednesday night (let that sink in) when he called Trump “a great man” hours after the president said that Bannon had “lost his mind.”
“I support him day in and day out,” Bannon said of Trump, on a Breitbart satellite radio show.
“BANNON TAKES HIGH ROAD,” read a subsequent headline on the Breitbart website.
Bannon's tame response to the president's vitriol was out of character for a man who likens his work at Breitbart to waging war. Yet he had little choice but to submit to Trump's rhetorical lashing.
Ardent support for Trump is so central to the Breitbart brand that Bannon can't turn on the president without damaging his own media empire. Breitbart's top editor, Alex Marlow, recently told CNN that the site continued to back Roy Moore in Alabama's U.S. Senate race last month — Marlow called Moore a “uniquely terrible candidate” — because it thought doing so would help Trump. That's a remarkable level of dedication — sacrificing some of Breitbart's own standing in service of Trump.
But what would Breitbart be, if not a place to find a relentlessly pro-Trump perspective? Were Bannon to disavow Trump in the way that Trump disavowed him, Bannon would effectively have to create a whole new identity for Breitbart.
(One thing to ponder is whether Trump's furious statement about Bannon was a product of emotion, calculus or some combination. Did the president know that his former chief strategist would not retaliate and, therefore, exploit Bannon's restraint to assert dominance? Or did Trump just get angry and act on impulse?)
In any case, Bannon's radio remarks on Wednesday appeared to foreshadow how he will navigate the situation.
“President Trump, with the whole swamp up there, the D.C. apparatus, the nullification project, everything going on — he is fighting every day,” Bannon told listeners. “There's no doubt in your mind, right? And maybe things get off track, or stuff gets said, and all this heated stuff, but, however, this is a guy, you voted for him, you supported him, is there any doubt in your mind he's been fighting for and working for you, the deplorables, the forgotten man and woman, the silent majority, every day he's been there?”
It looks as if Bannon's plan is to shrug off Trump's insults as “heated stuff” that “gets said” when the “swamp” messes with the president's thinking. Such a course would be consistent with Breitbart's coverage since Trump took office.
Breitbart was sharply critical of Trump's decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, for example, but pinned much of the blame on national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Trump has failed to deliver on his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but that is the fault of congressional Republicans, according to Breitbart.
Bannon didn't even hold Trump responsible for, in Bannon's view, picking the wrong Senate candidate (Luther Strange) in Alabama.
“A real, you know, review has to be done of how President Trump got the wrong information and came down on the wrong side,” Bannon said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show in September.
Bannon is willing to criticize some of Trump's decisions but readily offers excuses for him. In the latest case, the obvious excuse is that Bannon touched a nerve when he told author Michael Wolff that Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer was “treasonous.” Bannon styles himself as a teller of hard truths, and one of the hard truths that he and Breitbart have told consistently is that members of the president's family are bad influences because they are too liberal or lack political savvy.
Bannon and Breitbart can move on by attributing Trump's fury to familial protectiveness and the “D.C. apparatus.” They really have no other choice.